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Iran-China: the 21st Century Silk Road Connection
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Capping an extraordinary two weeks that turned 21st century geopolitics upside down, Iran and China finally signed their 25-year strategic deal this past Saturday in Tehran.

The timing could not have been more spectacular, following what we examined in three previous columns: the virtual Quad and the 2+2 US-China summit in Alaska; the Lavrov-Wang Yi strategic partnership meeting in Guilin; and the NATO summit of Foreign Ministers in Brussels – key steps unveiling the birth of a new paradigm in international relations.

The officially named Sino-Iranian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership was first announced over five years ago, when President Xi Jinping visited Tehran. The result of plenty of closed-door discussions since 2016, Tehran now describes the agreement as “a complete roadmap with strategic political and economic clauses covering trade, economic and transportation cooperation.”

Once again, this is “win-win” in action: Iran, in close partnership with China, shatters the glass of US sanctions and turbo-charges domestic investment in infrastructure, while China secures long-term, key energy imports that it treats as a matter of national security.

If a loser would have to be identified in the process, it’s certainly the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” drive against all things Iran.

As Prof. Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran described it to me, “It’s basically a road map. It’s especially important coming at a time when US hostility towards China altogether is increasing. The fact that this trip to Iran [by Foreign Minister Wang Yi] and the signing of the agreement took place literally days after the events in Alaska makes it even more significant, symbolically speaking.”

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh confirmed the deal was indeed a “roadmap” for trade, economic and transportation cooperation, with a “special focus on the private sectors of the two sides.”

Marandi also notes how this is a “comprehensive understanding of what can happen between Iran and China – Iran being rich in oil and gas and the only energy-producing country that can say ‘No’ to the Americans and can take an independent stance on its partnerships with others, especially China.”

China is Iran’s largest oil importer. And crucially, bill settlements bypass the US dollar.

Marandi hits the heart of the matter when he confirms how the strategic deal actually secures, for good, Iran’s very important role in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI):

The Chinese are getting more wary about sea trade. Even the incident in the Suez Canal reinforces that, it increases Iran’s importance to China. Iran would like to use the same Belt and Road network the Chinese want to develop. For Iran, China’s economic progress is quite important, especially in high-tech fields and AI, which is something the Iranians are pursuing as well and leading the region, by far. When it comes to data technology, Iran is third in the world. This is a very appropriate time for West Asia and East Asia to move closer to one another – and since the Iranians have great influence among its allies in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Hindu Kush, Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, Iran is the ideal partner for China.

In a nutshell, from Beijing’s point of view, the astonishing Evergreen saga in the Suez Canal now more than ever reiterates the crucial importance of the overland, trade/connectivity BRI corridors across Eurasia.


It’s fascinating to watch how Wang Yi, as he met Ali Larijani, special adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, framed it all in a single sentence:

“Iran decides independently on its relations with other countries and is not like some countries that change their position with one phone call.”

It’s never enough to stress the sealing of the partnership was the culmination of a five-year-long process, including frequent diplomatic and presidential trips, which started even before the Trump “maximum pressure” interregnum.

Wang Yi, who has a very close relationship with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, once again stressed, “relations between the two countries have now reached the level of strategic partnership” and “will not be affected by the current situation, but will be permanent”.

Zarif for his part stressed that Washington should get serious about its return to the Iran nuclear deal; lift all unilateral sanctions; and be back to the JCPOA as it was clinched in Vienna in 2015. In realpolitik terms, Zarif knows that’s not going to happen – considering the prevailing mood in the Beltway. So he was left to praise China as a “reliable partner” on the dossier – as much as Russia.

Beijing is articulating a quite subtle charm offensive in Southwest Asia. Before going to Tehran, Wang Yi went to Saudi Arabia and met with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The official spin is that China, as a “pragmatic partner”, supports Riyadh’s steps to diversify its economy and “find a path of development that fits its own conditions”.

What Wang Yi meant is that something called the China-Saudi Arabia High-Level Joint Committee should be working overtime. Yet there have been no leaks on the absolutely crucial issue: the role of oil in the Beijing-Riyadh relationship, and the fateful day when China will decide to buy Saudi oil priced exclusively in yuan.

