Accelerating China-Iran Strategic Partnership in the Middle East

A direct extension of China’s established Pakistan and emerging Afghanistan model
August 31, 2021 Updated: August 31, 2021


Iran presents the ideal conditions for the Chinese regime to execute its proven takeover strategy that has already enveloped Iran’s much larger and nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan and now possibly Afghanistan.

Client States, Not Partners

A key pattern in Chinese alliance formation activities is a clear preference for asymmetric partnerships where Beijing serves as the senior partner. Under this arrangement, the other nation is locked into a near-permanent junior partner status with a degree of strategic dependency on China that compounds over time.

An examination of China’s strategic relationships with a diverse range of countries from North Korea to Pakistan derives this common thread. This client model has resulted in the near-total dependence of both North Korea and Pakistan on China for sovereign considerations such as missile platforms, nuclear components (dual-use and/or military), critical infrastructure projects (dual-use and/or military), and financial support.

China’s Pakistan model in particular has validity and direct relevance for the emerging strategic partnership between Tehran and Beijing and Iran’s multi-modal targeting of Israel. This trend is likely to remain robust, and may even accelerate, under Ebrahim Raisi.

While the Khamenei regime had an extensive ongoing operation to suppress information regarding the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Iran, it remains clear that the country has been severely degraded. This unpredictable and potentially open-ended/recurring system-level shock in Iran, when overlaid on top of all of the pre-COVID-19 international sanctions and domestic shortcomings, has resulted in Iran facing a near-catastrophic level of isolation and vulnerability.

While credible details of the June 2020 China-Iran deal are still being validated, it is significant that the Iranian side leaked the news of the agreement. The Iranian leadership may view themselves as the natural leaders of the Middle East, but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) very likely views them as junior partners in a perennially weak relative position that is to be leveraged, both strategically and opportunistically.

Emergent Client State Opportunity in Iran

The CCP likely sees in Iran very similar characteristics that it has seen in Pakistan over the past several decades. Pakistan has multiple features that have made it an attractive target for Chinese strategic envelopment over multiple decades:

  • Pakistan’s conventional rivalry with Chinese adversaries, such as India, which has led to multiple inconclusive wars and has resulted in Pakistan requiring a continuous supply of weaponry—a full spectrum—from small arms and light weapons, vehicles, missile platforms, to nuclear weapons components. This has also had the effect of tying down a substantial portion of the Indian military and forcing India to focus on Pakistani concerns as opposed to the Chinese.
  • Islamabad’s clear and consistent willingness to use Islamist terrorist groups against American/NATO forces in Afghanistan as well as within India under the logic that Pakistan’s own Chinese-enabled nuclear umbrella will deter conventional responses. Again, continuous and open-ended strategic entanglement is the primary effect.
  • Islamabad’s willingness to directly oppose clear American interests despite being in a much weaker state and lacking the traditional “shock absorbers” to bear the consequences. This pattern in Pakistani foreign policy has had the effect of drastically increasing Islamabad’s dependence on China.
  • Pakistan’s demonstrated willingness and capability to control Islamist terrorist groups operating on its territory or under its umbrella to ensure that Chinese interests in Pakistan and Chinese territory are not attacked. Despite their claims to be the frontline troops pushing for Islamist supremacy and declaring all non-believers as enemies, Pakistan-controlled terrorist groups such as Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed have been involved in multiple attacks against Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, and other Muslims across Asia. Several units have also previously been sent to theaters in Middle Eastern war zones such as Syria.
Laborers walk through the Gwadar Port in Pakistan, a multi-billion dollar infrastructure project that China has invested in as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. (Amelie Herenstein/AFP/Getty Images)
Laborers walk through the Gwadar Port in Pakistan, a multi-billion dollar infrastructure project that China has invested in as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. (Amelie Herenstein/AFP/Getty Images)

However, these groups have not systematically targeted the officially atheist CCP that has an extensive presence across Pakistan itself. Even Osama bin Laden’s continued residence on urban Pakistani territory did not alter these trends.

  • Islamabad’s continued refusal to recognize Israel, the strongest country in the Middle East and a bedrock American ally. This refusal is in spite of the fact that the recognition of Israel would very likely result in Pakistan obtaining multiple strategic and economic benefits.
  • Pakistan’s long coastline and ample opportunities for deep-sea ports combined with a lack of willing investors.
  • The ability to run oil and natural gas pipelines through Pakistani territory under the protection of the Pakistani military, security forces, and pro-government militias.
  • Pakistan’s lack of strategic depth due to its perennially unfavorable relations with both India and Afghanistan combined with substantial areas of ungoverned or weakly governed territory within Pakistan’s own borders. These problems are structural and have no near-term solutions thereby ensuring that Pakistan remains locked in this strategic situation.
  • Pakistan’s declining image combined with rising threat perceptions amongst other major Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia.
  • A highly volatile currency and continuous difficulty in accessing international financial markets with no credible near-term remedies.
  • A fractious and feuding (and therefore directly influenceable) political and commercial leadership that continuously seeks out Chinese support for a range of near-term tactical objectives.
  • Pakistan’s continuous refusal to comment on Chinese actions in Xinjiang or to inject Islamist considerations into its dealings with China.

