Iran-China partnership: A reported new deal for a relationship going back to antiquity

William Figueroa, who recently earned his doctoral degree in history, shares his take on the past relations and what the new partnership could mean.

Two men shake hands and two others look on behind them in a black and white photo from the 1940s
Mehdi Farrokh (left), Iranian Ambassador to Nationalist China, meets with Chiang Kai-shek in Nanjing in 1948. (Image: Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh)

During the summer, reports of a new partnership between Iran and China raised concerns about what it could mean for the deteriorating relationship between the United States and China.

William Figueroa
William Figueroa earned his PhD in history with a dissertation entitled “China and the Iranian Left, 1905-1979.”

But as weeks went by and details remained vague, it became less apparent that any deal was imminent, or even what an eventual deal would involve.

William Figueroa recently earned his Ph.D. in history, and his dissertation is a historical survey of Sino-Iranian relations from the early 1900s to the foundation of the Islamic Republic. It focuses on the impact of Maoist politics on the Iranian left. His research shows that both Iranian and Chinese intellectuals were aware of and inspired by one another’s political movements, which culminated in a series of robust, unofficial connections between Iranian Communist organizations and the Chinese Communist Party.

“He has studied both Chinese and Persian and incorporates sources from both countries in his painstaking and pioneering research,” says his advisor, Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History. “He is one of a handful of young Western scholars trained to do so.”

Penn Today talked with Figueroa about how he started tracing the relationship between Iran and China and to get his take on the news of the partnership, and what it could mean for the U.S.

How did you become interested in the topic of Chinese/Iranian relations?

I was the first person in my family to go to college, so nobody really had any advice for me, but they all supported me and threw me this wonderful going-away party. My uncle came to the party, and he’s a more conservative guy who likes to follow international politics but typically from the perspective of ‘who is the most scary to the United States this week?’ He comes up to me and puts his arm around me and says, ‘You know, Billy, if you’re going to study something useless like anthropology, you should study something useful as well. Why don’t you study Chinese because you know they’re going to run this country in 10 years.’ And weirdly enough, I walked away thinking, You know, he’s a little bit right, not about the Chinese running this country, but it is a very useful language. I had always had this desire to learn an Asian language, Japanese in particular because I was really into anime. But Chinese just seemed a lot more useful since more people speak it. So, I took his advice, and studied Chinese language courses my first two years at Rice University and studied abroad in China in 2000 and ended up majoring in anthropology and Chinese studies.

My roommate was from Lebanon, and I took a Middle East history course with him, and it just made me have this desire to find a way to put those interests together. When I decided to go to graduate school, I focused on history, and one of my professors said a good way to marry my interests would be to look at the relationship between China and Iran. So again, I took someone else’s advice and went for it.

What have relations between China and Iran been like in the past?

Their relationship stretched back thousands of years into antiquity. Their political connections came to a height in the 12th century, when Iran and China were both united by a Mongol administration, and China used Persian as an official language.

During the Tang Dynasty back in the 600s, there were Persian dancers, musicians, and traders in the Chinese capital. During the Ming Dynasty, when China had sort of reclaimed its Chinese identities, it still maintained the practice of translating its edicts into Persian, sending them to the Persian-speaking courts throughout Asia.

Under the Qing Dynasty, the conquest of Xinjiang added many Turkish-speaking Muslims to the empire. Arabic texts were also widely translated, which led to a relative decline in the use of Persian and in relations and contacts between China and Iran during this period.

So, by the beginning of the 20th century, these traditional relationships are mostly gone. The world has begun to be connected in new ways at that time. Networks of colonialism are starting to settle in, and that’s the subject of my first chapter, how while at the outset of the 20th century these ties declined, they started to be reconstituted along these new networks of global colonial integration.

Technologies like steamships, railroads, telegraphs, and newspaper printing throughout Asia started to create this new, globally connected Asian world. People from India and Japan were all reading newspapers about one another, communicating this information within days rather than weeks or months.

At the beginning of the 1900s, there were these global constitutional movements. There was a constitutional revolution in Turkey, there was a constitutional revolution in Iran, there was one in China. All of these intellectuals were sort of aware of one another and in contact with one another, not directly in contact, but through discussing events that were happening in other countries.

So that’s where I sort of start to analyze the first expression of modern Sino-Iranian relations, not along these traditional connections but along a new discourse of Sino-Iranian solidarity.

A group of 14 people line up behind a round dinner table at a restaurant to pose for photo
Dubbed the “Iranian Colony” by Ambassador Mehdi Farrokh, the Iranian embassy staff to Nationalist China in Nanjing poses after a meal in late 1948.

Where does the partnership described in The New York Times over the summer stand now?

The so-called deal itself is still very nebulous. In July, a draft of a comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Iran was leaked and circulated on Iranian social media that has since been translated. I’ve taken a look at it, and it’s pretty much along the same lines of what has happened in the past. There’s nothing in the deal that is entirely new other than its alleged scale.

The agreement lacks any specific mechanisms of how to implement these things. It’s just a bunch of vague suggestions, like these are the areas in which we’d like to cooperate. There are few hard numbers, and the $400 billion figure comes from a poorly sourced article in 2019, not the leaked draft.

China and Iran have had progressively increasing relations, but over and over again they have run up against the problem of China needing good relations with the U.S.

For example, the Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2014 under the Obama administration, and shortly after that President Xi Jinping and the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, met and reached a preliminary version of this agreement. They signed something similar that said they were going to vastly increase trade relations and do all kinds of great stuff. It was meant to signal Iran’s reentry into the international community. But it didn’t happen, partly because of Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy towards Iran and the reimposition of sanctions.

Newspaper cartoon showing Uncle Sam putting a United States symbol on a barrel of oil
Political cartoon by Chinese artist Fan Cheng commenting on the situation in Iran, circa 1953.

What would each nation get out of the vague deal, should it ever be finalized?

Since the Trump administration came to power a lot of gains for Iran have been reversed and sanctions have been reinstituted. The loss of oil revenue has severely damaged the economy. Ordinary people are suffering from skyrocketing prices and lack of access to advanced drugs and medical care. The reason why the Iranian state wants to restart these ties—and it is the Iranian state that’s the driving force behind this—is that they want to find a new market for their oil.

Iranian oil production has fallen from 4 million barrels a day to something like 2.5 million barrels a day since the sanctions have been put in place. That’s a huge reduction in income. They need to find someone to buy that, and the simplest aspect of the deal is that China is going to invest large amounts of money in Iran’s economic resources, its trade infrastructure, ports, factories, and telecommunications, in exchange for preferential dealings in oil contracts and potentially the Chinese state buying a set number of barrels of oil at a very favorable price every year—sort of a guaranteed market.

In short, the reason that Iran is turning to China is because of the sanctions put on them by the West. We’ve sort of driven them into the arms of China.

The bottom line is the deal isn’t happening right now. It’s really only being talked about very generally, and a lot of what’s been talked about in the press, in my view, is kind of exaggerated.

Does this deal mean anything for China’s deteriorating relationship with the United States?

I think some people are quick to read this as it will lead to a decrease of relations between China and the United States, but I don’t really think that that is going to be the case.

The backdrop of the nosedive between relations between the U.S. and China hasn’t helped that perception, but it’s also important to mention that this hasn’t been widely publicized in Chinese state media. If this was meant to be seen as China thumbing its nose to the Trump administration, wouldn’t it have been highlighted? The fact that the document leaked was in Persian and on Iranian social media suggests to me that the leak probably originated on the Iranian side, perhaps to pressure China into actually concluding a deal.

I think that my historical perspective allows me to say to those who are alarmists on the United States side who think this is going to be a radical reconfiguration of relations that will threaten U.S. interests, relax, the deal has been very much exaggerated.

But to those who are really supportive of it, I would also say be cautious. Chinese investment in the Iranian economy has caused a lot of disruptions for ordinary people whose businesses can’t compete with cheap Chinese goods, or who are displaced by cheap Chinese laborers. They also have offered to share internet censorship technology. China remains self-interested, and it’s going to do what’s good for China. That is not necessarily going to be what is good for Iran or the Iranian people.

Red book with gold lettering on the cover in Farsi that translates into "Little Red Book"
A Farsi edition of “The Collected Works of Mao Zedong, Vol 1”. This “Little Red Book” was printed in Beijing in 1969 by the CCP’s China Foreign Languages Publishing Administration.