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Iran and China hail 'new chapter' as Xi wraps up Middle East tour

Chinese president signs security and economic agreements after warm welcome in Tehran following earlier stops in Riyadh and Cairo
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) attend a press conference following their meeting in Tehran on 23 January 2016 (AFP)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday hailed a "new chapter" in relations with China after talks with President Xi Jinping, who is touring the region to boost Beijing's economic influence.

The countries aim to build economic ties worth up to $600bn within the next 10 years, Rouhani announced.

The Chinese president is the first leader to visit Iran since international sanctions were lifted on 16 January after it struck a deal with six major powers, including China, to limit its nuclear programme. 

The four-day Middle East tour saw Xi also visit Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional antagonist.

The two leaders oversaw the signing of 17 agreements in areas including politics, the economy, security and cooperation on peaceful nuclear energy.

"With the Chinese president's visit to Tehran and our agreements, a new chapter has begun in Tehran-Beijing relations," Rouhani said in a televised speech, flanked by Xi.

According to a statement published by the Iranian Mehr news agency, the two countries agreed to enhance cooperation in fossil and renewable energy, transportation, railways, ports, industry, commerce and services.

"Iran is China's major partner in the Middle East and the two countries have chosen to boost bilateral relations," the IRNA news agency quoted Xi as saying.

Beijing is Tehran's top customer for oil exports, which in recent years were hit by US and EU sanctions over Tehran's nuclear programme.

Trade between the two countries was worth $52 billion in 2014.

According to Iranian media, more than a third of Iran's foreign trade is carried out with China.

Xi, accompanied by three deputy prime ministers and six ministers, also brought with him a large business delegation.

Michal Meidan, an expert on China-Middle East relations at the Chatham House thinktank, told Middle East Eye that one of the main goals of Xi’s visit was to promote his “One Belt, One Road” policy, which aims to create a 21st century "Silk Road" built on Chinese investment in infrastructure projects stretching across Eurasia to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

“Xi is one of China’s most well-travelled presidents, and he hadn’t been to the Middle East, so this is a long overdue trip,” said Meidan.

“It had been postponed on a number of occasions because of regional tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.”

The first Chinese head of state to visit Iran in 14 years, Xi was scheduled to meet later on Saturday with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Saudi Arabia and a number of Sunni Arab allies broke diplomatic ties with Iran this month after protesters angry over the Saudi execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia, ransacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.

In Cairo, Xi offered $55 billion in loans and investments to the Middle East, a region where China wants to strengthen its economic presence.

His visit to the Middle East comes amid a flurry of regional diplomatic activity, with John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, in Saudi Arabia for talks on Saturday.