Structurally, the world is now witnessing the turmoil caused by the beginning of the US hegemony after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was interpreted as the “end of history” and the permanent domination of the liberal order in the international system did not last more than two decades and with the advent of a new challenge called China subsided. The shock of this change in the international order was so such that Francis Fukuyama, retreating from his earlier theory, spoke of “postponing the end of history” and the liberal order implicit in it. A delay that translates into a transition to power in the 21st century and a change from the “American century” to the “Asian millennium”; thus, the order that has been governed in the past half-century by the hegemonic leadership of the United States and its regulatory norms and rules, with the rise of China and especially the escalation of China-US tensions in recent years, is transitioning from a rigid hierarchical order to a flexible, dual hierarchical structure; although, it is not yet possible to speak with certainty about the outcome of this change in the distribution of power (bipolar or multipolar). The impact of this duality of power center brings challenges and opportunities for the middle powers in different parts of the world, including the Middle East, and Iran is no exception to this rule and can experience a new space of action. It is noteworthy that Iran has not even been at the forefront of such cooperation and has signed such a strategic partnership much later than even the Middle Eastern countries, which are even friends and allies of the United States. As a result, the logic of alliance and coalition has changed in the new millennium and is not necessarily consistent with its own previous logic.
China is now aware of the fact that equipping itself with economic power in regional and international equations alone will not work and will not have a decisive effect on the region’s political-security dynamics. Relying solely on economic power will not negate its passive role, and in such circumstances, it will still be bound to accept regional and global order. To change the passive role and define the active role, China has seriously entered into international and regional rivalries, seeking to redefine the rules and norms of the established order and reshape the economic-security environment to play a role commensurate with its growing power. In this context, two issues should be considered in the importance of the Middle East for China and the visit of Foreign Minister Wang Yi to the Middle East: first, given the US focus on East Asia to curb this potential regional hegemony and its encirclement within the geopolitical context of the region, China is aware that it will not be able to oust the United States from the region, at least in the medium term, and the best way to break this emerging siege is to turn economic influence into political influence in other sensitive areas, including the Middle East and to make the actions of the United States in East Asia more costly by manipulating the geopolitical and geo-economic dynamics of other regions. Second, although the United States’ dependence on the Middle East energy has diminished, because of the dependence of the world economy and its allies on the region’s energy and the growing importance of the Middle East oil to the emerging powers such as China, it cannot be indifferent to the region’s dynamics and leave it to its strategic rivals. As a result, the United States will have to confront China on more than one front. At the same time, the United States no longer has the capacity and the will to deliver public goods, nor its global and regional strategic allies as they did in the past. In contrast, China’s ability to deliver public goods and parallel institutionalization is increasing day by day, which in turn increases its soft power and broadens the scope of its strategic partnership.
This issue, as was mentioned before, undermines the logic of alliance and coalition of the past and leaves a different effect on the strategy of regional powers and even small and medium-sized countries in the region. Because the region’s assessment of the strategic environment will be strongly influenced by the rivalry of major powers such as the United States, China and Russia, their preferences and strategies will no longer necessarily be based on compliance with the United States. In fact, just as in East and Southeast Asia we see the emergence of a strategy of “immunizing” by the region’s small and medium-sized powers as a result of China-US rivalry, we see signs of such preferences in the regional strategies of allies and partners of the United States in the Middle East. This strategy, which lies in the middle of the two spectrums of balance and conformity, enables the governments of the region to avoid choosing between China or the United States over the other by maintaining a middle ground and maintaining their relative independence; therefore, even though they maintain their defense-security pacts with the United States they also engage in economic interactions with China as a rival and enemy of the United States. Such a strategy would, if realized, overshadows and destabilizes the influence of the US alliances and coalitions and in return increases China’s regional influence in the Middle East, as it could gradually turn its economic influence into a political one and challenge the US balance strategy in the region. This issue, especially if an independent power like Iran sits alongside China with a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, can increase Tehran’s ability to take measures in the region and balance or reduce the threats posed by the normalization of Israeli-Arab relations and their possible alliances. Therefore, it is not unreasonable that the security cooperation between Iran and China and its consequences has become one of the major concerns of the United States and its regional allies; thus, it seems that with the more active presence of China in the Middle East and the open competition of the great powers in this region, we will see a change in the security order of this region.