On the (Silk) road again

It’s absolutely essential to place the importance of the Iran-China deal in a historical context.

The deal goes a long way to renew the spirit of Eurasia as a geo-historic entity, or as crack French geopolitician Christian Grataloup frames it, “a system of inter-relations from one Eurasian end to another” taking place across the hard node of world history.

Via the BRI concept, China is reconnecting with the vast intermediary region between Asia and Europe through which relations between continents were woven by more or less durable empires with diverse Eurasian dimensions: the Persians, the Greco-Romans, and the Arabs.

Persians, crucially, were the first to develop a creative role in Eurasia.

Northern Iranians, during the first millennium B.C., experts on horseback nomadism, were the prime power in the steppe core of Central Eurasia.


Historically, it’s well established that the Scythians constituted the first pastoral nomadic nation. They took over the Western steppe – as a major power – while other steppe Iranians moved East as far away as China. Scythians were not only fabulous warriors – as the myth goes, but most of all very savvy traders connecting Greece, Persia and the east of Asia: something described, among others, by Herodotus.

So an ultra-dynamic, overland international trade network across Central Eurasia developed as a direct consequence of the drive, among others, by Scythians, Sogdians and the Hsiung-Nu (who were always harassing the Chinese in their northern frontier). Different powers across Central Eurasia, in different epochs, always traded with everyone on their borders – wherever they were, from Europe to East Asia.

Essentially Iranian domination of Central Eurasia may have started as early as 1,600 B.C. – when Indo-Europeans showed up in upper Mesopotamia and the Aegean Sea in Greece while others journeyed as far as India and China.

It’s fully established, among others by an unimpeachable scholarly source, Nicola di Cosmo, in his Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History (Cambridge University Press): pastoral nomadic lifestyle on horseback was developed by Iranians of the steppe early in the first millennium B.C.

Jump cut to the end of the first century B.C., when Rome was starting to collect its precious silk from East Asia via multiple intermediaries, in what is described by historians as the first Silk Road.

A fascinating story features a Macedonian, Maes Titianos, who lived in Antioch in Roman Syria, and organized a caravan for his agents to reach beyond Central Asia, all the way to Seres (China) and its imperial capital Chang’an. The trip lasted over a year and was the precursor to Marco Polo’s travels in the 13th century. Marco Polo actually followed roads and tracks that were very well known for centuries, plied by numerous caravans of Eurasian merchants.

Up to the caravan organized by Titianos, Bactria – in today’s Afghanistan– was the limes of the known world for imperial Rome, and the revolving door, in connectivity terms, between China, India and Persia under the Parthians.

And to illustrate the “people to people contacts” very dear to the concept of 21st century BRI, after the 3rd century Manicheism – persecuted by the Roman empire – fully developed in Persia along the Silk Road thanks to Sogdian merchants. From the 8th to the 9th century it even became the official religion among the Uighurs and even reached China. Marco Polo met Manicheans in the Yuan court in the 13th century.

Ruling the Heartland

The Silk Roads were a fabulous vortex of peoples, religions and cultures – something attested by the exceptional collection of Manichean, Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Christian manuscripts, written in Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, Syriac, Sogdian, Persian and Uighur, discovered in the beginning of the 20th century in the Buddhist grottoes of Dunhuang by European orientalists Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot, following the steps of Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang. In the Chinese unconscious, this is still very much alive.

By now it’s firmly established that the Silk Roads may have started to slowly disappear from history with the Western maritime push to the East since the late 15th century. But the death blow came in the late 17th century, when the Russians and the Manchu in China divided Central Asia. The Qing dynasty destroyed the last nomadic pastoral empire, the Junghars, while the Russians colonized most of Central Eurasia. The Silk Road economy – actually the trade-based economy of the Eurasian heartland – collapsed.

Now, the vastly ambitious Chinese BRI project is inverting the expansion and construction of a Eurasian space to East to West. Since the 15th century – with the end of the Mongol Empire of the Steppes – the process was always from West to East, and maritime, driven by Western colonialism.

