China and Iran: Ancient Partners in a Post-Imperial World

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China and Iran: Ancient Partners in a Post-Imperial World, by John W. Garver. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006. xii + 401 pp. US50.00/£32 (hardcover), US$24.95/£15.99 (paperback).

As in his previous volumes, this latest book by John Garver delivers a well-researched and highly-detailed read. A book on this topic is long overdue: as Garver notes, only two other book-length studies of China-Iran relations have appeared in the past 40 years, the most recent in 1982. Much has happened since then; not least, both of these nations have (re)emerged as critical players, garnering headlines and concern in the United States, Europe and Asia.

As tbe world - and especially the Western world - wrestles with how to engage these emerging powers, China and Iran delivers a vital message: to understand these countries and their relationship demands that we take their historical and cultural affinity, both in the ancient and contemporary periods, into serious account. Garver declares his intention to "set aside [his] American perceptual-normative lenses and understand the relation between China and Iran as the leaders of those two countries have understood it" (p. x). In so doing, he frequently and convincingly explains the deep ties and interests which Beijing and Teheran share.

The first several chapters provide detailed historical background, beginning with the "spirit of Sino-Iranian relations" and taking us to 2004. The importance of history, culture and civilization in the relationship resonates strongest in the shared perceptions that each is a "victim" of colonial excess, which emerged successfully in a post-colonial and post-Cold War world as independent nations able to reassert their historical role as regional powers, and each is regaining their sense of pride as great civilizations. Relatedly, Garver notes that the two countries also share a similar aversion to and concern over the "hegemony" of the United States.

However, the book recognizes that this "anti-hegemonism" must be exercised cautiously in Beijing, especially since Iran's version is far more confrontational than China's. In discussing the relationship between post-revolutionary Iran and post-Mao China, Garver highlights the delicate but thus far successful balancing act which Beijing plays: cultivating strong relations with an ever-more defiant Iran while also strengthening ties to the "Great Satans", the United States and Israel. Good relations with Iran has benefits, but Beijing cautiously avoids ties with Teheran which could "tarnish China's own international image and hinder its quest for international respectability" (p. 138). Beijing's success in this regard is no small diplomatic feat, placing it in a strong diplomatic position. China's crucial - though not yet fully realized-role as a key multilateral partner to constrain Iran's nuclear ambitions reflects Beijing's diplomatic poise and standing in both Teheran and Washington.

Chapters 5 to 9 address specific cases and provide rich evidentiary detail about China-Iran ties, especially since 1979: the Xinjiang factor, Chinese assistance to Iran's nuclear programs, China-Iran military development cooperation, the US factor, and Sino-Iranian energy and economic cooperation. At only 10 pages, the chapter on Xinjiang is rather superficial. It is far less detailed and interesting than the otber case studies, and unfortunately comes off as a late-stage afterthought. The remaining chapters, however, form an extensive and thorough survey on critical aspects of China-Iran relations. …