Amid stalled nuclear talks with the P5+1, a senior Chinese military delegation, headed by Chinese State Councilor and Minister of National Defense Gen. Wei Fenghe, landed in Iran for a visit in late April. The readouts from Tehran were rather dull, with the usual platitudes about the close relations between Beijing and Tehran. But there is more to this visit than meets the eye. While a new “axis” may not necessarily be forming, there are troubling trendlines, particularly concerning arms transfers; drone, dual-use, and missile technologies; and cyber and intelligence capabilities, that Western policymakers need to counter. In the end, these may undermine China’s own regional interests as well.
The Chinese delegates met with senior Iranian officials during their visit, including President Ebrahim Raisi, Armed Forces General Staff (AFGS) Chief of Staff Mohammad Bagheri, and Defense Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani. Also pictured in these meetings were officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Following the meeting with Raisi, both sides agreed to increase all areas of cooperation, including military, while emphasizing their shared commitment to protecting core interests and mutual contempt for what they recognize as the U.S.-led West’s “unilateralism, hegemony, and external interference.” After the meeting with AFGS, Bagheri reported that the two countries “agreed to expand bilateral cooperation in joint military drills, exchange of strategies, training issues, and other common fields.”
Due to Bagheri’s strong defense diplomacy, Iran’s relations with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have tightened in recent years. In 2019, Bagheri became the first chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces to visit China since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Moreover, Wei Fenghe’s visit was the third senior PLA delegation to travel to Iran since 2016, which coincided with Bagheri’s appointment as chief of staff — with no equivalent trips to Iran’s regional opponents during the same period. This suggests there is more going on beneath the surface, beyond the boilerplate remarks.
Tehran has its eye on Beijing’s arms
China has emphasized its commitment to peace and security in the Middle East and the Gulf. At the same time, it has blasted the U.S. for its unilateral embargo of Iran and proposed a host of forgettable alternative security frameworks for the Gulf, undermining the U.S.-led security umbrella that ensures Beijing’s prosperity in the region and the free flow of oil on which it relies.
Chinese arms suppliers, wary of sanctions, treaded carefully with Iran due to the U.N. arms embargo that was in place until October 2020. With the lifting of restrictions, private and state-owned firms may seek to diversify their portfolios by selling military assets and technologies to Iran. China was a major arms supplier to both sides in the Iran-Iraq War for most of the 1980s, providing Tehran with just under half of the $7.5 billion of weaponry sold to both sides by the end of the decade.
According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China exploited a loophole in the form of orders placed before 2006 to continue supplying Iran with weapons years into the embargo. These weapons included anti-ship missiles, portable surface-to-air missiles, armored personnel carriers, surface-to-air missile systems, air search radars, and catamaran missile boats — systems that bolster Iran’s asymmetric anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities in the Strait of Hormuz. In recent years, Iran has used its control of this strategic chokepoint, through which one-fifth of the world’s oil supply flows, to attack passing oil tankers and shoot down U.S. drones.
For their own reasons, China and Iran are attempting to develop A2/AD capabilities in their littorals to counter the carrier fleets of the U.S. and its allies. Both countries practice the sinking of American carriers on mockup models; they have also collaborated on the development of long-range anti-ship missiles, demonstrating how Chinese companies can enhance Iran’s indigenous weapons development.
In March 2010, it was reported that Iran started manufacturing the Chinese-designed Nasr-1 anti-ship missile. Just four years prior, during the 2006 Lebanon War, four Israeli Navy soldiers were killed by an Iranian derivative of the Chinese C-802 subsonic anti-ship cruise missile launched by the Iranian proxy, Hezbollah.
Since the ban was lifted in 2020, there have been no reported bilateral arms purchases, possibly due to Tehran’s economic woes and a potential backlash from Iran’s rivals (particularly through U.S. Executive Order 13949). But Iran’s defense industry continues to show interest in Chinese weapons, specifically fighter jets. The prospect of future deployment of Chinese J-10 fighter jets in the Persian Gulf was floated by former U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and a jets-for-energy barter is not out of the question.
With the possibility of the nuclear deal being resurrected, enabling Tehran to gain greater access to funds, the arms trade could become a growing concern for Washington and its allies. Some analysts have ruled out the likelihood of China becoming a significant arms exporter to Iran in the post-embargo period, but as the Lebanon War and recent bombings illustrate, Chinese technology in the wrong hands can be destructive.
Drone, dual-use, and missile technologies
Drone, dual-use, and missile technologies are also concerning. China — unlike other major weapons suppliers in the region, including the U.S. — is not a member of the Wassenaar Arrangement, enabling it to become the region’s largest provider of armed drones.
Since Iran is able to produce its drones locally, Chinese drones are currently used exclusively by Tehran’s adversaries. Reports reveal Chinese backing for local production of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the Gulf states, including most recently a joint venture between China and Saudi Arabia to produce military drones in the kingdom. Given China’s low-cost, high-quality drones, as well as the potential for knowledge transfer and upgrades of Iranian UAVs, the possibility of bilateral collaboration in this emerging field cannot be ruled out.
In January 2021, Beijing sources confirmed that Iran and Pakistan had been granted access to China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System for military purposes. Although existing Iranian ballistic missiles rely on guiding mechanisms rather than satellites, BeiDou can assist the Iranian Armed Forces in determining launch sites and target positions, among other tactical benefits, especially with support from Chinese intelligence.
