The Iranian Nuclear Question in U.S.-China Relations

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 23

On the surface, China’s recent decision to support a more stringent United Nations (UN) sanctions regime against Iran, sanctions targeting Iran’s banking and financial sector as well as the ability for Iranian officials and other notables to travel abroad, represents a victory for U.S.-led diplomacy to compel Iran to abandon its alleged nuclear weapons program. Beijing’s surprising move breaks months-long deadlock among the five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council over how to address the Iranian nuclear question. China has traditionally opposed harsher sanctions against Iran (Financial Times, December 3). Nevertheless, China continues to advocate for Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power, and its strong ties to the Islamic Republic remain in place (Xinhua, November 14). Beijing’s relationship with Tehran is based on geopolitical and economic calculations; Iran is a key source of energy for China’s economy and a valuable trading partner, while Chinese-Iranian relations represent a pillar of Beijing’s overall Middle East strategy. In spite of this apparent concession, it is unlikely that China will agree to measures that would seriously threaten its economic interests or pave the way for a U.S. attack on Iran. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reiterated Beijing’s opposition to war during his November visit to Tehran: “China stands for the maintenance of the international non-proliferation system and supports a peaceful solution to Iran’s nuclear issue through diplomatic negotiations” (Xinhua, November 14).

Much has been said about the implications of a nuclear Iran for U.S. strategic interests and the wider dynamic in the Middle East. China’s expanding diplomatic and economic presence in the Middle East, to include its increasingly cordial ties with Iran and nuclear cooperation in the region, also receives adequate coverage. The logic behind Iran’s alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability—to include its effort to shore up its deterrence against a U.S. attack aimed at regime change or future invasion by its neighbors—is also the subject of informed debate. Yet there is often little emphasis on the implications of the Iranian nuclear question for U.S.-China relations. The United States and China perceive the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran in dramatically different terms, a divergence of opinion that shapes each side’s approach to its respective dealings with Iran. Consequently, this divergence also impacts the nature and trajectory of U.S.-China relations.

U.S. Calculations of a Nuclear Iran

The United States perceives the emergence of a nuclear Iran as a direct threat to its strategic interests in the Middle East. U.S. deterrence and diplomatic prestige will diminish if Iran were to acquire nuclear capability in the face of its efforts over the years to prevent this eventuality. In many respects, the United States continues to see Iran as an unstable and irrational actor that cannot be deterred, thus making the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran all the more ominous for Washington. With the United States firmly entrenched in what are likely to be extended military deployments in Iran’s eastern and western neighbors of Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, American planners also worry that a nuclear-armed Iran would be emboldened to further expand its already considerable influence in both countries at the expense of U.S. goals.

The United States also shares many of the concerns of its allies Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States about possible Iranian moves following its successful acquisition of a nuclear capability. They envision that a nuclear-armed Iran will act on what they see as its hegemonic ambitions in the region, to include influencing the behavior of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and possibly acting on its territorial claims on Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) [1]. Saudi Arabia, followed by Egypt and Turkey, will likely attempt to match Iran’s achievements by pursuing their own nuclear programs—each for their own reasons to include bolstering their national security and prestige—prompting a regional nuclear arms race. Israel’s nuclear deterrent would also be degraded by the rise of a nuclear Iran. Sunni-led authoritarian regimes closely aligned with the United States fear that a nuclear-capable Shitte Iran will increasingly interfere in these regimes’s rule. Incumbent Arab autocrats are threatened by the possibility of contending with an increasingly confident and outspoken Iran with the potential to inspire internal dissent to their own control [2].

Any combination of these scenarios will dramatically alter the strategic landscape of the Middle East. Barring a dramatic rapprochement in U.S.-Iranian relations, a nuclear Iran would likely prompt the United States to devote more military and economic resources towards shoring up its position and that of its allies in the Middle East. The U.S. military is already stretched thin due to active force deployments and other commitments around the world. As a consequence, continued Chinese diplomatic and economic support for Iran will possibly lead to heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing. Despite agreeing to the imposition of harsher sanctions against Iran, China sent an entirely different message a few days later when the Chinese National Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec) signed a $2 billion contract with Tehran to develop the Yadavaran oil field. The timing of this agreement could not have come at a worse time for the United States, since it directly challenges Washington’s efforts to isolate Tehran at the UN. Iranian Oil Minister Gholam Hossein-Nozari remarked that the contract “indicates Washington’s claims that international firms are not willing to invest in Iran are baseless” (IRNA, December 10). In the case of China, he is absolutely right.

Beijing’s decision to conclude this latest investment deal with Tehran also demonstrates China’s willingness to up the ante when it comes to major sticking points in U.S.-China bilateral relations without fear of serious repercussions. This indicates an increasingly assertive and confident China that is not afraid to challenge the United States on issues the latter considers vital to its national security. It also suggests that Beijing may opt to use its multifaceted relationship with Tehran as a lever to exert pressure on Washington down the line, making Iran more than just a source of energy for the Chinese economy akin to other major energy producers in the Middle East. Given China’s vast stake in Iran, the Iranian nuclear question is sure to lead to increasing tensions in U.S.-China relations in future, especially if Washington considers Chinese actions to be directly aiding and abetting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Chinese Calculations of a Nuclear Iran