The China-Iran partnership may have the capacity to become the emblem of a global phenomenon as far-reaching as the Western colonial enterprises from the 15th to the 20th centuries. Geoeconomically, China is consolidating a first step to solidify its role as builder and renovator of infrastructure. The next step is to build its role in management.

Mackinder, Mahan, Spykman – the whole conceptual “rule the waves” apparatus is being surpassed. China may have been an – exhausted – Rimland power up to the mid-20th century. Now it’s clearly positioned as a Heartland power. Side by side with “strategic partner” Russia. And side by side with another “strategic partner” that happened to be the first historical Eurasian power: Iran.

(Republished from Asia Times by permission of author or representative)
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  1. Pepe, You do such amazing research, based on a lot of time over many years, hat you have spent in the field in the countries you talk about. I do not know anyone else who has the depth you have all through much of Asia. I use your articles as some of my main sources of reference. Thank you.

  2. To deter Western military pressure, Iran needs a defense alliance with Russia and China. The same goes for Venezuela, and any other state wishing to breathe free in the 21st century.

    When gunboat diplomacy is removed from the table, the US dollar empire will have lost its last ace.

    It can rattle its aircraft-carrier swords, but no one will be listening.

    • Replies: @GeeBee
  3. GeeBee says:

    My thoughts exactly. About two thirds of the way through the article I began to suspect that Pepe wasn’t going to touch the third rail, and sadly he didn’t. I wonder why? In light of consistent military threats emanating from the dead duck that Washington increasingly appears to be, I have long wondered when China and/or Russia would come out and say (in the real world, this sort of thing is of course seldom explicitly stated, but there are forms of words that are used to make the intent perfectly clear) that ‘Iran is now under our protection.’ Rather like the old NATO idea that ‘an attack on one is an attack on all’.

    World War Three would surely then be batted safely into the long grass (I am English, as you can tell, using a cricket analogy) and the world’s innocents could sleep more soundly in their beds if this were to happen. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

    • Replies: @Alfa158
    , @Anonymous
    , @anon
  4. Alfa158 says:

    If China can succeed in getting its energy suppliers to take payment in yuan, that will be the signaling event. A drop in value of the dollar and it’s going to be Private Hudson time.

    • Replies: @showmethereal
  5. Phibbs says:

    It is nice to see that the Israeli-Occupied Government in Washington D.C. has failed — yet again — to cow the Iranians.

  6. anon[353] • Disclaimer says:

    An Alliance of Autocracies? China Wants to Lead a New World Order.
    As President Biden predicts a struggle between democracies and their opponents, Beijing is eager to champion the other side–

    Echo chamber constituted by walls of NYTimes CNN Fox BBC ( where Bellingcat’s expertise is sought about freedom of speech and disinformation ) is being challenged by their own readers and audiences in the comment section .
    American elite is getting dumber and dumber living now in same bubble Saddam used to live .

    • Replies: @Mulga Mumblebrain
  7. Svevlad says:

    What now needs to be done is a proper connection between Iran and China.

    The easiest way, politically speaking, is Pakistan – already China-aligned. Therefore, expect sudden agitation by the Baloch, especially from US-occupied Afghanistan.

    • Replies: @showmethereal
  8. @Svevlad

    There were indeed terror attacks in Baloch only a few days ago…. Astute observation on your part.

  9. @Alfa158

    Indeed the “petrol yuan” oil futures as continued to grow in the past few years – including during the pandemic. Hence the anti China push has gone into overdrive

  10. That’s how you do diplomacy… In addition to meeting with arch rivals Saudi Arabia and making deals – on this same trip China also agreed to deals and currency swaps with Turkey and the UAE (who also is a rival to Iran) would be a production base for Chinese vaccines. Being able to deal with enemies and rivals without picking sides is real diplomacy.

    • Agree: GomezAdddams
  11. BRI is not just a lifeless set of infrastructure connections between countries.
    It implies commercial transactions between the participating countries who have each a different national currency and those transactions have to be settled one way or another in a main currency (which one?).

    I can say with 95% confidence that we’re living the beginning of the end of another empire.

    We’ll soon see a significant shift from petro-dollar to “BRI-Yuan” in international transactions at least in Eurasia and the Middle East.

    If Iran can sell 4million barrels of oil per day in “BRI-Yuan”, the gulf monarchs will have to accept the yuan if they want to sell their black gold to China. Russia is already selling gas and oil to China in “BRI-Yuan” & Rubbles.

    What’s the future of the petro-dollar?

    • Agree: RoatanBill
  12. Anonymous[721] • Disclaimer says:

    I have long wondered when China and/or Russia would come out and say (in the real world, this sort of thing is of course seldom explicitly stated, but there are forms of words that are used to make the intent perfectly clear) that ‘Iran is now under our protection.’

    They may not feel ready for it or they could be some lingering interests or disagreements that give them pause from going all-in.

  13. Iran is selling out to the chinks. That’s not praiseworthy, that’s just proof of their own incompetence. It’s only a moment of strength for China; it’s a humiliation for Iran. And they didn’t even get to destroy Israel! Honestly I think these zeroed-in chinks, whose only focus is money (sound familiar?), will start working on Israel’s behalf in regards to Iran, if only because the real Final Solution for the Middle East’s problems would be bad for business.

    • Disagree: GomezAdddams
    • Replies: @GeeBee
    , @Showmethereal
    , @anon
  14. Recently I noted with interest that China was feeling sufficiently confident to suggest a proposal for fixing the mess in the middle east.

    When announcing the proposal (basically a talkfest hosted by China), it emphasised that nation states are sovereign and should be left alone to choose the form of government that suits their individual circumstances without fear of being undermined by other countries. That was obviously directed at the democracy jihadist’s in the beltway, but what was missing from the Chinese proposal was any mention of the trans-national role of religion – which has no respect for borders.

  15. @anon

    American ‘liberal democracy’ is oligarchy covered by a thin veneer of ‘representation’. But, as Gilens and Page showed, and commonsense tells us, the political stooges very nearly completely follow the diktat of the ruling elite only, NOT the proles. The fakestream media, completely controlled by the oligarchy only, has long been a propaganda system for its owners, but now is more or less totalitarian, with renegade opinions totally banished, and the Internet being euthanised. The contest is, in fact, between benign ‘authoritarians’ and psychopathic totalitarian ‘liberals’, who hate the plebs with genocidal fervour.

    • Agree: RoatanBill, Realist
    • Replies: @GeeBee
  16. Tom Gregg says:

    “…the fateful day when China will decide to buy Saudi oil priced exclusively in yuan.”

    Any educated guesses on when this might be?

  17. GeeBee says:
    @Mulga Mumblebrain

    Bravo! A very astute and well-expressed comment, and especially your last sentence, which pithily sums up today’s geopolitical world.

  18. GeeBee says:

    Your worldview is as childish as it is unsurprising, bearing in mind today’s wall-to-wall media propaganda, whose aim is to gaslight ‘the people’ and demonise any source of hope and comfort to their dire condition. Thus ‘the chinks’ are ‘solely focussed on money’ (familiar indeed, bearing in mind that this accusation is nothing more than projection by those who really are money obsessed in our dystopian West), and the Iranians have ‘sold out’ to China (i.e. availed themselves of a place at the new round table that is the SCO, at which any aspiring knight is welcome to enjoy the manifold blessings of pivoting east and benefitting from the New Silk Road-BRI).

    If only European nations had the balls to stick the well-deserved two fingers up to uncle Schmuel and do likewise, rather than cower in supine submission to the unending and destructive strictures emanating from the Great Swamp on the Potomac.

  19. So, what happens with the sanctions? Are the Chinese now openly buying Iranian oil?

  20. Comparing China now to the US is like comparing Mozart or a Bach to say Guns & Roses. That’s not to say that G & R aren’t fun, merely to suggest that there are whole orders of magnitude difference between the parties.
    What economic initiatives does the US offer? Even to itself, the US seems “out of ideas”… (Hold your breath for a US domestic infrastructure plan — & plan to turn blue….)
    In all respects the US appears as the essence of the NEGATIVE.