Satellite navigation, by contrast, is suitable for controlling surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones within a 500-kilometer range. One military expert articulated this notion in a popular periodical overseen by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Guangdong Provincial Committee: “With the blessing of the BeiDou military system, Iran’s combat effectiveness in these areas will undoubtedly be greatly enhanced.”
In recent years, the U.S. has levied penalties on Chinese entities for exporting missile technologies to Iran. In 2017, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned the Chinese Ruan Runling Network for selling millions of dollars’ worth of “navigation-applicable technology and guidance systems, as well as other dual-use technology” to an entity linked to Iran’s defense ministry. Washington has likewise punished Chinese firms for selling jet mills, which are used in the production of solid missile propellant, to Tehran.
Chinese firms have also supplied Iran’s Centrifuge Technology Company with aluminum products used in the manufacture of centrifuges — despite the requirement of U.N. Security Council clearance under Resolution 2231. The U.S. later imposed sanctions over this activity as well. Missile- and nuclear-related transfers may expand further after Resolution 2231’s restrictions on Iranian exports and imports of missile-related equipment and materiel under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s (JCPOA) procurement channel sunset by 2023 and 2025, respectively.
The cybersphere and intelligence cooperation
Military support is also measured in ways other than tangible weapons. For one, cyberwarfare is an integral component of Iran’s arsenal, and Beijing pledged to expand cyber cooperation during Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s January visit to Wuxi. China is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to cyberattacks and military and industrial espionage. Countries throughout the region have documented high-profile cases involving Chinese hackers, including a widespread campaign of cyber espionage against Israel, the constant targeting of its defense industry, and the inadvertent sabotage of a medical center’s computer system.
Evidence suggests there has been intelligence cooperation between the Chinese Ministry of State Security and its Iranian counterpart, especially between 2010 and 2012, when U.S. covert communications networks were compromised. An increased exchange of data and tools between the two countries, utilizing the Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement and its cyber and intelligence-sharing components as a vehicle, is something to keep an eye on, particularly if ties between Beijing and Washington become more fraught.
China is undermining its own interests
Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that Raisi expressed gratitude to Wei Fenghe for China’s long-term support and assistance “during Iran’s difficult times.” Needless to say, every dollar that flows from Chinese banks to Iran’s coffers — covertly now, but overtly once sanctions are lifted — is a dollar that can be put toward funding the IRGC’s subversive actions across the region.
In a previous piece, the authors demonstrated China’s crucial part in sustaining Iran’s economy against Western sanctions throughout the nuclear talks. There is little to no sign that Chinese officials are considering how their actions perpetuate Iran’s disruptive and subversive activities, putting the country’s growing investment in the region in jeopardy.
Indeed, it appears Beijing is doubling down, as shown by a recent editorial in the CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily, which lashed out at Washington for its refusal to remove the IRGC from the list of foreign terrorist organizations. It states that, if the Biden administration “does not lift its listing, how can it show that the U.S. is willing to change the wrong policy of maximum pressure on Iran?”
Illustrating how the IRGC threatens Chinese equities, Houthi rebels in Yemen have been launching Iranian missiles and drones, wreaking havoc on China’s arguably more important Comprehensive Strategic Partners: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Iraq, China’s top target for the Belt and Road Initiative in 2021, with $10.5 billion in funding, has also been targeted. The most recent attack was on Saudi Aramco’s Jeddah oil depot in late March; this is the same company that was attacked in 2019, forcing China to pay an additional $97 million per day as Brent crude prices rose to their highest level on record.
Some commentators have linked China and Iran’s “pro-Russian neutrality” over Vladimir Putin’s unilateral invasion of Ukraine to the three countries’ common contempt for a U.S.-led Western international order, suggesting the rise of a new “Axis of Evil.” Other recent events, such as Wei Fenghe’s visit, Iran’s impending full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) after a 15-year-long wait, and the January trilateral naval drill (the third since 2019), also serve to bolster this idea.
Nevertheless, as Nicole Grajewski points out, trilateral collaboration between China, Iran, and Russia has been ad hoc and performative. Bilateral interactions represent the backbone of the dynamics between the three countries, and they are a function of differing economic and security interests, the shared (bitter) history between the parties, and their fluctuating relations with the West and one another, among other factors.
The avalanche of alarmism surrounding any Iran-China event in general, and the resurgence of the “Axis of Evil” meme in particular, may explain why some analysts are inclined to downplay Wei Fenghe’s meeting with Raisi, Bagheri, and Ashtiani.
One learned colleague was quick to characterize the visit as “not particularly strategic or significant,” arguing that it does not mark a change from past military engagements that predated the 25-year agreement. Another renowned Chinese scholar has underlined the counterterrorism aspect of their military cooperation, arguing that China and Iran share “identical goals” in the fight against terrorism and religious extremism.
Yet, the perception of what is strategic and significant differs on this side of the Atlantic, and the Islamic Republic of Iran does not share “identical goals” on terrorism with China and the region, but instead actively works to undermine them. For stakeholders in the region — particularly the U.S. and its allies, which have been the victims of self-described “revolutionary” state-sponsored terrorism for over 40 years — the visit was far from “business as usual.” Beijing’s resourcing of Tehran risks aggravating these issues and challenging its own interests.