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Tehran Looks at Beijing’s Position in the Israel-Hamas Conflict

Chinese President Xi Jinping with Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi during the latter's visit to Beijing in February. Image: Iranian Presidency / AFP

In the early weeks of September, a window of opportunity emerged for a possible reversal in Iranian foreign policy. Ayatollah Khamenei indicated a willingness to explore the idea of a new nuclear deal with the United States, while rumors circulated regarding a potential meeting between Iranian and US delegations in Oman. However, this window abruptly shut on October 7 with Hamas’s attack against Israel.

As we recently analyzed, Chinese experts had differing opinions on Iran’s possible and actual involvement in the conflict. They also expressed concerns that their much hoped for process of regional stabilization might have been derailed.

Now, as Iran faces another diplomatic crossroad, we turn our attention to recent statements from the Iranian press, especially regarding China’s stance and potential role in the conflict.

The Iranian Media Perspective on the Conflict

The outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war sparked a fresh wave of animosity towards Israel and its Western allies in the Iranian media ecosystem and prompted many commentators to ponder whether it will lead to a new era in the region. For instance, in an article on the conflict’s possible repercussions on regional alliances, Saeed Lilaz, economist, journalist and former advisor to President Mohammad Khatami, asserted that “the Gaza issue represents and promises the birth of a new world.”

A recently published analysis by the news site Akharin Khabar shared a similar perspective, stating:

“It should be noted that recent international events and crises signal the emergence of a new era in the global order, and international and regional actors are vying to maximize their advantages in the new system and minimize gains for opposing parties.”

Nevertheless, there are differing opinions on the course of action Iran should take. Some advocate for providing robust and overt support to Hamas, despite past tensions. This perspective is exemplified by a lengthy and impassioned interview published by the conservative Asr-e Iran News Agency with Khaled Qaddumi, Hamas’ spokesperson in Iran, who emphatically expressed that:

“We are united in the Axis of Resistance and in the axis of strength. Dear friends and brothers, you have witnessed how the Lebanese Hezbollah responded to the beginning of the conflict. It is premature for us to determine the role of the elements of the resistance, what each should do if this war spreads. However, I tell you dear friends, that the axes of resistance are necessary and must be precise in their coordination.”

The words of the Hamas representative were echoed by conservative politician Ali Motahhari, son of one of the Islamic Revolution’s most important ideologues, Morteza Motahhari, and a powerful voice in the Iranian public debate. Motahhari suggested that an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza should be met by an immediate Iranian response.

However, other commentators approached this situation more cautiously, contending that Iran should restrict its involvement to supporting Hamas and Hezbollah while avoiding direct engagement and the repercussions of such a step. In other words, Tehran should continue its policy of “jangha-ye kucak” (“small wars”, i.e., proxy wars).

Notably, while individuals like Reza Sadeghi, a strategic analyst, believe that an Iranian intervention remains a distinct possibility, the Iranian press has highlighted statements from government officials of countries, such as Italy and France, advocating that Iran and Hezbollah refrain from directly entering the conflict.

Unsurprisingly, many Iranian voices have been critical towards Arab governments. For example, the influential Shiite cleric Rasul Falahati in a heated interview on the regional situation stated that:

“Unfortunately, some leaders of Muslim countries have been competing against each other to normalize the relations with Israel.”

In the same vein, the Iranian government portal published a long analysis entitled “Why Hamas had no alternatives other than war with Israel,” which underscored the role of the Arab countries as a key factor contributing to rising Palestinian exasperation. As the authors stated:

“Especially with the beginning of the normalization process by some Arab countries with Israel, there was the impression that the pressure on the Palestinians had intensified.”

Source: PRC Ministry of Finance.

Observing Beijing’s Actions

Against this background, Beijing’s role as peacemaker garnered significant praise from more pro-government media. For instance, IRNA, the official news agency of the Islamic Republic, repeatedly shared and quoted the official Chinese statements that defined Israeli actions in Gaza as an abuse, and they did the same in the case of Beijing’s statement regarding its commitment to a peaceful solution to the conflict.

