Can Xi's China persuade Iran to change its regional behaviour?

... or will the regime in Tehran soften its international image while conserving its ideological roots?

Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomes Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during his visit to Beijing. AFP
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Chinese President Xi Jinping’s three-day visit to Moscow, starting on Monday, will be followed closely by officials in Washington and the European capitals, as they try to gauge its implications for the Ukraine conflict. For the West, Ukraine remains a priority, more so than Beijing’s Middle Eastern initiatives – except perhaps insofar as they concern the fate of the China-Russia-Iran axis.

The Chinese leadership could reassure Iran from the Russian capital that their strategic pact will not be affected by Beijing’s ties with the Gulf countries. It might also reaffirm the importance of strategic relations with Moscow, in a way that does not directly antagonise the US.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will probably urge Mr Xi to help offset his country’s losses from western sanctions. The two leaders are also likely to: discuss projects for new pipelines between their countries and the various scenarios involving the Ukraine war; address the Moscow-Tehran alliance extending from Ukraine to Syria; and discuss enhancing long-term strategic agreements between the three countries.

One of two scenarios is likely to emerge from the growing three-way partnership.

The first scenario involves a shift in the Chinese position, where its pivot to the Gulf states represents a warning to Tehran that the Iranian regime must reconsider the core of its regional ideology. Those who believe in this scenario are optimistic that China’s leverage over Iran could induce a shift in its behaviour towards its neighbours and the region more broadly.

The second scenario follows from the premise that the China-Russia-Iran axis is a lasting strategic alliance against the West. Those who believe in this scenario doubt there has been any fraying of Chinese-Iranian relations, and that Tehran is reassured by its alliance with both Beijing and Moscow, irrespective of their individual relations with the GCC countries.

Expectations for a quantum leap on Iran's part that changes the features of the region should be tempered

Let’s assume for a moment that the second scenario has more traction.

There is a fundamental difference between the Iranian regime reforming itself and modifying its behaviour. Those familiar with its thinking are adamant that it will never agree to real reform, for that would run contrary to its raison d’etre and undermine some of its members’ political and personal interests. The regime will not alter the mechanisms of the state built since the 1979 revolution, including mechanisms for exporting its revolution to sovereign countries with weak governments, such as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

In this scenario, it is likely to create a gentler facade and soften its conduct. It could still press ahead with its projects, but covertly rather than overtly. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is unlikely to not suffer consequences for its actions in the region, and Hezbollah in Lebanon will not need to worry about its fate. The regime will probably continue its nuclear programme but tone down its rhetoric. In other words, Tehran will change its tactics but not its strategy.

The question here is: will China agree to such circumvention and subterfuge, or will it persuade Iran to respect the sovereignty of states, which would require Tehran to roll back the deployment of paramilitary forces loyal to it in the region?

There is no clear answer to this important question yet, which is why no one should get ahead of themselves over the Saudi-Iran deal that Beijing brokered earlier this month. Instead, expectations for a quantum leap that changes the features of the region should be tempered.

Saudi Arabia itself has maintained cautious optimism in its statements. Its council of ministers have made a brief comment, welcoming the pledges – made in accordance with the conditions set by their joint statement – that Tehran will not pursue any ambitions that affect security relations between the two countries and will stop its expansionism at the expanse of the sovereignty of states in the region.

Now let’s analyse the first scenario to see if it is genuinely possible.

One reason for the world to believe that China will ensure the implementation of the Saudi-Iran pledges is what’s at stake for Beijing itself. This includes its Belt and Road initiative, and its keenness to maintain strategic relations with the countries in the GCC and the Levant.

China seeks to replace the US’s strategic influence in the region, but not displace it as the leading security partner of a number of the region’s states. Its economic priorities are not limited to securing energy at favourable prices from Saudi Arabia and Iran. They also include building ports from the Arabian Sea to the northern Gulf and from Djibouti in the Red Sea, to access European shores. Beijing will benefit strategically and economically by burnishing its reputation as a guarantor of pledges and conflict resolution.

And yet, all this depends on Iran’s commitment to its pledges.

Those who believe in the first scenario see the change in Iran’s positions as resulting from necessity following its international isolation, with dwindling European support and protection for itself following its involvement in the Ukraine war alongside Russia. Iran’s efforts at the Vienna nuclear negotiations have failed to secure its nuclear “rights”, and it is still haunted by recent domestic unrest.

These optimists also believe that Tehran has been compelled to change tack not just due to its economic problems, but also because it faces the prospect of a war with the West through Israel over its nuclear weapons programme. The Chinese initiative, therefore, may have come to reassure these powers that Beijing is committed to upholding UN resolutions and principles that preclude nuclear arms proliferation to Iran, through peaceful rather than military means.

Possibly for this reason, the US administration has welcomed China’s diplomatic demarche. Indeed, the Saudi-Iran deal could spare Washington the option of using military power against Tehran and to put further pressure on the latter to jam the brakes on its nuclear programme. Moreover, the US does not see China as an adversary to Israel, and thus does not believe that its move encourages a Saudi-Iranian partnership against Israel.

So, which of the two scenarios will eventually materialise? The ball is clearly in the Iranian regime’s court.

Published: March 19, 2023, 2:00 PM