Is China Backing Off Iran?

19FortyFive reports that beyond the headlines, China still has problems, but the United States is growing increasingly concerned about China’s diplomatic inroads in the Middle East. These relationships threaten US national security. 

In 2011, China said it had carried out a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) in Libya, but the operation failed, and many Chinese workers were left to fend for themselves. Rumors of a 25-year contract between Iran and China began circulating in 2020, but in Iran, the IRGC has made it clear that it will never give up its monopolies to give Chinese enterprises a foothold in the country. 

But, China’s plans to add the Iranian port of Chabahar to its “string of pearls” network of militarily-capable ports are also encountering resistance. Chabahar was a dusty outpost until recently, located more than 400 miles from Zahedan, the capital of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan region.

To capitalize on Chabahar’s strategic location, Iranian officials invited Chinese Ambassador Pang Seng to the port in March 2016. The economic arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) rebuilt the road network surrounding the dock and began work to connect the port with Zahedan by railroad the following month when a group from the Chinese engineering firm Nick Unique also visited Chabahar.

Province of Sistan va Baluchestan’s Hossein Shahdadi, the deputy director of ports, wrote an editorial for the Shargh daily, which favors reformist causes, in February 2023 to advocate for continued expansion of the Chabahar port. 

He extols Chabahar because of its location away from the crowded Persian Gulf and the narrow Strait of Hormuz. Chabahar is ideally suited for future development. 

The United States should not rest easy while China expands its influence in the Middle East; the deliberate insults directed at Saudi Arabia by the Biden administration will have lasting consequences. 

China’s apparent shift in policy toward Iran is more symbolic than substantive because of Iran’s thorny nationalism, IRGC meddling in the economy, and a lack of commercial law.

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