Most of the headlines surrounding Iran center around the country’s negotiations with the United States regarding its nuclear program. Many analysts see this as s sign of gradual change in Iran as moderate leaders move the country away from its more hard-lined position. Yet another major geopolitical development could be driving Iran’s slowly warming relations with the West. China is moving west across Asia, and as it does so, Iran could come under threat.

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China ramps up its presence in a region

China is now in the process of building up its international network. With the United States slowly looking to draw down its global footprint, China appears ready to move in and challenge America for global dominance and influence. Yet, while America may be the only country that can challenge China around the world, every time China ramps up its presence in a region, it risks conflict with regional superpowers.

Already in Asia, China is finding itself faced with an increasingly muscular Japan, and S.E. Asia seems to be slowly coalescing into a united front that may someday be able to challenge the Middle Kingdom. Tensions are also rising between China and Russia as China moves into Central Asia to secure energy and develop new export markets.

Now, China’s moves throughout Central Asia are ratcheting up tensions with Iran. Home to approximately 80 million people, Iran is one of the largest countries in Southwest Asia and Central Asia and has evolved into one of the region’s largest powers. At the same time, China has been building up its presence in the various countries surrounding Iran, and in places like the Middle East, the two nations are increasingly finding themselves at odds with one another.

Iran’s long-term aims in the Middle East appear to be establishing itself as the region’s premier power. Already, the slowly warming relations between Iran and the United States have unsettled other countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia. As Iran is the most populated country in the region and is sitting on top of vast oil and natural gas supplies, they could theoretically field a large army.

China, on the other hand, wants to secure energy sources, and that means projecting power in the region, both in terms of economic and military might. The same could be said of Central Asia, though China’s biggest competitor in that region will likely be Russia. Iran has maintained a largely neutral and low-level presence in Central Asia, likely in order to avoid any conflict with Russia, which has been one of the country’s most important allies in recent months.

Tensions increase between Iran and China

In fact, as tensions increase between Iran and China, Russia could come into play and work with Iran to buffer against Chinese interests throughout Central and South West Asia. If China moves too fast or is too forceful in regards expanding its power, it could quickly find itself surrounded on all sides by hostile regional powers.

The biggest question to be answered, however, is to what extent relations between the United States and Iran will warm. While it is highly unlikely that relations will approach anything even resembling the close alliance the two nations once enjoyed before the Iranian revolution, if tensions can be cooled it could lead to a major shift in regional relations.

Under former President Ahmadinejad, tensions with the United States increased greatly, while relations with China grew closer. China backed Iran on several important issues and continued to buy large quantities of oil, even receiving exemptions from the United States in regards to financial sanctions. China’s position on the United Nations Security Council has also afforded Iran some cover at the international level.

If Iran no longer needs China as a buffer against the United States, however, relations could cool between the two countries. While China has emerged as the next great power, China’s aggressive posture has actually pushed many countries towards the more benign United States. While this is most evident in Asia, with ASEAN countries, including Myanmar, developing stronger ties with America, Iran may also be slowly pushed towards the U.S. as China begins to project power in the region.

Either way, tensions between Iran and China will likely increase as the two countries jockey to position themselves as major powers in the region. This will result in increased tensions and possibly even diplomatic conflicts. While it is highly unlikely that tensions will result in war, they could reshape power in the region and cause global alliances to shuffle.