Given the systemic and regional developments mentioned above, the fact that Iran, as a regional power, has relative capability and seeks to adjust its role in proportion to its power, will not suffice, rather it remains to be seen how it will play those roles in practice and what strategies it pursues in order to maintain or change regional parameters. Iran has been under pressure since the Islamic Revolution due to the hegemonic position of the United States. Sanctions have also become a strategic tool in the country’s foreign policy, both in terms of controlling Iran and in the face of its strategic rivals and partners, such as China and Russia. For this reason, Iran seeks to play a more active role by recruiting strategically in the security environment around it. Signing of the 25-year Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Document demonstrates the intellectual maturity of Iran’s political sovereignty in taking a strategic move away from pendulum orientations in the direction of the East or the West. Thus, as long as Tehran acts contrary to the existing international order, and as long as the policy is aimed at restraining pressure from Western powers, the signing of this document could also pave the way for future strategic partnership plans with other major powers such as Russia so that by recruiting strategically with partners competing with the Western liberal order or parallel with it act in the global geopolitical and geo-economic arena. What is important here is that the signing of future contracts under this document does not put Iran in an unwanted path of dependence.
Apart from the political and security importance of this document, in the economic dimension of this document, it is a seal of approval for a more stable presence of China in the Iranian economy, considering the conditions of sanctions, so that it can help the national economy to move. Assuming that sanctions remain stable in the foreseeable future, the 25-year Tehran-Beijing partnership document reduces the risk of Chinese companies investing in Iran. Of course, the sanctions continue to overshadow the two countries’ economic cooperation due to China’s dependence on the global economy and international financial network, but they open the way for small and medium-sized Chinese companies to enter the Iranian market and mobilize the Iranian economy. On the other hand, since China is also subject to US sanctions and seems to be expanding the scope of those sanctions, it needs partners in different regions to counter US unilateralism and strengthen multilateralism. Therefore, Iran should seek to attract the cooperation of such countries and become an active player in this field by creating a club of anti-sanctions countries or at least long-term anti-sanctions cooperation and strengthening the policy of multilateralism. The signing of this document can be considered as a step in this direction. Of course, we must be realistic in this regard, because the logic of the relations of great powers such as China and Russia with the United States, which is based on a combination of cooperation, competition, and enmity, is different from the behavioral logic of emerging powers such as Iran, which is faced with the US hostility and this issue will have implications for Iran’s cooperation with China and Russia.
China certainly acts in line with its national interests, and wherever it has faced maximum pressure from the US, it has withdrawn from cooperation projects in Iran or played the Iranian card, but has never ceased its connection and interaction with us and now, more than ever, it needs the cooperation of countries like Iran in competition with the United States. Iran must now seize the opportunity and actively take advantage of current international developments and, by expanding the scope of such strategic partnerships to other major global and regional powers, put the realization of its maximum national interests on the agenda and reduces asymmetric dependence in its current relations with China.
Although the 25-year Comprehensive Partnership Document sets out a roadmap for cooperation between the two sides, there is still no understanding of the nature and scope of cooperation within the framework of this document. The United States and its allies are most concerned about the security implications of this cooperation, as they are aware that, in the economic dimension, although it reduces the effective function of sanctions against Iran and the impact of the sanctions regime on international politics, China still has to comply with the sanctions due to its dependence on financial and economic networks of the world; of course, at the domestic level, the reactions and opposition to this document, given previous historical experiences, go back more to its economic dimensions. China’s history of financial and economic agreements with developing countries has raised the concern of a significant portion of the country’s population about the nature of futures contracts under the document. In general, in the context of the evolution of the international system and the change of the four dimensions of the power structure (financial, economic, security and knowledge) in the interests of emerging powers such as China and the relative decline in the economic power of developed countries, a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with emerging powers will be a positive step; but to understand the nature and scope of the agreements that will be signed under this partnership and its consequences for Iran, we have to wait for time.