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Research Questions

  1. What is the nature and range of cooperation between China and Iran?
  2. What implications does the Chinese-Iranian partnership have for U.S. interests and objectives?
  3. What options are available to the United States to influence the Chinese-Iranian partnership to meet U.S. objectives?

Abstract

Over the past few decades, China and Iran have developed a broad and deep partnership centered on China's energy needs and Iran's abundant resources as well as significant non-energy economic ties, arms sales and defense cooperation, and geostrategic balancing against the United States. This partnership presents a unique challenge to U.S. interests and objectives. In particular, China's policies have hampered U.S. and international efforts to dissuade Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability. This paper examines factors driving Chinese-Iranian cooperation, potential tensions in the Chinese-Iranian partnership, and U.S. policy options for influencing this partnership to meet U.S. objectives. The authors conclude that the U.S. ability to fundamentally reshape China's relationship with Iran is fairly limited, but that the United States should continue to forestall an Iranian nuclear weapons capability and pressure China to reduce ties to Iran.

Key Findings

Chinese-Iranian Economic and Energy Cooperation

  • Over the past several years, China has become Iran's number one oil customer and trading partner.
  • China has provided Iran with the technological know-how to develop its energy resources. Chinese engineers have also built bridges, dams, railroads, and tunnels throughout Iran.

Chinese-Iranian Strategic and Defense Cooperation

  • China has aided Iran's efforts to modernize its military hardware and doctrine through the transfer of military technology and sales of small arms and tactical ballistic and antiship cruise missiles.
  • China has assisted in the development of Iran's nuclear program via the transfer of technology and machinery.
  • China's economic ties to Iran have shielded the Iranian regime from the effects of international sanctions.

The Nature of the Chinese-Iranian Relationship

  • Chinese-Iranian relations are rooted in both countries' having authoritarian regimes and historical narratives that characterize the international system as unjust and dominated by Western powers.
  • The Iranian regime views China as a potential ally against the United States, and Beijing views Iran as a potential partner for limiting U.S. influence in the Middle East.
  • The foundations of the economic partnership between Iran and China are Iran's abundant energy resources and China's growing energy needs, but China is not overwhelmingly dependent on the Islamic Republic for its energy needs; in contrast, the Iranian regime now depends on China as its chief diplomatic protector.
  • Despite their energy cooperation, trade, and shared geopolitical interests, Iran and China have potentially divergent interests on a number of issues.

Recommendations

  • The U.S. ability to fundamentally reshape China's relationship with Iran is fairly limited, but the United States should continue to forestall an Iranian nuclear weapons capability and pressure China to reduce ties to Iran.

The research described in this report was conducted within the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy (CMEPP) under the auspices of the International Programs of the RAND Corporation.

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