06.08.2020 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Sino-Iran Deal and the Future of Gulf Geo-Politics


Whereas the recently announced Sino-Iran deal cuts at the US policies vis-à-vis both China and Iran, China’s multi-billion dollar is quite likely to change the balance of power in the Middle East to Iran’s favour. With China establishing a direct presence in Iran and around the Persian Gulf/Strait of Hormuz, not only will Iran’s military position change and its capacity to project hard power increase, but investment worth billions of dollars will change its economic outlook as well, boosting its capacity vis-a-vis its rival states, particularly Saudi Arabia. At the same time, China’s permanent foothold in the region will boost Beijing’s global power, increase its ability to exert influence on regional developments, particularly in Iraq and Syria, and challenge the US traditional supremacy as well.

Iran and the regional geo-politics

As far as Iran is concerned, the presence of China within Iran and a subsequent better economic outlook would not necessarily make it invest even more money in militarily countering its rival states. While a lot focus in the western main stream media is being laid on the ‘fact’ that an economically stronger Iran will threaten the US and Saudi interests in the region, it is also a fact that an economically stronger Iran will keep moderates in power, keeping the possibility of better relations with other Gulf and Arab states open. This will add to the fact that a number of regional powers and Iran’s erstwhile rival states, such as the UAE, are already inching towards a new era of bi-lateral relations with Iran. Therefore, an economically (and militarily) stronger Iran will not necessarily trigger a negative competition in the region.

An additional reason for this might be the ‘China factor.’ China’s investments in Iran are quite in line with its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). As it stands, China certainly eyes further expansion deeper into the Middle East and eventually develop a direct territorial link with Europe. Therefore, with China’s massive economic presence in the region, it will emerge as a new balancer between rival regional powers, replacing the US. Since the primary nature of Chinese interests and presence is economic, it is unlikely to ignite flames of military conflicts. With China as the new balancer and aiming to chart a new geography of trade and bringing the ancient Silk Roads back to life, a logical outcome is, in the light of progressively reducing US presence and meddling, most likely to be redefined bi-lateral relations in the region.

The Strait of Hormuz

As the details of the draft deal show, China will be developing a port at Jask. Jask is located just outside the Strait of Hormuz, which is the entrance to the Persian Gulf. With China developing and managing a port at a strategic location, it will add massively to Iran’s naval power and give the former a vantage point in a region which has, in recent history, been dominated by the US. Even today, the US Fifth Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain, uses the same passage.

Iran, as far as its immediate interests are concerned, is eyeing to use Jask as an alternative route of oil supply. The projects recently announced by the Iranian president include a major pipeline that connects Goreh in the west of Persian Gulf to Jask Port in its east, making the country independent of Strait of Hormuz for its oil exports. “This is the most important project, not only from an economic point of view, but also in terms of national security, economic security and energy security,” said Iran’s president.

What this practically means is that in the wake increasing hostilities between Iran and its regional rivals and even the US, Iran can safely shut the Strait down without jeopardising its own oil exports.

Towards a ‘Golden Ring

Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan has frequently spoken of creating a ‘Golden Ring’, connecting the Chabahar port with Gwadar port in Pakistan. The idea of a ‘Golden Ring’ also has Russia—already strongly present in Syria— as one of its members, which shows that a new regional configuration, with two super powers in it, thus taking place will alter the regional balance of power in a very significant way, changing the almost static post Second World War geo-political landscape.

How the Golden Ring is developing is evident from the way Russia and China, reinforcing their ties with Iran, are already at the heart of blocking US attempts to reimpose arms embargoes on Iran in coming October. Secondly, The Sino-Iran deal has been announced at a time when the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has regained pace in Pakistan after almost two years of lull and inactivity, indicating how a new geography of trade and connectivity at the heart of the ‘Golden Ring’ is being built, eyeing a radically re-shaped regional geo-political landscape.

Iran, as it stands, stands to gain from it. It has been repeatedly ditched by ‘the West’; consolidating relations with ‘the East’ will allow Iran to redefine its standing in global power relations.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook