If Secretary of State John Kerry’s goal was to end Iran’s isolation, he certainly has succeeded. In November 2015, there was the visit of Iran’s Air Force Chief Hassan Shah Safi to China in order to shop for the latest generation of Chinese warplanes. But that now seems more the rule than the exception.
I’m at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi at present, India’s answer to the annual Shangri–La Dialogue in Singapore. It’s very well done and marks both India’s aspirations to play a larger global role as well as to illuminate the world from a South Asian perspective. The opening panel featured a variety of current and former South Asian and Indian Ocean leaders, including Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s former president. South Asia may be the poorest integrated region in the world, but Karzai pointed approvingly to new trade routes which are developing. He noted that just two weeks ago, a 32-car freight train arrived in Tehran from China, having traversed Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The entire rail trip took two weeks, about 30 days less than the same trip would take by sea. Mohsen Pourseyed Aqayi, the head of Iran’s nation railway company, declared Iran’s ambition to repeat the train dispatch every month, if not more frequently.
Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Tehran in late January — the first visit by a Chinese leader to Iran in 14 years — and spoke of increasing Sino-Iranian trade to $600 billion over the course of the next decade. In a meeting with Xi, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei blessed the development of ties to China because “Iranians never trusted the West.”
There’s nothing wrong with trade except when that trade involves dual-use goods that could help Iran increase its nuclear breakout capability or develop ballistic missiles. That Beijing would allow this might sound farfetched — after all, China should have zero interest in having a resurgent Iranian military with its own ballistic missile or nuclear deterrence. Then again, North Korea would not have become such a military threat had it not been for China’s aid and support.
The world is a chessboard, but there appears little recognition in the White House or among Secretary of State John Kerry’s closed circle of advisors that there’s a struggle going on for broader geostrategic advantage. Blossoming Sino-Iranian ties are just the latest example of that.