Chinese Foreign Minister Heads to Iran As Clash Brews Over U.S. Oil Sanctions

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is reportedly traveling to Tehran this week as Beijing maintains its support of Iran despite American sanctions.

Iran and the U.S. have said they want to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal that Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. But while both wait for the other side to make the first move, crippling Trump-era sanctions remain in place.

The former president's "maximum pressure" campaign was designed to undermine the regime's legitimacy, collapse the Iranian economy and throttle exports, particularly lucrative oil exports. The regime has so far survived, but has resorted to force to suppress popular discontent linked to its economic crises.

China—a JCPOA signatory along with Russia, Germany, France and the U.K.—has offered a lifeline to Iran, increasing its oil purchases toward the end of Trump's term and into the beginning of President Joe Biden's tenure.

China's imports have now hit record highs, Reuters reported earlier this month. Since January 2020, China has imported some 19.6 million tons of Iranian oil—around 306,000 barrels each day. The majority is imported "indirectly" via third nations such as Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia.

Such activity could put China and its companies in the Treasury Department's crosshairs. The Trump administration regularly threatened nations and businesses with sanctions for working with Tehran, though the Biden administration is likely to take a more restrained approach given its goal of fortifying U.S. alliances and reviving the JCPOA.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Gao Feng told reporters on Thursday that Beijing would defend its business ties with Iran. Gao also said China had not received any notification from the Biden administration suggesting it was considering action over the oil deals.

Newsweek has contacted the White House for comment.

Iran's ambassador to China, Mohammad Keshavarzzadeh, said on Thursday that Wang would visit Tehran in the next two days, according to news agency IRNA. Wang is conducting a week-long tour of the Middle East, where he is expected to push back against American interventionism and build closer ties with regional leaders.

China and Iran are expanding ties as Tehran tries to weather American sanctions and diplomatic isolation. China's riches are tantalizing for an Iranian economy battered by decades of embargoes, sanctions and costly regional interventions.

Iran is set to be a significant stop on China's mammoth Belt and Road project. Beijing and Tehran are cooperating on pipelines, rail links and energy products—including the redesign of Iran's heavy water plant in Arak—despite American pressure and the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said last month he hoped to finalize a 25-year economic cooperation plan with China soon. Zarif said the agreement was "not far away."

Iran oil tanker off Bandar Abbas 2019
An oil tanker is pictured off the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas on April 30, 2019. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images