WASHINGTON - Chinese President Xi Jinping has arrived in Iran for an official state visit expected to see the two countries expand diplomatic relations and economic ties.
After arriving late Friday in Tehran, President Xi said Beijing was looking forward to a “new season” in China-Iran relations, according to Iran’s IRNA news agency.
“China is seeking to improve bilateral ties with Iran to start a new season of comprehensive, long-term and sustainable relations with the Islamic Republic,” Xi was quoted as saying.
China was a top consumer of Iranian oil even during the three years of international sanctions that targeted Iran’s nuclear program. Now that the sanctions are lifted and Iran is ramping up oil production, that relationship could grow further.
During the visit, Iran and China will sign 17 agreements to further cooperation in economic, industrial, cultural and judicial fields, according to IRNA.
President Xi, who is making the first trip to Iran by a Chinese president in 14 years, met Saturday with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. Later, he will meet with Iran’s top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
China played a key role in international efforts to roll back sanctions against Iran in exchange for Tehran scaling back its nuclear program.
In Washington, the Obama administration says it hopes Beijing continues to work with Washington to ensure Iran does not reconstitute its nuclear capabilities.
"We’re certainly not trying to stop [China’s] economic or diplomatic engagement with Iran. We would just hope that, just as China has played a very constructive role throughout this process, that China will continue to play that role in all of its engagement with the Iranian Government,” says Ambassador Stephan Mull, Lead Coordinator for Iran Nuclear Implementation at the State Department.
The U.S. and China are co-chairing a working group to oversee the new design of Iran’s heavy-water reactor at Arak so that it will not produce weapons-grade plutonium.
“We expect strong cooperation to continue as we all work together to ensure Iran’s continued compliance with the [nuclear agreement],” said Anna Richey-Allen, a spokesperson from State Department’s East Asia and Pacific Bureau, on Friday.
China is among the world powers that reached the agreement, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), with Iran last July. In that nuclear pact, Tehran pledged to scale back its uranium-enriching activities and submit to inspection, in exchange for lifting sanctions.
In a op-ed article appearing in an Iranian newspaper Iran, and quoted by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Xi said: “China appreciates Iran's assurance of not intending to develop nuclear weapons, supports Iran in upholding its legitimate rights and interests, and fully recognizes Iran's contribution to the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.”
A key analyst says ties between the two counties go beyond economic benefits. Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said both countries share the same goal of “reshaping the international order in a way that excludes us more.”
Singh, who served as the National Security Council for Middle Eastern affairs from 2005 to 2008, testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. He said that China, “really sees Iran as its main strategic partner by virtue of its geographic location, by virtue of the fact that it's really the only major power in the region which isn't allied with the United States.”
Chinese President Xi’s visit to Iran came after a stop in Saudi Arabia earlier in the week, during that country's heightened tensions with Iran.
A State Department official told VOA the U.S. anticipates that “China will join us and others in encouraging all parties to avoid actions that escalate sectarian tensions in the region.”
A Chinese regional expert said Beijing’s aim is to defuse conflicts in the region.
Pan Guang, Vice Chairman of the Chinese Society of Middle East Studies, told VOA Mandarin on Friday that China is seeking to play a more influential role in the Middle East. He said China designated a special envoy on Middle East Affairs in 2002, and one of the top goals since then is to promote peace talks and avoid regional conflicts.