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China's Strategic Calculations: The Aftermath of President Raisi’s Fatal Helicopter Crash and the Future of Iran -China Relations; by; Annunthra Rangan

Image Courtesy: New York Times


Article 21/2024


The recent helicopter crash involving former Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has elicited significant concern from China. This reaction is likely due to two key factors: Raisi's role in strengthening Tehran's ties with Beijing during his three-year tenure, and Iran's facilitation of China's increasing influence in the Middle East through its reconciliation efforts. Additionally, given that China is Iran's largest trading partner, Beijing's concern is further underscored. In response to the incident, China expressed its readiness to assist with rescue operations. Unfortunately, the crash proved fatal, as confirmed by Iran's Vice President Mansouri, who announced Raisi's death.  


China's Foreign Minister affirmed that Beijing remains committed to strengthening its relations with Tehran and safeguarding mutual interests, following the tragic helicopter crash that claimed the life of President Ebrahim Raisi. Reiterating China's dedication to deepening its strategic partnership with Iran, Wang Yi assured Mahdi Safari, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, of China's ongoing efforts for regional and global peace. Describing China and Iran as "strategic allies" with close diplomatic and economic ties, the Chinese diplomat extended condolences for the loss of President Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, stressing the important roles both leaders played in their respective countries. Wang Yi underscored the impact of the tragedy, noting that Iran lost prominent leaders while China lost valued friends and partners.


However, examining China’s hidden agenda in light of recent events is imperative. This article offers an analysis of China’s interactions with Iran during President Raisi’s tenure and anticipates PRC’s implications post Iran’s presidential election. 


Overview of China-Iran relations during the Raisi Period: 


In February 2023, President Ebrahim Raisi along with his delegation visited Beijing to strengthen economic and bilateral ties, marking the first visit by an Iranian president to China in 20 years. China supported Iran’s successful bid to become a full member of the SCO as well.


During a meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua in Tehran, Raisi reiterated his commitment to enhancing the strategic partnership between China and Iran, as reported by the Associated Press. Tehran and Beijing have deepened trade relations in recent years, though China's efforts to integrate Iran into its Belt and Road Initiative have been hindered by sanctions.


China has also been instrumental in arming Iran, aiding in the modernization of its military hardware and tactics. Additionally, China has facilitated the transfer of technology and machinery for Iran's nuclear program, according to the RAND Corporation. The United States has repeatedly urged China to leverage its influence over Tehran to help manage regional tensions, exacerbated by the Israel-Hamas conflict.


Implications for China: 


While China has yet to become directly involved in the Chabahar port project, the recently signed 25-year China-Iran cooperation agreement, which includes a $400 billion Chinese investment in exchange for discounted energy and BRI project collaboration, is seen by many analysts as a strategic move to gradually establish a presence in the port. Although China's involvement in Chabahar is currently limited, increasing Chinese activity in Iran indicates a bid to rival India for regional influence.


China's crucial role in aiding Iran to navigate sanctions is contingent upon the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Without JCPOA reinstatement, the realisation of expansive economic projects outlined in the 25-year agreement with China appears improbable. Engaging actively in JCPOA revival negotiations presents China with an opportunity to alleviate this impasse and facilitate sanctions relief. During discussions between Presidents Raisi and Xi, the JCPOA emerged as a focal point, with Xi Jinping affirming China's commitment to constructive participation in these negotiations.


Experts suggest that China's interest in JCPOA revitalization is primarily driven by concerns about nuclear proliferation rather than strategic alignment against the West. The spectre of a nuclear Iran, coupled with regional tensions, particularly the nuclear aspirations of Japan and South Korea, underscores China's vested interest in JCPOA revival. Additionally, China perceives the JCPOA as a means to secure economic benefits, particularly through trade and energy contracts with Iran.


The absence of JCPOA revival poses risks to China's economic and energy interests, especially amid escalating tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbours in the Persian Gulf, a significant energy source for China. The historical "no war, no peace" dynamics between Iran and the US have historically favoured China economically. Leaked details of the 25-year cooperation agreement reveal favourable terms for China, including discounted purchases of Iranian oil and gas and flexible repayment options. Raisi was instrumental and was willing to bend to China’s negotiations, terms and conditions which made it easier for the PRC to ponder around the Middle East.


