A high-level delegation of Iranian officials visited China this week ahead of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s two-day trip, which starts on Thursday, February 21.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif led a delegation that included parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani and the ministers of finance and petroleum, as well as the CEO of Iran's central bank.
That is almost everybody, except the president, the Supreme Leader and the military. The presence of the oil minister and the chief of the central bank is a sign that trade, particularly oil sales to China and repatriation of the money was at the top of the agenda for Iran.
On Wednesday, the delegation met with China’s President Xi Jinping, who told the speaker of Iran’s parliament about China’s unwavering desire to develop close ties with Iran.
China is one of Iran’s important oil buyers and is currently enjoying a waiver from U.S. sanction until May to continue buying from Iran, but if Washington reduces or phases out exemptions it offered eight countries, revenues for Iran will hit bottom, threatening whatever economic viability the country has.
U.S. gave a 6-month wavier in November to China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Italy, Greece, but only China and India continued Iranian oil intake in a restricted amount. Lately, it was reported that Japan intends to resume limited purchases.
In January 2018, China imported 749,000 barrels of oil from Iran, but as the United States pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Iran in May and reimposed oil sanctions in October, Chinese imports hit a low of 247,000 barrels in November, which slightly recovered in November.
The 50-60 percent reduction in Chinese oil imports is in line with the overall drop in Iranian oil exports during the May-December period last year. Iran oil exports have basically halved after the announcement of the U.S. decision to reimpose sanctions.
China has traditionally not played a big role in Middle East conflicts or diplomacy, despite relying on the region for oil, with Iran its fourth largest supplier last year, but has been trying to raise its profile, especially in the Arab world.
But Iran is the bitter foe of Saudi Arabia the richest and most influential Arab country in the region and China has to balance its act.
In his meeting with Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, Xi said the two countries had a long friendship and shared long-tested mutual trust, according to a Chinese foreign ministry statement issued on Thursday.
"No matter how the international and regional situation changes, China's resolve to develop a comprehensive strategic partnership with Iran will remain unchanged," it paraphrased Xi as saying.
China and Iran should further deepen strategic mutual trust and continue to support each other on core interests and major concerns, Xi added.
China is in sensitive and all-important trade talks with the Trump administration and although it wants to keep its close relations with Iran, it has to balance that desire with the need to work out a good deal on trade with its most important trading partner.
Xi said that China advocates cooperation among international and regional parties to swiftly put the Middle East on the road of stability and development.
"We support Iran in playing a constructive role in maintaining regional peace and stability and are willing to closely communicate and coordinate on regional issues," Xi added.