    • Replies: @GomezAdddams
  21. @Fallingwater

    You have too much Breitbart in your diet. The framework of the deal was announced in 2016 before Trump pulled out of the JCPOA and put back on sanctions. Both sides simply showed they are not like the EU (and India) and afraid of US sanctions. What you call selling out – the normal thinking world calls “doing business”. Iran gets the things China is expert in such as infrastructure building – and China gets a stable supply of oil below price. Of course there are forces that will try to sabotage – of course mainly the US. The biggest question – as noted are the Saudis. Will they accept the Yuan and accept US attempts at regime change? Russia is also important. After Libya – Russia decided to step in against future regime changes in the region. These are serious times.

  22. @Tom Gregg

    Great question. My guess is it depends on whether the Saudis are able to get guarantees of security from China and Russia. The Saudis have had a sweet run. They got the US military to “Desert Shield” them against Saddam (who wanted to buck the US system) and then faced no repercussions even know 3/4 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis and much of the money for jihad ops were from Saudis. Even ultra liberal promoting transgender Pres Joe is afraid to condemn a Saudi prince for order the murder of a journalist who was a US citizen (fun fact – go check the old episodes of a show called “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” on YouTube. His uncle had an entire hour featured just for himself in the 1980’s!!! That family was involved with the entire elites of the US and the younger generation were being raised in the US lifestyle). So the question is what calculation will the Saudis make? Do they judge a Russia/China security tandem (think SCO – which as others noted Iran is likely to join) – or do they continue to trust that NATO will continue to protect them and not force them to liberalize… We see the UAE is starting to loosen societal restrictions against debauchery once they signed the so called Abraham Accords. Something telling might be that when the Chinese visited last week (just before going to Iran) they announced that both support nations sovereign rights to form whatever type of government they want… You can read who and what that was directed toward.

  23. @Tom Gregg

    To follow up on my last comment i realized the video would be too hard to find so i copied it here for you. This is Adnan Khashoggi – uncle of Jamal Khashoggi. Killing him was the equivalent of ordering the death on one of the famous American oligarchs children. I dont like Wikipedia but you can look up uncle Adnan to get a little clue of who he was. The fact the Saudi Prince was willing to kill his nephew says a lot of what is going on in the kingdom. So to answer your question – similar to how Israel is letting China build and operate a port against US wishes my guess is the Saudis will tell Washington “look we will give China an exclusive deal pay in Yuan but we will still force other countries to use US dollars”. Of course attempts at sabotage will happen – so we shall see.

  24. Jiminy says:

    It’s good to see the BRI going ahead and becoming real, not just a pipe dream that never eventuates. To say that Iran has caved in to China, isn’t fair. One could ask why wasn’t the US there so that Iran and America could collaborate together on worthwhile projects? There must be more to life than just more death, more killing, more domination. You could also ask why doesn’t the US and the countries of the America’s get more from the pan-American highway? Basically the homegrown version of the BRI, conceived in 1923 has really only benefited Panama, Mexico and the US. The highway hasn’t even been completed, stopping in Panama with fears of drugs and people smuggling ever present. Unfortunately for the US, while they have been chasing fallen dominos, the world has been going forward with different plans and ideas. It looks like they have missed the boat. The question is do they sabotage the BRI, or allow it to go ahead?

  25. anon[123] • Disclaimer says:

    I agree with that in theory, though in practice I would fear something happening like Poland before WW2. Continuing to push Germany while expecting the British to come to their aid.

    Perhaps something similar is going through the minds of the Russians, and Chinese? I’m not suggesting that the Iranian establishment would be the ones to rile the Americans, it could in fact be those opposed to the establishment, or some crazies on the American side.

  26. CM says:

    This deal doesn’t seem popular on the ground in Iran, if social media is anything to go by. I wonder how things will go in the future.

    After China and India, Iran produces the third highest number of top tier AI researchers in Asia, so its people are very different from other Muslims. If this Iran-China partnership gives Iranians an opportunity to get jobs in their own country then that’s great.

