China plays a discreet but crucial role in Iran’s nuclear negotiations

Astals in Vienna to revive Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal are about to begin, China is trying to position itself as a key player in the region, and for good reason: It is in Beijing’s interest to push for US sanctions against Iran, with which it has signed a historic bilateral partnership.

The talks to revive the Iranian nuclear agreement from 2005 are entering the tough stage of discussing substance. The Iranians set the stage for a weekend of consultations in Vienna, when Irna, the official Iranian news agency, declared that the parties had reached the “detail stage, the most difficult part of the negotiations”.

Following the resumption of talks on Monday, diplomats involved in the negotiations told the Wall Street Journal that one of the biggest obstacles was Tehran’s demand that the United States provide a guarantee that it would not leave the pact again and reintroduce sanctions.

The six-month-long talks in Vienna’s luxurious Palais Coburg hotel have taken place in various upheavals among the P4 + 1 group (China, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and Germany), the EU, Iran and the United States. Since Iran refuses to meet with US negotiators directly, discussions have progressed indirectly through European, Russian and Chinese negotiators.

Enter Wang Qun, the spectacled, rosy-clad Chinese top envoy at the talks. More discreet than his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Ulyanov, who is fond of tweets and press releases, Wang has nevertheless played a key role in the negotiations.

In the Chinese media, Wang has repeatedly stressed China’s “unique and constructive” role in the talks and its work with all parties to encourage the resumption of the negotiation process between the Americans and the Iranians – as soon as possible.

To dispel tensions with Washington over trade rivalries or disagreements over Taiwan and Lake China, Wang has been negotiating for hours with US special envoy for IranRobert Malleyin Vienna, in an effort to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal.

Oil and geopolitics “The Chinese have every interest in having the agreement signed as soon as possible to ensure the diversification of their oil supply, but also because Iran is a geopolitical partner,” said Jean-François Di Meglio, a Chinese specialist and president of Paris-based Asia Center, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“The Chinese had already played an important role in the negotiations leading up to the 2015 agreement,” Thierry Coville, a researcher at the Paris-based French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), recalled in an interview with FRANCE 24. This was revealed by Iran’s former foreign minister and top negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a book published shortly before Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, took office in August 2021.

In his lengthy account of two years of behind-the-scenes negotiations leading up to the 2015 agreement, Zarif writes that whenever the parties end up in a dead end, the Chinese team would intervene, present a new initiative and succeed in reviving the talks.

But in recent months, relations between Beijing and Tehran have taken a new step forward with the signing of a historic 25-year bilateral partnership covering such diverse areas as energy, security, infrastructure and communications.

In addition to the supply of discounted oil, the strategic agreement – which entered into force on 15 January – also provides Chinese security assistance to Iran, including the supply of military equipment. “China has signed very few partnerships of this kind. This is a serious diplomatic alliance,” Di Meglio said.

For Beijing, which continues to import Iranian oil despite the risk of fines from the US Treasury Department, the lifting of US sanctions on trade with Iran would be a blessing. Before the US withdrew from the 2018 agreement, China imported almost 10 percent of its oil from Iran and had invested in infrastructure to buy larger volumes of oil. “The Chinese are very interested in Iranian crude oil because their refineries are adapted for the treatment of this heavy oil which is used as fuel to power their power plants, their heating and to power their trucks,” stated Di Meglio.

Beijing is hosting Sunni Muslim envoys. In addition to the economic aspect, the rapprochement with Iran allows China to oppose US action and to assert its growing diplomatic power in the region, experts say.

“The Middle East was not an important part of Chinese diplomacy. But this has changed in the last five years, with Iraq as the turning point,” Di Meglio said. “After the war, China took the opportunity to take over the exploitation of Iraqi oil fields, which it is currently reconstructing.”

In the UN, China also adds the full weight of its Security Council vote on the region’s decision. This includes Iran as well as Syria, where China almost systematically joins Russian positions favorable to Bashar al-Assad.

In Beijing, too, Chinese diplomacy has been in full swing in recent weeks. Between January 10 and 14, Foreign Minister Wang Yi received no less than five of his counterparts in the region. The heads of diplomacy in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Iran, as well as the Turkish Foreign Minister and Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), took turns visiting the Chinese capital.

In addition to bilateral issues, these visits were also important for the Iranian nuclear issue because they were an opportunity to reassure the Gulf countries, in particular about the importance of a nuclear agreement with Iran. It is also an opportunity for China to show Washington that it now plays a key role in a region where the United States is losing influence.

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