Raisi's "Pivot to East" policy, aimed at strengthening ties with China and Russia amid heightened Western tensions, faces challenges following China's alignment with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) during President Xi's recent visit to Riyadh. While China does not seek exclusive strategic alliances in the Middle East, it says that it prioritises regional stability and energy security. China has proposed a comprehensive security plan for the Middle East, with potential cooperation from both Iranian and Arab partners. Raisi's recent visit to Beijing presented an opportunity for China to discuss this initiative with Iran, aiming to de-escalate regional tensions and indulge in economic cooperation. 


Implications for India: 


The recent Chabahar deal, signed shortly before the tragic deaths of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, is a significant development. India announced a 10-year contract to develop and operate the Shahid Beheshti terminal at Chabahar, Iran's only deep-sea port. However, this move prompted a fresh threat of sanctions from the US. A US State Department spokesperson warned that entities engaging with Iran risk potential sanctions.


Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar responded by emphasising the regional benefits of the project and urged the US not to take a narrow view. Jaishankar highlighted that the Chabahar port, a long-standing strategic interest for India, facilitates access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan and outmanoeuvring China. Additionally, it serves as a transit hub for Eurasian trade routes, integrating Iran into the region's economic activities.


The Chabahar project aligns with broader strategic initiatives, such as the IMEC connectivity project, the formation of I2U2 (India, Israel, the UAE, and the US), the Abraham Accords, and the normalisation of Israel-Saudi Arabia relations. These efforts, collectively termed the ‘Indo-Abrahamic Accord’ by Egyptian scholar Mohammed Soliman, are shaping a new transregional order in West Asia, with India playing a crucial role.


India's significant investment in the Chabahar Port is crucial for accessing markets in Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan. Political instability in Iran could disrupt these projects and impact India's trade routes. Additionally, India relies on Iran for a substantial portion of its crude oil imports. Despite sanctions, maintaining a balanced relationship with Iran is essential for India's energy security. Raisi's death might prompt a reevaluation of these ties, especially if new leadership adopts a different stance on foreign investments and partnerships. Furthermore, geopolitical shifts in West Asia could influence India's regional strategy, requiring diplomatic agility to navigate the evolving landscape.


The Raisi administration played a crucial role in facilitating India's 10-year contract on Chabahar, preventing China from gaining the upper hand. Before Raisi's untimely death, Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar acknowledged in Kolkata that the long-term agreement was finalised due to the proactive efforts of Raisi and Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian.


The concept of regional stability in the Middle East: 


During Iran's active efforts to strengthen alliances with non-Arab neighbours as a counterbalance to Israel's influence, recent deaths have significantly impacted its strategic goals. The ongoing genocide involving Israel has led to shifts in regional alignments, highlighting the complex dynamics between Arab nations and Israel. Collaborative actions by Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Jordan, alongside Washington and Tel Aviv, to repel Iranian missile and drone attacks underscore a notable change in regional alliances.


The Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff has observed that Iran's aggressive actions have prompted increased cooperation in the Middle East. This collective response to Iranian threats has brought forth a regional Arab-Israeli alliance aimed at confronting Iran's influence.


Tehran's strategy of forming alliances with non-Arab nations such as Pakistan and Azerbaijan aims to establish a network of supportive states to counter Israel's strategic moves. This not only diversifies Iran's diplomatic and economic partnerships but also acts as a deterrent against potential threats from Israel and its new regional allies.


The sudden loss of President Raisi has created a leadership vacuum at a critical time, potentially disrupting Iran's diplomatic momentum and causing uncertainty in its foreign policy direction. Moreover, without Raisi's personal diplomatic efforts and influence, Iran may struggle to rally regional support against Israel, weakening its strategic position and impeding plans for a cohesive anti-Israel alliance in the region.


Why is the presidential election important?


The upcoming presidential election in Iran will significantly influence the nation's foreign policy and its stance on sanctions. It is crucial to examine the potential candidates running for office. One candidate, Saeed Jalili, a hardliner and former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, currently represents Khamenei on the council. Jalili advocates for assertive actions regarding Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran claims is peaceful but is viewed by Western powers as a potential nuclear weapons development effort. Jalili has already declared his candidacy for president.


Ali Larijani is another prominent potential candidate, notable for his extensive experience within the Islamic Republic's bureaucracy. His past roles include culture minister, head of the state broadcaster Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), Supreme National Security Council secretary, and speaker of parliament.


