Tehran, Iran – Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi was warmly welcomed by his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing, but the same issues that have hampered their relationship for years – mainly economic ties – pose a challenge to the deals signed by the two.
Raisi wrapped up a three-day trip to China on Wednesday, which marked the first state visit by an Iranian president to the Asian economic giant in two decades. The symbolism of the visit began even before Raisi departed Tehran.
In a speech before leaving, he stood in front of a large map of Iran, with “Persian Gulf” marked prominently in what appeared to be a message to Xi, who had signed a joint statement with leaders of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in December that irked Tehran.
The statement called into question Iran’s ownership of three islands in the Strait of Hormuz, prompting a fierce backlash in Iranian media, and the Iranian foreign ministry expressed its “strong dissatisfaction” to Beijing’s ambassador.
Raisi’s speech set the tone for the trip as he clearly stated his dissatisfaction with Beijing-Tehran ties “seriously falling behind” especially in terms of economic cooperation.
He pledged to “compensate” for the insufficient attention given to developing relations with the key partner in the east. With those comments, he took a jab at his predecessor Hassan Rouhani, while also making a veiled criticism of China for not pursuing ties with Iran more seriously.
Raisi tried to show his seriousness in advancing relations by taking dozens of officials to Beijing, with his delegation including six ministers, the country’s top nuclear negotiator and its central bank chief.
What agreements were signed?
Iranian state media said that 20 substantial agreements were inked during the trip under the 25-year comprehensive cooperation document Iran and China signed in 2021.
While a number of Iranian officials and state-linked media have discussed the visit since its conclusion, they have not divulged many details.
Alireza Peyman-Pak, the head of Iran’s Trade Promotion Organisation, who has also been active in Iran’s efforts to boost economic ties with Russia, said the agreements were worth at least $3.5bn.
These included deals on trade, mining, the automotive industry, agriculture, tourism and the transfer of technology, he said.
In China, Raisi reportedly had a meeting with representatives of several large Chinese companies, which were not named by Iranian media.
The Iranian petroleum ministry said talks with China are continuing on trading crude oil for goods, developing a natural gas project in southern Iran and advancing oil field projects.
Meanwhile, reports emerged that Sinopec, China’s state-owned energy giant, has pulled out of the significant Yadavaran oil field project near the Iran-Iraq border, with Tehran left to go ahead with its development on its own.
A petroleum ministry official denied the reports, telling state media that negotiations with Chinese counterparts are continuing and there has been no official declaration by Sinopec that it is withdrawing.
The Yadavaran field boasts an estimated three billion barrels of recoverable oil and has faced a six-year development hiatus amid sanctions imposed on Iran.
China had pulled out of developing phase 11 of Iran’s offshore South Pars gas field in 2019 after the United States imposed punishing sanctions on Iran following the US’s unilateral withdrawal in 2018 from the country’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Visit will bring little change
Raisi’s visit does not change any of the “underlying factors” that limit meaningful bilateral cooperation, according to Bill Figueroa, a research associate at the Centre for Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge.
Foremost among them are the sanctions, he said, but also the unrest and protests in Iran and the difficulties Chinese investors have faced in the past in dealing with the country’s legal system.
“Chinese projects in Iran have traditionally not done very well or been scuttled by sanctions, and investors were very spooked by the arrest of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou for allegedly violating US sanctions on Iran,” Figueroa told Al Jazeera.
“Furthermore, Chinese capital is also competing with neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia and the GCC states, who offer a more stable and lucrative environment for investment in financial and economic hubs like Dubai and Doha.”
Figueroa said he believes Beijing will be more than willing to expand ties with Tehran, as long as it does not come at the expense of its relationship with other Middle Eastern countries or the US.
“The only scenario in which I see a dramatic expansion of Sino-Iranian economic relations in the future is one in which the sanctions are lifted and the political situation in Iran becomes more stable,” he said.
It remains to be seen how much Iran-China ties develop under sanctions while talks to restore the 2015 nuclear accord remain deadlocked, but the Raisi visit saw China offer some rhetoric in support.
Xi, who rolled out the red carpet for Raisi, called for US sanctions to be removed as a key part of restoring the nuclear deal and opposed “interference by external forces in Iran’s internal affairs and undermining Iran’s security and stability”.
Xi “gladly accepted” an invitation from Raisi to visit Iran at a later date, which would mark his first visit since 2016 as part of a tour of the Middle East.
The Chinese president had previously supported Iran’s now-successful bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the powerful BRICS – which groups Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – which is still considering Tehran’s request.
China and Iran also signed a joint communique that railed against “efforts by certain governments to politicise the work” of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Iran, promised cooperation on ensuring regional security, and cooperation on fighting “terrorism”.
This was in stark contrast with the China-GCC statement in December, which had called on Tehran to fully cooperate with the IAEA, and had stressed dialogue on Iran’s “destabilising regional activities” and “support for terrorist and sectarian groups and illegal armed organisations” in addition to the proliferation of ballistic missiles and drones.