As talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal proceed in fits and starts, China is trying to position itself as a key player in the region, and for good cause: It is in Beijing's interest to push for the lifting of US sanctions on Iran, with which it has signed a historic bilateral partnership.
Talks to revive the 2005 Iranian nuclear deal are entering the tough stage of discussing substance. The Iranians set the scene before a weekend of consultations in Vienna, when Irna, the official Iranian news agency, declared that the parties had reached the "stage of details, the most difficult part of the negotiations".
After the resumption of talks on Monday, diplomats involved in the negotiations told the Wall Street Journal that one of the biggest obstacles was Tehran's demand that the US provide a guarantee that it would not quit the pact again and reimpose sanctions.
The six-month-long talks in Vienna's plush Palais Coburg hotel have been proceeding in different permutations among the P4+1 group (China, France, the UK, Russia and Germany), the EU, Iran and the US. Since Iran refuses to meet directly with US negotiators, discussions have proceeded indirectly via the European, Russian and Chinese negotiators.
Enter Wang Qun, the bespectacled, bow-tied top Chinese envoy at the talks. More discreet than his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Ulyanov, who is fond of tweets and press statements, Wang has nevertheless been playing a key role in the negotiations.
In the Chinese media, Wang has repeatedly emphasised China's "unique and constructive" role in the talks and its work with all parties to encourage the resumption of the negotiation process between the Americans and the Iranians - as soon as possible.
Putting aside tensions with Washington over trade rivalries, or disagreements over Taiwan and the China Sea, Wang has negotiated for hours with US special envoy for Iran Robert Malley in Vienna, in a bid to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal.
Oil and geopolitics
"The Chinese have every interest in the agreement being signed as soon as possible to ensure the diversification of their oil supply, but also because Iran is a geopolitical partner," explained Jean-Francois Di Meglio, a China specialist and president of the Paris-based Asia Centre, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
"The Chinese had already played an important role during the negotiations that led to the 2015 agreement," recalled Thierry Coville, a research fellow at the Paris-based French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), in an interview with FRANCE 24. This was revealed by Iran's former foreign minister and top negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a book published just before Iran's new president, Ebrahim Raisi, took office in August 2021.
In his lengthy account of two years of behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to the 2015 agreement, Zarif writes that whenever the parties reached an impasse, the Chinese team would intervene, present a new initiative and manage to revive the talks.
But in recent months, relations between Beijing and Tehran have taken a new step forward with the signing of a historic 25-year bilateral partnership covering areas as diverse as energy, security, infrastructure and communications.
In addition to the delivery of discounted oil, the strategic agreement - which went into effect on January 15 - also provides Chinese security assistance to Iran, including the delivery of military equipment. "China has signed very few partnerships of this kind. This is a serious diplomatic alliance," said Di Meglio.
For Beijing, which continues to import Iranian oil despite the risk of US Treasury fines, a lifting of US sanctions on trade with Iran would be a boon. Before the 2018 US withdrawal from the deal, China was importing nearly 10 percent of its oil from Iran and had invested in infrastructure to purchase larger volumes of oil. "The Chinese are very interested in Iranian crude because their refineries are adapted to the treatment of this heavy oil which is used as fuel to supply their power plants, their heating and to run their trucks," noted Di Meglio.
Beijing plays host to Sunni envoys
In addition to the financial aspect, the rapprochement with Iran allows China to counterbalance US actions and to assert its increasing diplomatic power in the region, say experts.
"The Middle East was not a major element of Chinese diplomacy. But this has changed in the last five years with Iraq as a turning point," said Di Meglio. "After the war, China seized the opportunity to take over the exploitation of Iraqi oil fields, which it is currently reconstructing."
At the UN, China is also adding the full weight of its Security Council vote on decisions regarding the region. This includes Iran as well as Syria, with China aligning itself almost systematically with Russian positions favourable to Bashar al-Assad.
In Beijing, too, for the past few weeks, Chinese diplomacy has been working at full speed. Between January 10 and 14, Foreign Minister Wang Yi received no less than five of his counterparts in the region. The heads of diplomacy of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Iran, as well as the Turkish foreign minister and the secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), took turns visiting the Chinese capital.
In addition to bilateral issues, these visits also had a bearing on the Iranian nuclear issue since they were an opportunity to reassure the Gulf countries in particular on the importance of an Iran nuclear deal. It's also an opportunity for China to show Washington that it now plays a key role in a region where the US is losing influence.
(This is a translation of the original in French)