Mehrdad Bazrpash, Iran’s minister of roads and urban development, is also seen as a potential contender. He is a former member of the administration under former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and previously part of a student Basij militia organisation. Bazrpash is among the younger generation of fervent supporters of the Islamic Republic, nurtured by Khamenei. Parviz Fattah, another possible candidate, heads the state-owned enterprise Execution of Imam Khomeini's Order (EIKO). He has served in various roles, including as an official in Iran’s top military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and as head of multiple state foundations and enterprises linked to the economy.


Iran’s regional strategy is predominantly shaped by Ali Khameini and his advisers. Following the tragic death of Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Ali Bagheri Kani assumed the role of interim foreign minister. Kani is closely aligned with the movement defending the Velayat-e faqih and the so-called "Axis of Resistance." Notably, he served as campaign manager for Said Djalili, a prominent figure in this movement, during the 2013 presidential elections. Additionally, Kani played a pivotal role in nuclear negotiations within the Raissi government, underscoring the continued significance of this issue for Iran.


Internationally, Iran aims to uphold the Axis of Resistance while gradually improving strained relations with Gulf Cooperation Council countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. Prioritising contact with the United States is essential to mitigate the risk of regional conflicts escalating and to pave the way for future negotiations on the nuclear issue. 


Conclusion: 


Khamenei's primary focus is on ensuring a smooth succession in the Islamic Republic, making it his highest priority. He seeks to place a trusted individual in the presidency during this sensitive period in the country's history. The next Iranian president will serve a full four-year term, so Khamenei aims to ensure the presidency is occupied by someone who will align with his priorities and maintain stability during the succession process. 


China is undoubtedly a significant economic force in the Middle East, though it has not established itself as a key geopolitical player in the region. The Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, do not seek security arrangements with China, and China itself shows little interest in such engagements. China's influence in the Middle East is most notably exerted through Iran, highlighted by its significant efforts to negotiate a 25-year nuclear agreement. Despite the upcoming presidential election in Iran, substantial changes are unlikely. A critical factor is Supreme Leader Khamenei's search for his successor. The newly elected president could potentially be chosen as the next Supreme Leader, making this political transition particularly pivotal.


Although Raisi's death has been confirmed as a complete accident, China harbours suspicions that the United States and Israel may be involved. Chinese citizens have also expressed empathy towards the sanctioned country, noting the former President using a helicopter to  travel due to all the sanctions. While there may not be any immediate impact on China's policy towards Iran, it is clear that China is keenly monitoring the developments and may strategically leverage this situation to advance its pro-China agenda during the election.


References: 


  1. Alterman, J. B. (2024). The Impacts of Raisi’s Death. Www.csis.org. https://www.csis.org/analysis/impacts-raisis-death

  2. Baruah, A. (2024, May 24). What are the implications of Raisi’s death for Iran | In Focus podcast. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/podcast/what-are-the-implications-of-raisis-death-for-iran-in-focus-podcast/article68211041.ece

  3. China to strengthen communication, coordination with Iran within multilateral mechanisms -- premier-Xinhua. (n.d.). English.news.cn. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from https://english.news.cn/20231027/595afb3150f84b6096918e1e3337580e/c.html

  4. Dagres, H. (2024, February 1). China doesn’t have as much leverage in the Middle East as one thinks—at least when it comes to Iran. Atlantic Council. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/china-mena-leverage-iran-houthis-yemen/

  5. Ebrahim, N. (2024, May 20). Iran’s president has died in office. Here’s what happens next. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2024/05/20/middleeast/ebrahim-raisi-dies-succession-what-is-next-explainer-mime-intl/index.html

  6. Fahim, K., Tabrizy, N., & George, S. (2024, May 20). Raisi’s death adds to volatility as conflict shakes the Middle East. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2024/05/20/iran-president-ebrahim-raisi-death-middle-east-uncertainty/

  7. Raisi’s death leaves Iran without key leadership at crucial moment for Middle East. (2024, May 20). PBS NewsHour. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/raisis-death-leaves-iran-without-key-leadership-at-crucial-moment-for-middle-east

  8. Regencia, T. (n.d.). Iran president, foreign minister on missing helicopter after “hard landing.” Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/liveblog/2024/5/19/iran-helicopter-accident-live-president-fm-on-missing-aircraft

  9. The Iran Factor in the China-Taiwan-US Triangle. (n.d.). Thediplomat.com. https://thediplomat.com/2024/02/the-iran-factor-in-the-china-taiwan-us-triangle/


(Ms. Annunthra Rangan is a research officer at C3S. The views expressed are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)

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