China’s opposition to the United States’ support to Israel also drew considerable attention. Notably, the well-known moderate news outlet Khabar Online published an article emphasizing that:

“We saw that last week, when a group of high-level US senators traveled to Beijing to meet [President Xi Jinping], fundamental differences emerged between the two sides over whether Beijing would condemn Hamas.”

In a long discussion on the Palestinian issue involving journalists and commentators, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian lauded cooperation with China in opposition to Washington. He stated that:

“We are also consulting with China on this matter, and all efforts are underway to ensure that no resolutions are passed against the interests of Palestine and that the Americans refrain from unilateral behavior.”

That said, much in line with the broader dynamics of the Iranian debate on China, Iranian commentators of various political orientations are aware that Iranian and Chinese interests only partly overlap, leading to some frustration toward Beijing. For example, Ali Motahhari complained that China and Russia should have a more direct and intransigent attitude towards the Palestinian issue, stating that:

“Russia and China have a significant role to play in this story. Of course, the positions of these two countries have taken are not that been bad and they have supported the Palestinian people to some extent, but considering the military power of Russia and China, they should wield more influence”

However, as pointed out by other voices in the Iranian press, a more engaged China and Russia is rather unlikely. The Iranian News Labour Agency interviewed former Iranian ambassador to Norway and professor of international politics Abdolreza Fajrad who stated:

“In the case of Palestine and Gaza, as previously with the three islands of the Persian Gulf [Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs], we have seen China and Russia’s positions tend to favor Arab states in the region; Beijing and Moscow have greater faith in Arab countries than they place in Iran.”

In another part of the interview, he added:

“Russia and China are not directly involved in this war, but Moscow’s relationship with Tel Aviv has deteriorated due to the situation in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Persian Gulf countries are important for China. This is because of the presence of natural resources in these states. Together, these factors explain why Beijing tried to adopt the position of the Arab countries and why Russia did the same.”

A similar analysis was presented by Khabar Online, pointing out how China might benefit somehow from the ongoing conflict:

“[The war] will have a destructive effect on the construction of the India-Middle East-Europe corridor that was announced during last month’s G20 summit. This corridor, meant to connect India to Europe via the Middle East, passes through Israel. Some observers even believe that it could be a competitor to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Given recent events, the plan for this [India-Middle East-Europe] corridor will hardly be implemented.”

Nevertheless:

“It is not just India, the United States and the countries of the region that will suffer from the recent war. Rather, China, as an important and active actor in the Middle East region, will be damaged by it as well. […] China is one of the most important customers of oil in the Middle East, if the scope of the war in the region widens, the global oil market will also be disrupted, and this will be very costly for the Chinese economy, which is facing important challenges.”

Hence, like past statements made by various members of the Iranian elite, there are also those who call for halting, or at least reducing, Tehran’s apparent dependence on China. The statement by Mahmood Khaqani, an important former member of the Ministry of Petroleum Affairs, is a case in point. Mentioning the motto “na sharqi na gharbi,” (‘Neither East, nor West’) he emphasized that:

“We should recognize that in many cases, we operate within the framework of China and Russia’s interests, without little to gain for ourselves. We should balance our foreign policy by going back to upholding the slogan ‘Neither East, nor West.’ This will enable us to stand up straight.”

Conclusion

In the aftermath of Hamas’s attack against Israel on October 7, Tehran today seems to be divided between two different camps: one in favor of a pragmatic approach to the issue that emphasizes policy continuity, and a decidedly more ideological and combative one.

In this context, China plays an important role. Its statements against the United States are appreciated by the upper echelons of the Iranian government as well as by conservative public opinion. For them, China is the driver of the process leading to a new multipolar world order in which the American “Great Satan” is no longer the sole hegemon anymore. Moreover, statements by Beijing’s diplomats are also useful to the Iranian leadership to legitimize their foreign policy choices in this critical moment for regional and Iranian politics.

However, much in line with our previous analyses on the Iranian media debate on China, we found that many are also rather clear-eyed about Chinese preferences for how the Middle East regional order should evolve, which do not suggest that Beijing will support Tehran in case the latter decides to escalate its involvement in the conflict.

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