Iranian President Rouhani recently met with President Xi at the SCO Summit. This meeting comes shortly after the withdrawal of the U.S. from the JCPOA, and the threat of U.S. sanctions on companies doing business with Iran. It is tempting to assume that China will strengthen ties with Iran, expanding oil trade with the Islamic Republic. However, China’s interaction with Iran is likely to be more symbolic than substantive.
Europe has signaled that the rift with the U.S. over Iran is significant even if both sides would like to see change in Iranian behavior. It is unclear how this rift will play out with regard to sanctions on European companies doing business with Iran, especially those buying oil. Both sides are likely to take stands on sanctions in principle, but then negotiate a series of individual time or condition-based exemptions or waivers. This may limit any reduction in European oil imports, even without a Saudi guarantee to make up a shortfall.
Following President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the JCPOA, the response of Iran, Europe, Russia and China over the next several weeks will be closely watched. The U.S. and Europe are likely to continue discussions regarding joint action on Iran and the imposition of secondary sanctions on European companies. Whether China, Russia and, one day, Iran can be brought back to the negotiating table will depend on statements, actions and likely exogenous events over the wind down period.