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Why some Iranians fear China ditched them for Saudi Arabia

News of a Riyadh-Beijing missile project is a reminder that despite their fledgling alliance, China’s loyalty to Iran has its limits
Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehqan saluting with Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan during a welcome ceremony in Tehran for the latter on 14 November 2016 (AFP)

The recent news that Saudi Arabia is building ballistic missiles with help from China reopened a decades-old foreign policy debate among Iran’s political class.

On one side stand the reformists, who push for Iran to maintain ties with both western and eastern powers.

On the other, the hardline authorities, who in recent years have grown distrustful of the West and bet on alliances with China and Russia.

Tehran was included in China’s Belt and Road initiative last year, a 25-year agreement paving the way for Chinese investment in Iran, and authorities are working on a similar agreement with Russia.

But when CNN revealed in December that US intelligence officials had been briefed on large transfers of missile technology from Beijing to Riyadh, it was hard not to see the news as a setback for the hardline camp.

saudi china
Satellite images indicate the Saudis are manufacturing ballistic missiles at a test site near Dawadmi, Saudi Arabia, with the help of China, according to experts. Planet Labs PBC/AFP)

The country’s arch-rival teaming up with one of its closest eastern allies was all over Iranian media. 

Critics pointed out the “paradox” of calling China “Iran’s strategic partner” while it was helping Saudi Arabia develop ballistic missiles. The hardliners sought to downplay the news.

"China has relations with both countries without interfering in the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and we respect its preferences,” Mahmoud Abbaszadeh Meshkini, spokesman for the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said. 

“We are not worried about the relationship between Beijing and Riyadh.”

But having prioritised ties with China and Russia, a reformist journalist who asked to remain anonymous fearing repercussions from authorities told MEE, “[the government] probably know that they are being discredited among the people.” 

‘Look East’

The two camps have long clashed over how Tehran chooses its allies.

One of the key slogans of the 1979 Islamic Revolution was "neither East nor West".

But hardliners including current president Ebrahim Raisi have abandoned that strategy, arguing that the West has proven untrustworthy and that Iran should focus on building alliances with China and Russia.

After the US withdrawal in 2018 from the historic nuclear deal between Iran, western powers, China and Russia, limiting Iran’s nuclear proliferation in return for the removal of sanctions, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran "should look east, not west”. 

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“Pinning our hope on the West or Europe would belittle us as we would beg them for favours and they would do nothing," he added.

Reformists, such as ex-president Hassan Rouhani, fear however that Iran will become a pawn in a modern-day cold war if it chooses sides and, instead, push to repair ties with the US and the West while nourishing relationships in the East.

It was Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who steered Iran into the 2015 nuclear deal and a year later began the negotiations with Beijing that resulted in the 2021 agreement.

Zarif has argued that Iran can’t have one without the other, as US sanctions hinder proper implementation of the China deal. 

The Raisi government returned this week to the fraught, indirect talks with the US in Vienna about the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal. But negotiators have insisted they feel under no pressure to strike a deal, telling MEE in December the ball is “in America’s court”.

Meanwhile, authorities have emphasised they are channelling efforts into strengthening ties with the East.

But the news of the Riyadh-Beijing missile collaboration was a reminder that despite their fledgling alliance, China’s loyalty to Iran has its limits.

Should Iran worry?

The boost to Saudi Arabia's military will likely “raise the level of competition between Tehran and Riyadh”, an Iran-based foreign policy journalist told MEE.

Riyadh has faced restrictions on weapons sales from its traditional US ally since the arrival of President Joe Biden in the White House, and appears to be turning to Beijing as an alternative partner on missile defence.

Analysts diverge on how this will change the Beijing-Tehran alliance.

“I do not see this cooperation seriously damaging China-Iran relations,” Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at London-based Rusi think tank, told MEE. “Tehran is cognisant of China's policy of balancing ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and favouring a de-escalation of tensions between them.”

“Cooperation between Saudi Arabia and China in the missile sphere began in 1987 and has intermittently continued in the years that followed,” he added.

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Saudi Arabia is clearly concerned by the growing threat of Houthi missile strikes on its territory, he said, “and the timing of the latest announcements are aimed at creating a deterrent”.

“The big question is whether China responds by aiding Iran's ballistic missile programme,” said Ramani, “but it seems as if Beijing is more inclined to support Iran's right to modernise its military and pursue self-defence capabilities, while refraining from transformative military assistance.”

A former Iranian diplomat, speaking anonymously fearing attention from the authorities, is more concerned.

“This move not only helps Saudi Arabia redress the imbalance with Iran, which has so far had the upper hand in missile power, but also damages Iran's deterrence in this region,” he told MEE.

“It also undermines the traditional belief that Iran is… the only potential and reliable strategic partner for China in the Middle East.”