The recent trade agreement between Iran and China worth 600 billion US dollars has, on the one hand, given impetus to their bilateral relations but on the other it seems to have raised some concerns among the regional and global aspirants, chief among them are the US and KSA. It is only valid to probe into the question as to whether the West and the regional rival KSA feel threatened by the Sino-Iranian increasing closeness. If yes, is that even necessary and what possibly could be the reasons?
Some are speculating that the Chinese partnership over the next decade is going to give a massive economic boost to Iran in socio-political development and uplifting of Iranian infrastructure. It is believed that in a longer run the money will be used for the development of nuclear programme which may not be appreciated by both the West and KSA alike hence the partnership has a potential to shake the status quo in the Middle Eastern region.
However, the uplifting of sanctions and the Iranian nuclear deal itself points to the fact that the West doesn’t perceive any concrete threats from Iran anymore as far as the nuclear ambitions of Iran are concerned. In fact, looking back in time, one may be able to recall that the US was the one to provide nuclear fuel and technology to Iran in 1970s with an aim to advance Dwight Eisenhower’s “atom for peace” initiative, which in 1950s marked the beginning of Iranian nuclear programme. The fact is that under the key parameters of JCPA Iran has been barred from uranium enrichment for the next 15 years which may prolong its breakout threshold to one year or more from the present capacity of two to three months.
Simultaneously, the collectively imposed sanctions by UN, US and EU on Iran have been lifted only after IAEA found it satisfactorily abiding by the set conditions. Hence the influx of money cannot be readily used for the development of nuclear weapon; it may be put away or stored to be used later after 15 years, although will not be a very wise move by Iran but in which case there clearly is not any immediate threat to the West. One also cannot ignore the fact that Sino-Iranian bilateral relations have mostly remained steady most of the time and especially since past one decade where they both have been pursuing political, economic and defence linkages despite the sanctions. China has even been quoting Iran as its important strategic partner long before the sanctions were lifted. Iran is an important pivot in China’s One Belt One Road strategy owing to its massive oil and gas resources.
As far as the West, specifically the US is concerned, none of this was ever a hidden secret. The US had well anticipated the implications of sanctions’ relief and could very well foresee Russia and China embracing Iran ever more warmly than before. Hence the Iranian nuclear deal and the subsequent developments are all part of a very well calculated and carefully thought out plan by the US policymakers. Interestingly enough it is not just China and Russia opening up to Iran but the European companies such as Shell and Peugeot etc are also seeking investment opportunities there. Germany has formally sent trade delegation to Tehran for this very purpose. So money was always the most expected future for Iran and the West may not necessarily be too worried by this since under IAEA rules, all the Iranian facilities are under the regular scrutiny.
However, this is not to suggest that there is nothing for the US to worry about. The signing of 17 accords between China and Iran on cooperation in nuclear energy and revival of ancient Silk Road route cannot go unnoticed by the West. The US has been able to forestall progress on Iranian nuclear programme but breaking away China and Iran was always recognised as the most daunting task and is not something easily achievable. To counter this kind of challenge the US has already been aggressively pursuing pivot to Asia policy with a sole aim of keeping a close check on China. In this policy India figures as an important fulcrum while in the Middle East the US’ long time close ally KSA and its affiliates in the region provide an effective base. Another side to this picture is the possibility of China’s robust attempt at Iranian military modernisation, much of which it has already contributed to. Nonetheless this puts a big question mark on the effectiveness of US pivot to Asia policy because by providing Iran with an anti access/area denial capabilities (A2/AD), China will indirectly be able to keep the US at bay. However, it is yet to be seen.
Talking strictly about regional dynamics and the concerns of KSA, one can safely assume with some level of certainty that military engagement between KSA and Iran was never quite a possibility even if Iran had continued with its nuclear programme. Now that the nuclear deal has opened regional and global opportunities for Iran where its resources will find global outreach, this fact could very well become a reason for KSA to feel alarmed since its prime objective of Iranian diplomatic isolation is being replaced by Iranian reemergence on the regional and global scene with much greater influence and relevance. This may incite the quest for regional hegemony but if China plays its card wisely, it may use the opportunity to act as a mediator since it has good ties with KSA as well and can keep the peace in Middle East intact. This could still be possible because in China’s economic aspirations, KSA is not excluded. Ultimately a powerful and stable Iran is in the interest of the region. It may be a source of major threat to the status quo; however, it will not necessarily be a military one.