Are Chinese Arms About to Flood Into Iran?

Ahead of Xi’s visit to Tehran, Sino-Iranian military cooperation looks to expand.

China is often regarded as one of the prime beneficiaries of the Iran nuclear deal, signed in July 2015 with the P5+1 countries. Under the deal, Iran will limit its uranium enrichment and make other changes to its nuclear program in exchange for the termination of sanctions. This potential opening could provide Chinese state-owned energy companies a chance to increase their involvement with Iran’s oil and natural gas industries, and Iran could become a more important export market for a range of Chinese products. Beijing may also assist Tehran in building infrastructure as part of the massive Eurasian development project known as “One Belt, One Road,” as well as offer financing through the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Many agreements are likely to be announced during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s inaugural visit to Iran, planned for late January.

A more worrisome, but overlooked, aspect of China’s growing ties with Iran could occur in the arms sector. A bit of historical context is needed here. In the 1980s and early 1990s, China was a major supplier of advanced weapons to Iran in areas ranging from tanks and fighter jets to fast-attack patrol craft and anti-ship missiles. Beijing was driven not only by profit motivations, but also, it seems, by a strategic desire to strengthen Iran as a bulwark against excessive U.S. influence in the Middle East.

Chinese arms sales to Iran gradually declined in the late 1990s and 2000s, due to pressure from the United States and the imposition of UN sanctions against Iran. Those sanctions initially prohibited involvement with Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile industries, and were later expanded to cover major conventional weapons, such as combat aircraft and warships. Iran was also increasingly seen as a ‘pariah state,’ a status symbolized by the UN embargo, which discouraged China from maintaining overly close security ties with Tehran. Consequently, China’s arms relationship with Iran has been left largely moribund in the past decade.

The Iran nuclear deal could spawn a resurgence of Chinese arms exports to Iran by lifting UN sanctions and helping diminish Iran’s ‘pariah state’ status. China, and other states, would be allowed to export major conventional weapons to Iran in the next eight years with UN Security Council approval. After eight years, even those restrictions would be lifted, assuming Iran complies with the agreement. In addition, certain types of weapons could be sold to Iran without a waiver. For instance, Russia has argued that its sale of S-300 missile defenses to Iran are permissible because this system is not specifically prohibited under the nuclear deal. China could make a similar argument regarding small arms, short-range missiles and other systems.

In the coming years, China might attempt to sell a wide variety of advanced arms to Iran. These could include J-10 fighters, the possible sale of which has been reported in Chinese media. Another system would be the Houbei-class high-speed missile boat, which China is also poised to sell to Pakistan. This would be a logical choice given the expanding navy-to-navy relationship between China and Iran. China might also transfer advanced cruise missiles and technical know-how, allowing Iran to improve its domestic cruise missile program. Other systems could include UAVs, space and counter-space weapons, missile defense components and electronic warfare systems. Sales of most of these items would likely require UN approval, which China might attempt to secure as a permanent member of the Security Council.

The implications of enhanced Sino-Iranian arms cooperation for the United States and regional security could be significant. Provision of high-speed missile boats, anti-ship missiles, and other systems would allow Iran to strengthen its “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) capabilities—referring to the ability to hold U.S. forces at bay in the event of a crisis. Indeed, China would be in an excellent position to assist Iran in enhancing its A2/AD capabilities since Beijing has been developing weapons of just this sort to counter U.S. intervention—notably in the context of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.