Are Chinese Arms About to Flood Into Iran?

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

For instance, Iran could use Chinese-supplied arms to increase the threat to U.S. naval ships in the Strait of Hormuz, a strategically vital channel for Gulf state oil exports to world markets. Iran might also use these weapons to conduct additional provocative exercises explicitly targeting U.S. forces in the region. In February 2015, Iranian forces destroyed a mock U.S. aircraft carrier using high-speed boats, shoulder-launched rockets, and cruise missiles. In December, Iran test-fired a missile within 1500 yards of the U.S. carrier Harry S. Truman, which was transiting the Strait of Hormuz. Chinese support could lead to a continuation or expansion of such destabilizing activities.

Chinese military assistance could also enable Iran to improve its long-range missile capabilities, which could endanger more distant U.S. military targets, such as U.S. facilities on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. China has pledged to adhere to Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) guidelines limiting transfer of components and technologies that can be used in long-range ballistic and cruise missiles, but its compliance with its commitments has sometimes been problematic.

Chinese arms exports to Iran could also pose proliferation concerns. For instance, as part of its effort to expand influence in the region, Iran could elect to re-export weapons to states such as Syria, where Tehran is militarily supporting the Assad regime. Iran may also transfer Chinese-made arms to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as to Shi’a militias in Iraq. These groups could in turn use Iran-supplied arms to strike military and civilian targets.

Of course, Chinese foreign ministry officials would likely push against a significant resumption of arms sales to Iran. Doing so would pose a challenge to China’s desire for positive relations with the United States. Major arms sales would also needlessly disrupt China’s relations with a variety of other states in the region that are on poor terms with Tehran, such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey. Some Chinese firms may also be cautious about running afoul of U.S. sanctions, which will continue to target Iran on human rights and counter-terrorism grounds. 

However, the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese arms manufacturers may lobby in favor of renewed arms exports to Iran. As in the past, some Chinese military strategists could portray arms sales as a way to counter U.S. ‘hegemony’ in the Middle East and build a more multi-polar world order. For their part, Chinese arms traders could seek to retain their competitive advantage by exploiting an important new market. Ultimately, it would be up to China’s top leaders, including President Xi Jinping, to arbitrate between these different perspectives and decide whether and how to re-engage Iran in the arms sector.

The United States can take steps to mitigate the risks of a resurgence of Sino-Iranian arms cooperation. Washington should work with Britain, France, and other partners in the UN Security Council to deny waivers for sales of major conventional weapons to Iran. Continuing U.S. sanctions on Iran should also be vigorously enforced, as should potential new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program. U.S. officials should also press their Chinese counterparts to avoid selling the most advanced systems to Iran and to adhere strictly to MTCR limits on missile technology exports. The argument should be that greatly improved military capabilities could allow Tehran to conduct a more brazen and bellicose foreign policy. This would undermine China’s enduring need for stability in a region from which it continues to receive over half of its oil supply. Thus, Beijing’s restraint on arms sales would not only avoid tensions with Washington and many others, including Riyadh and Tel Aviv, but would also fundamentally support China’s own strategic interests.

Joel Wuthnow is a Research Fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University. He is on Twitter @jwuthnow. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen.