The American discourse on China’s Iran policy by government officials, think tanks, and intellectuals tends to vilify Beijing as a revisionist power. This view of Chinese-Iranian relations is overly simplistic and counterproductive in that it casts China as a threatening Other acting against US security interests rather than an independent state in international society with its own unique policies, goals, and values. The fundamental misreading of China’s Iran foreign policy prevalent in Washington is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the narrative results in the securitization of China’s activities in relation to Iran, leading to the view that China is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Second, failure to differentiate between Chinese and US policy goals towards Iran complicates attempts at collective diplomacy either bilaterally or multilaterally. Third, US disregard for China’s concerns and values when dealing with Iran will ultimately force Beijing to act unilaterally at the United States’ expense. Fourth, continued vilification of China’s actions will put Beijing on the defensive and further complicate the United States’ attempt to solve the Iran nuclear issue.
Rather than harangue Beijing over its policy choices in regard to Iran, United States government officials and academics would benefit from taking the time and energy to better understand China’s strategic viewpoint. Taking China’s concerns into account when formulating a policy response to Iran would not only enable the US to leverage China’s influence against Tehran, but also improve US-Sino relations by showing Beijing the US is serious about working with China rather than against it. Far from a concession made from weakness, the inclusion of China’s concerns in the US strategy towards Iran would strengthen the US negotiating position towards Tehran and undermine Chinese arguments that the US is an aggressive, imperialist power determined to contain China’s rise.
To help advance such a shift in perspective and approach, this article will outline China’s main strategic concerns regarding Iran. Rather than rely on existing English language academic and government accounts of China’s position—which often fail to account for the Chinese perspective—the author will primarily draw on Chinese language government reports, academic journal articles, business reports, and blogs for analysis. In preparation for the article, the author sought the most recent accounts of Sino-Iranian relations as well as those from official government sources, recognized experts in the region, and institutions with a specialty in China’s Iranian foreign policy.