Washington and Tehran may currently be close to concluding an updated version of the 2015 nuclear deal, although it is unclear if diplomats will be able to resolve the remaining points of contention. If they succeed in doing so, Beijing—which has been growing ever closer to the Islamic Republic in recent years—stands to benefit, as Craig Singelton explains:
Years of punishing international sanctions have left Iran diplomatically and economically isolated, with Tehran seeking greater support from other autocratic regimes. That extends to its partnership with China, which in recent years has become Iran’s top trading partner, a leading destination for energy exports, and a major investor in Iranian industry. While Sino-Iranian military cooperation has ebbed from its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, the two countries engage in periodic military exchanges, joint exercises, and port calls. In January, for example, eleven Iranian vessels joined three Russian ships and two Chinese vessels in a series of joint tactical and artillery drills in the northern Indian Ocean. Likewise, China actively supports Iran’s cruise- and ballistic-missile programs, providing it with technology that has been integrated into systems used against U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq as recently as 2020.
Yet, Singleton notes, China has also set limits on its cooperation with the Islamic Republic, no doubt because of the possible negative effects of U.S. and European sanctions. A nuclear deal would change that:
Free from the threat of sanctions, China will almost certainly ramp up its investments in and trade with Iran, deepening not only its influence there but in the region as well. . . . China will also expand its reach throughout Iran’s steel, gold, and aluminum sectors, having previously invested in other materials-processing projects that enabled Iran to produce inputs for its missile program.
The same applies to infrastructure and transportation-related projects aimed at connecting Iran to China’s regional networks in South and Central Asia. That includes a planned train route between Iran and China’s Xinjiang province, where the United Nations recently determined Beijing is committing “serious human-rights violations,” such as forced labor and sterilizations. Tehran will also lean on Beijing to modernize its telecommunications architecture, including requesting assistance in installing the same artificial-intelligence surveillance technology that China has exported to other autocratic regimes. The result will be even more censorship and political repression for millions of Iranians.