Could an Iran nuclear deal be the start of a US-China relations reset?

Josephine Ma
·5-min read

A nuclear deal with Iran could be a chance for China and the United States to work together as the two powers begin a search for common ground in the wake of US President Joe Biden’s ice-breaking call to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

In the goodwill call on the eve of Lunar New Year, both leaders expressed the need for cooperation after four tumultuous years.

But there is a world of differences between the two countries and some common issues will need to be found to build trust and positive reinforcement.

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Aside from climate change, there are signs that the two countries see finding a solution to the Iran crisis as one such opportunity. On Wednesday, Chinese vice foreign minister Ma Zhaoxu had an “in-depth exchange” with Biden’s special envoy for Iran Robert Malley.

Ma, who is widely tipped to take over from Cui Tiankai as the new ambassador to Washington, is seen as a key player to reset the complicated bilateral ties.

The 57-year-old diplomat, whose portfolio includes arms control, has been China’s point man on the Iranian nuclear crisis. In 2013, he was the leader of China’s delegation to various rounds of talks that eventually led to a plan that became the basis for the 2015 deal.

Meanwhile, Malley, who helped to forge the 2015 Iran nuclear deal backed by the European Union, Russia, and China, has been given the task of getting Tehran back to the negotiating table after the agreement was abandoned by former US president Donald Trump in 2018.

Under the 2015 agreement, US sanctions were dramatically reduced in return for Iran accepting limits on its nuclear programme for at least a decade.

Jonathan Fulton, an assistant professor of political science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, said there was scope for China-US cooperation, even though China was a close ally of Iran.

“The Iran issue is one where the US and China can actually find constructive ways to work together,” Fulton said.

“Despite China’s partnership with Iran it is much more deeply engaged politically and economically on the Arab side of the Gulf, which importantly consists of US allies and partners. China’s preference for stability and the asymmetrical nature of the Sino-Iranian relationship provides Beijing with leverage in Tehran.”

Chinese analysts said Beijing would be happy to play a role in getting Iran back to talks, but it would not be an easy task.

Wang Huiyao, president of the Centre for China and Globalisation think tank, said the consensus reached between the Obama administration, China and the European Union over the 2015 agreement was a good foundation to build on.

“The US is more in the driver’s seat in terms of leading the negotiations with Iran. But China, the EU and other countries have witnessed [the previous deal]. So I think they must have the same goal,” Wang said.

But Chen Qi, resident scholar in US-China relations at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, said things had changed since the US withdrawal from the agreement and it was not clear whether the US would have to renegotiate the deal.

In early January, Iran resumed enriching uranium to 20 per cent at its Fordow nuclear facility. Under the 2015 agreement, the Fordow facility was banned from conducting the process, and uranium could only be enriched 3.67 per cent at another site.

China seeks US return to Iran nuclear deal and a lifting of sanctions

Pang Zhongying, an international relations professor at Ocean University, said that under these conditions the deal would be difficult to revive.

“How far the two nations can work together on Iran is not certain because of the many changes happening in Iran over the past four years. China can work with the US to coordinate [talks], but we should not overestimate the influence China has on Iran,” he said.

So far the US and Iran have played tough on the prospect of talks. On Sunday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei restated that Tehran would comply with the 2015 nuclear deal when Washington lifted sanctions.

But Biden said on CNBC on Sunday that the US would not lift sanctions to entice Tehran back to talks.

China seeks US return to Iran nuclear deal and a lifting of sanctions

Drew Thompson, visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said there were fundamental differences between China and the US towards Iran.

“China still has a very high level of tolerance for Iran pursuing its nuclear capability. It places an emphasis and its foreign policy objectives on ensuring that the crisis doesn’t escalate, and that their commercial interests with Iran are not harmed,” Thompson said.

“There’s not a lot of common ground unless China is in the mood to use diplomatic or economic coercion against Iran.

“The fact that they’re talking about it is positive. So at least each side understands where the other is coming from. But I don’t think we’re going to get actual cooperation out of that.”

Additional reporting by Kinling Lo and Teddy Ng

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