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Sieren's China: Back door rapprochement

The nuclear accord hasn't even been signed yet, but that hasn't stopped Iran from demanding an end to economic sanctions and being welcomed with open arms by China, writes DW columnist Frank Sieren.

Iran is pursuing one main goal at the moment: returning to normal economic and political status as quickly as possible. Tehran wants to finally loosen itself from the clutches of the countries that have been imposing sanctions. Within the 5+1 group that negotiated the nuclear accord with Iran, China - next to Russia - has been the most sympathetic to Iran's attempts to rid itself of restrictions. Beijing is interested in access to Iran's natural resources and having close political ties with an influential nation in the Middle East.

The Americans are currently making it easy for Beijing to present itself as a reliable partner. Washington is on the brink of becoming entangled in a new proxy war in Yemen. The Americans are giving military support to the Sunni Saudis in their fight against the Shiite rebels in Yemen, who are backed by Iran. England and France remain loyal to the US and Saudi Arabia. Germany is going back and forth. Berlin doesn't want to openly criticize the American engagement, but is skeptical that outsider-sponsored violence is the answer.

Beijing pursuing closer ties with Iran

In this constellation, China has very good chances of building a closer relationship with Iran. In 2010, Beijing began restricting its billions in investments in Iran without joining the sanctions program imposed by the West. The Chinese government at the time thought it was smarter not to directly oppose the Western alliance. Beijing has always taken the position that it is better to negotiate with Iran than to impose sanctions.

Now, US President Barack Obama has taken a similar view, but the powerful Republican opposition disagrees. The hawks would prefer to provoke Iran with their military support for the Saudis, thus discrediting Obama's course of rapprochement.

This week, an Iranian delegation headed by Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh went to Beijing. While the West has been keeping a close eye on events in Yemen, Iran has been working on reviving its economic cooperation with China as quickly as possible. Also this week, Beijing greenlighted Tehran as a member of China's AIIB investment bank - something the Americans fought bitterly to prevent. During the nuclear negotiations last year, Beijing had already sent clear signs of its intent to Iran.

Oil and gas projects to be expanded

China, which is Iran's biggest oil customer, bought 30 percent more oil in 2014 than in the year before. That amounts to 12 percent of China's annual oil consumption. By contrast, oil imports from Saudi Arabia decreased by roughly 8 percent. Despite this, Beijing was able to maintain good relations with the Saudis.

Beijing now wants to restart oil and gas projects co-financed by Chinese companies and expand these further. This new energy alliance is meant to help Iran quickly update to state-of-the-art technology in the oil business. China is already the biggest investor in Iran's oil sector. German industry is concerned. While exports of German machinery have decreased by 75 percent since 2006, China has quadrupled its exports, even while restricting them since 2011.

Now there'll be no more holding back. Beijing is taking a risk. Yemen and the nuclear accord still remain the two biggest unknowns in the game. Beijing is betting that the Western front against Iran will begin to open up - even if the situation in Yemen worsens and the nuclear agreement falters on implementation. China would then have the room that it wants to maneuver in the Middle East. The question of how Germany will respond to this situation is growing ever more significant.

DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

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