    The problem is Iran’s government is not pr0-business.

  27. anon[184] • Disclaimer says:

    I don’t take any side in the war between the Burmese citizen and the Myanmar military .Both deserve each other and I hope the country is self-taught all the lessons of how to live with other ethnic groups or disintegrate .

    But that is irrelevant . Information is .

    US and west have just been reduced to irrelevance by the junta and its backers. Junta knows what MsB ,Sisi,and MbZ have been doing to its citizen and to the citizen of Yemen . Some of them might also know that there is a country by name Israel.

    There is going to be fundamental shift from crony rentier financialized capitalism to normal industrial capitalism .US is not ready for it .It is not prepared to survive the apocalypse .

  28. anon[308] • Disclaimer says:

    “The United States expressed interest on Wednesday in working with China to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, striking a cooperative tone just days after Beijing and Tehran entered into a 25-year “strategic partnership”.
    “Competition, as you know, does define our relationship with China, but we do have, in some cases, rather narrow areas of tactical alignment,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters. “It so happens that Iran is one of them.”
    “China has been cooperative in efforts to constrain Iran’s nuclear programme,” he said. “Beijing … has no interest in seeing Iran develop a nuclear weapon and the profoundly destabilising impact that would have in a region upon which China does depend.”
    “We have been engaged with all parties, to include China, ”

    Chutzpah or late demnetia !!

    If China wants to denuclearize Iran, it would do it on its own by itself.

    Neither China nor Iran nor the commercially bred puppies like Saudi Arab or UAE or Pakistan nor Ghani gov nor the real boss Israel believes the shit that USA tries to palm off as cooperative diplomacy.

    May be it should seek help in getting Israel off Syria and Gaza and Golan Heights . May be USA should seek help from China in resolving Venezualan and Colmobian crises . May be it should try to get Chinas help in clearing the north eastern Syrian conflicts .

    • Replies: @Mulga Mumblebrain
  29. Malla says:

    China, Russia, the nations of Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan, Belarus, Laos, Cambodia, Mongolia and North Korea can make an economic and military un-penetrable Eurasian block. If possible maybe even Turkey could join in. An Eurasian NATO so to speak. Such a huge bloc would have lot of human and mineral resource.

    The biggest issues now would be Biden establishment’s increase in American force projection in Afghanistan and Syria and thus reversal of the deescalation policy in these regions of the earlier Trump Administration. The Taliban would not trust the USA again since they had a good deal with the Trump era US Govt for the US to eventually leave Afghanistan but now under Biden it seems, the USA will increase its presence in Afghanistan and escalate the war. The new administration may also send more troops to Syria.

  30. The Taliban hasnt trusted the US since Bush 2. The US had no patience to negotiate over Bin Laden. Many in the intel comm stated the Taliban were not happy with what they did but couldnt just give him up so easily. They thought having helped Americans in the past it could have bought time but it didnt. Shock and Awe followed. Make no mistake the Taliban was glad for the draw down… But they didnt trust Trump.

  31. Meena says:

    offers another perspective to the unfolding of the new beginning in the ME .
    Loser might be Iran and USA and winner is China .
    For China to move forward with the agreement means undercutting and eroding American global grip through more permanent changes . These changes oneday might benefit each and every sanctioned country . Iran will also prove to be a beneficiary .Until then, changes established in the negotiations will have marginal benefit for Iran . But for USA that marginal benefits negate the purpose of the sanction and general anti – Iran behavior .

  32. @animalogic

    Imagine —Amtrak running from Chicago to New Orleans –smack dead center down the Mississippi River –800 miles per hour.

    • Replies: @animalogic
  33. @anon

    The Chinese should say, ‘We will persuade Iran to have no nukes, if you persuade Israel likewise’. Easy because Iran has NO interest in ‘unislamic’ weapons, hard for Uncle Satan because Israel loves hers and intends using them. I’d love to see Beijing call the bluff.

  34. @GomezAdddams

    Maglev etc, electric?
    Nice.(not literally down the middle of the Mississippi, of course 😀)

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