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Headlines around the world have heralded a “strategic alliance” between Iran and China. A raft of secret deals on the sale of discounted oil, the provision of 5G communications technology, and the deepening of the military partnership, are presumed to challenge American hegemony in the Middle East. But there is no alliance in the offing. While Iran has a unique place in China’s Middle East strategy, the partnership that China has with the Islamic Republic is carefully calculated and the renewed negotiations between China and Iran are in fact a continuation of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) signed in January 2016. The CSP does not reflect China’s intention to elevate its relationship with Iran above others across the Middle East. On the contrary, China is seeking to balance its ties with Iran and with states that see themselves locked in regional competition with the Islamic Republic. As such, the CSP must be viewed within a wider regional context. The authors compared China’s engagement with Iran in trade, investment, and security cooperation with five other countries: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iraq, Turkey, and Pakistan. Compared with the region at large, China’s engagement with Iran has lagged behind its engagement with other countries. Despite the rhetoric of both Iranian and Chinese policymakers, the privileged status of an alliance remains out of reach for Iran, which finds itself seeking to rectify its position within Chinese bilateral relationships in the Middle East: the last among equals.

An earlier version of the document incorrectly displayed Figure 5: Total Chinese FDI Stock vs. GDP (PPP). The publication has been updated to reflect current data.

Updated on September 30, 2020 at 9:45 AM

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