On 15 July 2015 — the day after the United States agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA; also called the Iran nuclear deal) along with China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, plus Germany — then US president Barack Obama said in an interview that Iran was “a great civilization.” Without listing any of the great attributes of Iran, Obama then proceeded to criticize Iran, saying, “but, it also has an authoritarian theocracy in charge that is anti-American, anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, sponsors terrorism, and there are a whole host of real profound differences…”
That is American exceptionalism. The US is a country whose sense of diplomacy deems it appropriate to openly criticize other nations. And because of this self-bestowed exceptionalism, it need not substantiate any criticisms it makes, and, of course, no such accusations could be leveled against the US.
However, soon after Donald Trump won the electoral college vote to become the US president, the days of the US abiding by the JCPOA were numbered. The US State Department said that the JCPOA “is not a treaty or an executive agreement, and is not a signed document.”
Apparently, US and international definitions on what constitutes a treaty differ. Since the JCPOA had not received the consent of the US Senate, as per domestic US law, it was not considered a treaty. Another instance of US exceptionalism — how the US legally separates itself from the international sphere.
On 8 May 2018, the US pulled out from the Iran nuclear deal.
Even though the US had withdrawn, Iran made it known that it would continue to comply with its commitments to the JCPOA if Europe also complied with its commitments. One important condition was that Europe must maintain business relations with Iranian banks and purchase Iranian oil despite US sanctions. Europe, however, failed to uphold its commitments.
China stood steadfast with the JCPOA. Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, called upon the US to quickly and unconditionally return to the Iran nuclear deal. Wang also called on the US to remove sanctions on Iran and third-parties.
Wang also urged Iran to restore full compliance with the JCPOA. China, though, has made it clear that the US “holds the key to breaking the deadlock” by returning to the JCPOA and lifting sanctions on Iran.
When the Trump administration slapped sanctions on Iran, a devastating result was expected.
The effects of sanctions are lethal. Americans professors John Mueller and Karl Mueller wrote in their Foreign Affairs article:
economic sanctions … may have contributed to more deaths during the post-Cold War era than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history.
The lethality has been borne out. A large-scale human suffering was part of the plan to topple the government in Iran, which secretary of state Mike Pompeo admitted to. Not even the serious outbreak of COVID-19 would stir mercy in the hearts of American politicians. Included in the sanctions were medicines and food.
When targeted by a hegemonic military superpower, the importance of powerful friends cannot be underestimated. China seems like a natural ally for Iran.
Like Iran, China has historically been targeted by brutish American imperialism. China, like Iran finds itself ringed by American militarism. China also has US sanctions levied against it. Western governments and their mass media bombard readers and viewers with disinformation to demonize China. US warships ply the South China Sea as they ply the waters of the Persian Gulf. Both China and Iran deal with domestic terrorism (undoubtedly abetted by western foes).
Thus, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), designated as a terrorist group by the US in 1997, would be dropped from the US terrorist list in 2012. Later, the “cult-like” MEK would be embraced by right-wing Americans such as Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton, and Mike Pompeo, in hopes of furthering US aims of “regime change.” In a similar move, the separatist East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Xinjiang, China was removed from the US terrorist list.
US machinations have only served to hasten closer relations between China and Iran.
On March 27, Iran and China signed the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, a $400 billion 25-year agreement that includes oil and mining, promoting industrial activity in Iran, and collaborating in transportation and agriculture.
It’s a win-win. Iran gets a market for its commodities and investment. China gets access to needed resources and a partner for its Belt and Road Initiative, a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure scheme to encompass Eurasia and abroad.
Iran also has economic and technology agreements with another US-sanctioned country that is a close ally of China, Russia. In February 2021, there was the important symbolism of the Iran-China-Russia collaboration on naval maneuvers in the Indian Ocean.
Iran does not have nukes, but it has powerful friends.