Danny Citrinowicz

Putting things in perspective – The implications of China’s deal with Iran

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The extraordinary deal signed between China and Iran provokes (as expected) negative feelings in Israel and elsewhere. According to those who wish to continue the policy of maximum pressure on Iran,  this deal is a real lifeline to its struggling economy, at a critical time when the international community invests heavily in bringing Iran back to the negotiating table.

In view of these claims, it is important to note that the importance attributed to the deal, especially its implications for the Iranian economy and its damage to Israel interests, appears to be exaggerated. There is no doubt that this deal is supposed to Help the Iranian economy, but in this context it is important to note the following points:

  • It is not at all clear whether China has any interest in all aspects, especially the military ones, of this deal.
  • This deal provokes unease among many elements of the Iranian leadership who are worried about the cultural and other aspects associated with this deal.
  • The real economic value accompanying this deal is unclear ,and in any case it is expected to take time for Iran will receive tangible earnings from it
  • Iran strives to base its economy not only on Chinese goods and aid, but to diversify it while cooperation with Western countries and other countries.
  • China fully understands the extent of Iran’s dependence on it, but it itself is not depended on Iran.
  • Experience shows the deep concern of Chinese banks to act against U.S. sanctions – so it is likely that as long as the sanctions are in place, China will have a hard time to carry out all the components of the deal.

It is important to note that This deal is another turning point in China’s pattern of involvement in the Middle East. If  in the past this involvement was based primarily on ensuring oil supplies to China, the recent sequence of events shows that this pattern is a thing of the past. China not only aspires to be a more active player in the Middle East as a necessary step  to establish the “new Silk Road.” Rather, it seeks to exploit the vacuum that has been created in the region and  to oust the United States as the leading power in the  Middle East.

It is wrong to see these actions as  related to this area (The middle east) alone, but also (and mainly) as part of the power struggle between Beijing and Washington in which each side tries to exploit the weakness of the other in an  attempt to seize “more outposts” in the international arena. As the Biden  administration works to pressure China in Asia, its backyard, China recognizes  U.S. weakness in the Middle East and works to exploit that dynamic to it’s benefit.

While the strategic agreement between Iran and China is important for China, it is important to remember that China has not rushed to advance its signing for years,  despite  pressure from Iran. The signing of the agreement at the present time,  sends a clear  message to the United States.

But not all is negative – while China is using The deal with Iran as a tool in the struggle with the United States, but it can be used as a tool to pressure the regime in Tehran to return to the negotiating table on the nuclear issue. China’s economic interests in the region, particularly the success  of the New Silk Road initiative, require a security and political stability. Moreover, in recent years It seems that China has decided to significantly develop its trade relations and cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states at Tehran’s expense. China, in light of its good relations  with Riyadh, can become a stabilizing factor between the two countries and lead mediation that  will reduce tensions in  the  Persian Gulf region. Therefore, alongside the concerns regarding this deal,  there are potential benefits to this agreement that Israel can utilized.

As for Israel, it is right to look at the growing Chinese involvement in the region and formulate (and promote) policy in the face of this new pattern of involvement by Beijing. Israel  is naturally deeply  concerned about the response  in  Washington to any rapprochement with China – but if it does not work to develop a dialogue with the Chinese on the issue,  Israel will find itself on the losing side.

In light  of what appears to be the U.S. administration’s desire to focus on other parts of the world – especially Asia,  and the fact that China is already present in the Middle East and is expected to be a rising force in the region for years  to come, Israel needs to hurry up and think of ways in which it can profit  from this reality and earn from the growing Chinese involvement  in the  region.

Israel must maintain a transparent relationship with Washington, one that on the one hand will ease the concerns of the United States, but on the other hand will also allow Israel to move forward in the relationship with China and maintain a fruitful dialogue with it, without stretching the rope with Washington. Israel cannot adopt a black or white approach to China . It has to play its card smarter than that.  

**This article was written  together with with Dr. Gedalia Afterman, The Head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya**

About the Author
Danny (Dennis) Citrinowicz is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and a senior WEBINT instructor at Cyberpro. Previously, he was senior fellow at the Institute of Policy and Strategy (IPS) and the Abba Eban institute at Reichman University. Danny served 25 years in a variety of command positions units in Israel Defense Intelligence (IDI) including as the head of the Iran branch in the Research and Analysis Division (RAD) in the Israeli defense intelligence and as the division’s representative in the United States.
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