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Despite huge Iran-China deal, US insists Beijing shares aim to curb nuke program

State Department downplays 25-year deal for $400b Beijing investment in Tehran, oil sales, military cooperation; says has ‘narrow tactical alignment’ with China on nuclear issue

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, pose for a picture after signing an agreement in the capital Tehran, on March 27, 2021. Iran and China signed what state television called a "25-year strategic cooperation pact" on today as the US rivals move closer together. (AFP)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, pose for a picture after signing an agreement in the capital Tehran, on March 27, 2021. Iran and China signed what state television called a "25-year strategic cooperation pact" on today as the US rivals move closer together. (AFP)

WASHINGTON — The United States said Wednesday that it has a shared interest with Beijing in curbing Iran’s nuclear program, declining to fan the flames over a 25-year cooperation pact signed by the frequent US nemeses.

The agreement sealed Saturday has triggered commentary among US conservatives of a new anti-US “axis” and would have likely been sharply criticized by former president Donald Trump’s administration.

But President Joe Biden’s government declined to wade in on the pact, which has also provoked opposition inside Iran.

“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.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price speaks during a press briefing at the State Department in Washington, Feb. 2, 2021. (Nicholas Kamm/Pool via AP)

“It so happens that Iran is one of them. China has been cooperative in efforts to constrain Iran’s nuclear program,” he said.

“Beijing, of course, has no interest in seeing Iran develop a nuclear weapon, and the profoundly destabilizing impact that would have in a region upon which China does depend.”

China was one of six powers that was part of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, under which Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

Trump trashed the deal but Biden has hoped to revive it, although he insists Iran must return to full compliance before he ends Trump’s sanctions.

Price said China and the United States had common interests “as we look to ways to find that mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.”

China has remained the top, if diminished, buyer of Iranian oil since Trump imposed unilateral US sanctions in 2018 to warn all countries against buying from the clerical state.

Even if Biden lifts sanctions, China would remain the privileged buyer of Iranian oil under the new pact. Japan, South Korea and India, all aligned with the United States, mostly complied with Trump’s sanctions.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, meets with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, right, in the capital Tehran, on March 27, 2021. Iran and China signed what state television called a ’25-year strategic cooperation pact,’ as the US rivals move closer together. (AFP)

China signed the deal with Iran on a regional trip by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who also visited Turkey and Saudi Arabia, allies of the United States.

The agreement, dubbed the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, covers a variety of economic activity from oil and mining to promoting industrial activity in Iran, as well as transportation and agricultural collaborations, according to Iranian state media.

The New York Times reported that China will invest some $400 billion in Iran in exchange for oil as part of the deal. The two countries will also step up military cooperation with joint training, research and intelligence sharing, the report said.

The deal signed Saturday could undermine US leverage over Iran ahead of expected negotiations and lessen American influence in the Middle East.

The deal with China marked the first time Iran has signed such a lengthy agreement with a major world power. In 2001, Iran and Russia signed a 10-year cooperation agreement, mainly in the nuclear field, that was lengthened to 20 years through two five-year extensions.

The deal also supports tourism and cultural exchanges and comes on the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Iran. The two countries have had warm relations and both took part in a joint naval exercise in 2019 with Russia in the northern Indian Ocean.

Reportedly, Iran and China have done some $20 billion in trade annually in recent years. That’s down from nearly $52 billion in 2014, however, because of a decline in oil prices and US sanctions imposed in 2018.

Iran has since pulled away from restrictions imposed under the deal under those sanctions in order to put pressure on the other signatories — Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China — to provide new economic incentives to offset US sanctions. Iran is also believed to be maneuvering for leverage ahead of expected negotiations with the Biden administration.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, pose for photos at the start of their meeting in Tehran, Iran, March 27, 2021. Iran and China on Saturday signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement addressing economic issues amid crippling US sanctions on Iran, state TV reported. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

The nuclear accord gave Iran relief from international sanctions in return for limits on its nuclear program, but after Trump took the US out of the deal Iran walked back its own commitments, including by enriching uranium past the accord’s limits and barring UN inspections of its nuclear facilities. A number of other world powers remain committed to the deal.

US President Joe Biden wants to negotiate tougher conditions for an agreement with Iran, including by limiting its missile production and destabilizing activities in the region. Iran has ruled out such talks and demands the US lift sanctions before it returns to compliance, putting the two sides at a stalemate.

A US official said Saturday that it doesn’t matter “who goes first” to return to compliance with the deal, suggesting Washington was softening its position in the standoff with Tehran.

Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have voiced opposition to the Biden administration’s desire to rejoin the deal, putting Jerusalem and Washington at odds on the issue. Some leading Israeli officials in recent months have warned of military action to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

Nonetheless, Israeli and US officials agreed to set up a joint team for sharing intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program during recent strategic talks, according to a report last week.

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