Every single one of these strategic principles also applies to Iran under current conditions and in the Middle Eastern context although the process between China and Iran is presently in a more embryonic state. As such, the CCP likely views Iran as a direct near-neighborhood extension of what is perceived by Beijing to be its successful Pakistan strategy. The scale and scope of this June 2020 agreement, even if reports are exaggerated, still signals that the CCP sees an opportunity to gradually subsume a nominally independent but strategically dependent Iran along a similar execution pathway as China’s Pakistan model. It is possible that the Iranian leadership may not fully presently understand and appreciate the full strategic implications of the path that they are on, but the CCP does.

Iranian Delusions of Control

Iranian President
President Hassan Rouhani speaks in the last meeting of his cabinet in Tehran, Iran, on Aug. 1, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

The CCP is likely unconcerned over the prospect of being “dragged into” Iranian-instigated conflicts that do not directly involve Chinese interests in the Middle East, such as in Lebanon. China has effectively managed a similar situation (in principle) in neighboring Pakistan for decades and likely feels confident that Iran will not pose a level of complexity that Beijing cannot control. However, if Iranian regular forces and/or proxies engage in actions that have a more generic effect of directly harming Israel and/or distracting American attention, this would be viewed as a zero-cost/high-return action by the CCP. The CCP has taken the same approach with Pakistan.

Even if international oil and gas prices increase due to Iranian-generated instability in the Middle East, China has a long-standing practice of locking in long-term supply contracts at a fixed price, engaging in non-financial barter agreements, and other hedges that substantially shield China from these price effects. In addition, since the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, China has been executing a quiet but effective pipeline construction strategy that directly pipes energy from multiple Central Asian nations and Pakistan into China. Iran fits cleanly into this strategy as well.

Strategic Collapse in Afghanistan, Increased Near-Term Chinese Leverage

While the recent collapse of the American-backed Ghani regime in Kabul can be generally assessed to be a strategic disaster for all of Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors, including Pakistan, these developments present a range of risks and opportunities for the CCP.

The CCP has been extraordinarily shrewd in its support of the various Afghan Taliban factions, including hosting the entire leadership at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The CCP leadership, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in particular, have continuously stressed the role of the Taliban as a nationwide stabilizing force in the country and the region’s best chance of preventing a contagion of chaos. This strategic rationale appears to have been accepted in both Tehran and Islamabad.

Wangyi and Taliban leader
Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (L) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a photo during their meeting in Tianjin, China, on July 28, 2021. (Li Ran/Xinhua via AP)

This is not how the CCP actually makes strategic determinations, formulates policies, or executes decisions. The CCP views the Afghan Taliban as another subservient client that can forward CCP interests in that country and also serve as a source of leverage in the event of disputes with Pakistan or Iran. The Khatami regime was openly supportive of the U.S.-led military and intelligence operation to remove the Taliban from power in Kabul in 2001—on the grounds that the Taliban posed a direct physical security threat to Iran alongside another damaging but slower-moving threat posed by the nationwide opium cultivation activities that the Taliban controlled.

Unknown to many, China has a well-established multi-decade track record of managing irregular armies that fund their activities through illicit activities, including drug trafficking. The clearest example of this being the United Wa State Army in Northeastern Burma that was initially formed, trained, equipped, and maintained with CCP control. The CCP has worked closely with various military governments in Burma, including the most recent Junta, thus enabling Chinese state-owned companies to establish near-monopoly control of multiple critical industries in Burma. Despite this, the CCP simultaneously maintains a drug militia that possesses Chinese-provided armor, airpower, communications, advanced infantry weapons and equipment, military-style uniforms, and regularly attacks Burmese military infrastructure and also carries out terrorist attacks in Burma’s cities.

The CCP likely views the Afghan Taliban through a similar model as the United Wa State Army in that the CCP sees the Taliban as a generator of options for China to exercise influence, reward, or punish both regional client states and adversaries alike.

While China presently possesses multiple asymmetric advantages over both Pakistan and Iran, there is always the potential for various developments to result in more symmetry between Tehran and Beijing. Under this scenario, the CCP has the demonstrated track record and willingness to cynically utilize the Taliban in a range of ways to put pressure on Tehran, threaten Iran’s borders and domestic security, or otherwise signal to Tehran that the CCP is the Senior Partner and will not hesitate to re-assert that status if challenged.

The Raisi Regime: The Wobbling Domino That Does Not Realize That It Is a Domino

The Iranian leadership views itself as a revolutionary state that has the right, and even obligation, to be the leader of the Middle East. Since 1979, the majority of Iranian strategic planning and execution has been focused on activities that are geographically west of Tehran (with the exception of the Taliban in Afghanistan) and driven by its desire to dominate Israel, the only credible regional opposition to Iranian hegemony. The Iranian leadership appears to believe that their experience in managing militias and smaller and less powerful regional states has resulted in them becoming world-class strategists.

The current situation in Iran presents the ideal set of conditions for the CCP to come in from the east and execute its proven strategy that has already enveloped Iran’s much larger and nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan, and possibly Afghanistan as well in the future.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Ryan Clarke
Ryan Clarke
Ryan Clarke is a senior fellow at the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore. His career has spanned leadership positions in defense and intelligence technology companies, investment banking, biodefense, strategic assessments, emergency response, and law enforcement. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge.