Washington Institute For Defence & SecurityWashington Institute For Defence & SecurityWashington Institute For Defence & Security
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The Limitations of China's Role in Curbing Iran: A Realistic Assessment

The Biden administration has devised a new tactic in its increasingly desperate attempts to dissuade the Houthis, the Yemeni rebels who are currently endangering maritime trade in the Red Sea: pleading with Beijing for assistance. Senior White House officials have urged China’s government to intervene on behalf of the Houthis with their primary geopolitical backer, the Islamic Republic of Iran, in an effort to stop the extremist militia’s disruptive actions over the course of the last several weeks. 

This past weekend, in Thailand, national security advisor Jake Sullivan even met with China’s foreign minister to discuss the matter further. It makes sense for the Biden administration to seek out. Speaking for the National Security Council, John Kirby said that “China has influence over Tehran and they have the ability to have conversations that we can’t. Kirby clarified that Beijing is targeted by the administration in its efforts to “help stem the flow of weapons and munitions to the Houthis.

Strategic Interests and Geopolitical Dynamics

The extent to which China may influence Iranian conduct is more than most people believe. With over 25% of all Iranian commerce going to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the PRC is now the Islamic Republic’s biggest commercial partner. Amidst soaring Iranian oil output over the last year, it has been Iran’s main oil client, averaging more than a million barrels per day of imports. Beijing has influence beyond the economy. 

Additionally, Tehran is significantly influenced politically and strategically by the leaders of China. Beijing and Tehran signed a massive $400 billion, 25-year framework agreement back in 2021. This arrangement gave the PRC a first-mover advantage in areas such as access to Iranian ports, the expansion of Iran’s telecom network, and infrastructure construction and transportation projects in the Islamic Republic. It was made to lessen the negative effects of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy. Additionally, it set the stage for improved collaboration between the two nations’ forces.

Economic Considerations and Trade Relations

After three years, the accord is still mostly symbolic, largely due to the Biden administration’s more accommodating stance toward Iran, which has significantly improved its economy. However, Beijing’s previous readiness to act as a strategic lifeline has created a wellspring of political goodwill among Iran’s ayatollahs, and Iranian officials have been tenacious in their efforts to persuade the PRC to increase its level of involvement in their nation. Beijing therefore has a great deal of influence on Tehran. Whether China’s leaders are inclined to employ it is the question. It appears that the response is “not really.” Chinese officials did, in response to American pleading, recently contact their Iranian colleagues and ask them to put an end to Houthi actions. However, Beijing’s influence has been distinctly surface-level. The PRC has shown no indications that it is willing to take any significant action to stabilize the larger area, and instead appears to be only concerned with defending its own economic interests.

Limited Leverage and Influence

Beijing has no genuine interest in constraining Tehran or its agents, notwithstanding the hopes of the Biden administration. On the contrary, the PRC greatly benefits from the Islamic Republic’s more assertive regional profile. China has been trying to persuade governments in the Middle East for years now that it can provide a strong substitute for the current regional order that is dominated by the United States. 

This has been accomplished by diplomatic measures (such as mediating a détente between regional foes Saudi Arabia and Iran last spring) and novel security ideas (such as its well publicized “new security architecture for the Middle East”). Now, increasing provocations by Iran and its many proxies (including, most recently, a drone assault that killed three American troops on a U.S. facility in Jordan) have contributed to exposing the weaknesses in the U.S. deterrent now in place as well as the failure of the Biden administration’s Middle East strategy. They have furthermore contributed to the highlighting of China’s increasing allure as a possible alternative. Naturally, Beijing gains geopolitically from all of this.

Wrap Up

In conclusion, Maybe the White House is only reaching out to China out of courtesy, knowing full well that all of this. Or if Team Biden genuinely thinks that despite the PRC’s “managed competition” with the US, there are ways to encourage Beijing to take a more positive role in the area. The Biden administration will undoubtedly be quite dissatisfied if the latter is the case. A careful analysis of China’s response to Iran’s misbehavior in the Middle East reveals that Washington is currently exactly where Beijing wants Tehran to cause problems.


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