In contrast to the United States, China does not identify the rise of a nuclear-armed Iran as a direct threat to its national security or its strategic interests in the Middle East. This view has a profound impact on the nature of Chinese-Iranian relations and, by extension, U.S.-China ties. More specifically, Beijing does not harbor any rational fear of Iran launching a direct attack against its territory or interests anywhere in the world. Beijing’s staunch support for what it labels Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power, even if that expertise may someday be used to develop a weapons program, is unlikely to preoccupy much concern among Chinese planners. Certainly, China’s energy and economic interests would be highly vulnerable to any economic shocks or military conflicts resulting from tensions over Iran’s nuclear program. At the same time, Iran’s role as key source of oil and natural gas for China—and other major global economies—would not likely change as a result of it acquiring a nuclear capability, as energy exports will be vital to sustaining the Iranian economy for decades to come. China may also calculate that the United States will conclude that it can live with a nuclear-armed Iran and seek some form of accommodation, thus decreasing the threat of regional instability and heightened tensions with China. Although Iran may attempt to exploit its new clout within OPEC and other international institutions, China likely believes that Iran will ultimately behave rationally and employ a strict cost-benefit approach to its dealings with the United States, its neighbors, and the international community. Given the growing Chinese-Iranian partnership, the United States and international community may even look to Beijing to use its influence on Iran to mediate disputes and other crises down the line (Xinhua, November 15).

China, an emerging economic powerhouse with global interests, recognizes the importance of promoting itself as a responsible member of the international community. This includes, among other things, fulfilling its commitments to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states or other actors as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and other international regulatory regimes designed to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). China’s active role in the Iranian nuclear debate is indicative of this approach [3].

At the same time, Beijing has also demonstrated its willingness to closely engage countries in violation of international conventions on issues such as human rights, political repression and other transgressions. This often leads to negative publicity and tensions with the United States [4]. For China, however, this issue resonates as a matter of national sovereignty, independence and pride. China sees itself as the heir of an ancient and proud civilization that deserves respect on the global stage on par with other world powers. As a result, Beijing is sensitive to what it sees as U.S. interference in the domestic affairs of Iran, which often comes in the form of direct criticism of human rights records and limitations on political freedoms, as it too is often the target of similar attacks. Despite U.S.-led opposition, China’s vocal support for Iran’s pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy exemplifies its resolve on this issue. For the same reasons, China is not likely to back down to any international opposition to disengage from its close ties to a nuclear-armed Iran. These factors are likely to heighten U.S.-China tensions in the future.

The Iranian nuclear question in U.S.-China relations will make its presence felt in East Asia. The potential rise of a nuclear-armed Iran is likely to detract from the U.S.’s military footprint and security commitments in East Asia, to include its alliances with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines, as well as its efforts to court Vietnam through closer military ties. This environment will surely encourage the Chinese to take a more assertive line when it comes to the question of Taiwan and other contentious issues, especially regional territorial and maritime disputes, as well as economic and trade disagreements. The U.S. may attempt to compensate by encouraging its regional partners such as Japan to take on more proactive roles on regional security issues. Nevertheless, these developments are a recipe for heightened U.S.-China tensions, especially as Beijing seeks to exploit what it may perceive as the steady unraveling of the U.S.-led cold war security alliance architecture aimed at containing China in East Asia.


According to the recently released U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities, while Iran continues its uranium enrichment efforts, it abandoned its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability in 2003 [5]. Although it is too early to tell, this report is sure to affect U.S.-China relations on many levels. For its part, China may see the NIE as a vindication of its policy of constructively engaging Iran, and therefore foster closer bilateral ties with the Islamic Republic down the line, a development that is sure to raise concerns among many circles in Washington who remain suspicious of Iranian motives (CNT Reuters , December 7). Likewise, if the United States assesses the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran to be exaggerated or non-existent and shapes its behavior accordingly, it is likely to pay closer attention to China and its steady rise as a potential peer competitor. This possible development will check China’s interests and is likely to contribute to an increase in bilateral tensions. By all accounts, the Iranian nuclear question will continue to shape the relationship between the United States and China for some time.


1. Although recognizing its independence in 1971, Iran has historically laid claim to the entire territory of Bahrain. Iran invaded and annexed the islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa—islands claimed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—in the Straits of Hormuz just prior to the independence of the UAE in 1971.

2. Despite the rhetoric of incumbent Sunni Arab-led authoritarian regimes, grassroots Arab and Sunni Muslim opinion in the Middle East does not perceive Iran in sectarian terms; instead, Iran is widely considered as a force of resistance against unpopular U.S. foreign policy in the region. According to an Arab Public Opinion survey conducted by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), only 11 percent of respondents identified Iran as the biggest threats to their countries. In contrast, the United States and Israel were identified as the biggest threats by 72 and 85 percent of respondents, respectively. Furthermore, 61 percent of those polled believe that Iran has the right to its nuclear program, even while 51 percent of respondents acknowledged that Iran is likely pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. See 2006 Zogby International-Brookings Institution 2006 Arab Public Opinion Poll. (accessed December 2007).

3. Dingli Shen, “Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions Test China’s Wisdom,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 29, Iss., 2, Spring 2006, pp. 55-66.

4. China’s controversial relationship with the Sudan amid the ongoing violence in Darfur is one of many examples. See November 1, 2006 appeal by Amnesty International to the Chinese government on the occasion of the China-Africa Summit for Development and Cooperation, (accessed December 2007).

5. See National Intelligence Council (NIC), Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, November 2007. (accessed December 2007).