This book was published by The History Press in 2009. The idea came when I noticed on coming to live in China how many unexpected parallels there were between Iran and China: how two long-lived empires had been affected by nineteenth century imperialism and modernisation, and how they had both formally come to an end in the same year, 1911,

Two questions recur frequently in strategic thinking about the world in the twenty-first century: first, what will be China’s role as it reassumes its traditional importance in world affairs; and, second, what will be the role of Iran? Yet these questions are rarely considered in tandem.

The book shows how these apparently diverse and distant countries - actually only seven hundred miles apart across Afghanistan as the crow flies - are in fact profoundly similar, each with a long and fascinating past (in the case of Iran, often overlooked nowadays), and how the forces that shaped their present forms were driven by a potent blend of admiration for and resentment against Western imperialism. For each has been conditioned over the past 150 years by an on-off love-hate relationship with Western political ideologies, and in each case development and modernisation have been characterised by spurts of economic and political reform based on European and American ideas alternating with outbursts of anti-colonial and, later, anti-American sentiment. 

In the near future, as demand-driven conflict over natural resources such as oil and gas increases, China and Iran are likely to become closer allies. Plans for improved links by sea, road, railway and pipeline are being implemented. Yet outside specialised sources, perhaps temporarily blinded by the focus on Afghanistan and Iraq, the Western world seems oblivious to this nurturing partnership. This book seeks to explain the consequences of this important shift in geopolitical alliances.

In fact China and Iran, or Persia, as it was known until 1935, are both countries whose people nurture a sense of their long and proud history. 

In its most ancient form, the Persian language dates to the Achaemenian Period, between 550 and 330 BC, when it appeared in cuneiform inscriptions, overlapping with the evolution of classical Chinese during the Spring and Autumn Period of the Eastern Zhou dynasty from 771 to 481 BC. At that time, the area of the Persian Empire was much greater than that of China, nearly as vast as its Chinese counterpart at its territorial zenith under the Mongols over a thousand years later - when the ‘Chinese’ empire comprehended Persia as part of the Ilkhanate. When the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great (ruled 550-529 BC) presented himself to the Babylonians as ‘king of the four quarters’,  he was enunciating a concept akin to that of the Chinese emperors who thought of the furthest extent of their central and universal kingdom in terms of the ‘four seas’. Under his successor Darius the Great (ruled 522-485 BC), Achaemenid Persia exercised influence over the entire area between East and West, comprising north-western India, Afghanistan, much of southern Russia, and satrapies as far west as Thrace and Libya. It was Darius who organised the empire into twenty provinces each ruled over by a governor known as the satrap, and introduced a system of tribute remarkably similar to that of the later Chinese Empire. This is something usually overlooked in discussions of the modern ‘Iranians’, who resent being associated with Arabs and also dislike being compared as a nation to Iraq (a very recent coinage as the name of a country, in 1920, deriving from the Farsi phrase ēr āk, meaning ‘lower Iran’); after all, King of Babylon was one of Cyrus’s many titles. 

China vaunts a longer history, as much as five thousand years, although documentary evidence dates from the ninth century BC. It is indisputable, however, that Chinese civilisation has evolved over a much longer period that that and its influence on neighbouring countries like Japan, Korea and Vietnam was profound and long-lasting. The Confucian Classics which are the basis of this civilisation were composed around 500 BC, and the first empire dates from 221 BC, when the king of one of seven rival Warring States, the Qin, managed by conquest and annexation to create a single, stable polity and establish himself as the first emperor, Qin Shihuang, standardising the written script and setting up a strong central administration which informs China even today (had he heard of Darius the Great?). Thereafter it was ruled as single empire, sometimes contracting and sometimes expanding, reaching its greatest extent in the eighteenth century.The political vision of the modern republic, deriving from the ideals of the emperor Qianlong (ruled 1735-1795) and the first president, Sun Yat-sen (1886-1925), was one of a single nation comprising the ‘five peoples’ of Han, Mongol, Tibetan, Hui and Manchu united within a territory much larger than that of Qin Shihuang,

A Chinese kiosk with Persian-style turquoise tiles at the Great Mosque in Xi'an, visited by President Rafsanjani and other visitors to China from Tehran

A Chinese kiosk with Persian-style turquoise tiles at the Great Mosque in Xi'an, visited by President Rafsanjani and other visitors to China from Tehran

Today, a much smaller but still vast Iran (nearly seven times the size of the United Kingdom) has a population of around 80 million, all Muslim save tiny minorities of Baha’i, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, having more than doubled since the last Shah’s time. By contrast, China (which is in turn over six times the size of Iran) has anywhere between 100 and 150 million Muslims: officially there are only 20 million, but this is taken to mean practising Muslims; if, however, we include what might be defined ‘cultural Muslims’, that is men and women of Islamic background who accept some of the basic cultural elements of Islam in their daily lives but do not participate in public prayers in the mosques, then the number is well over 100 million. In the ancient past, however, the links were much stronger. In one of the few detailed studies of the cross-influence of the two countries, Berthold Laufer, an early twentieth century German-trained orientalist who was unusual in knowing all the relevant languages (including Chinese, Persian, Sanskrit, Mongolian and Tibetan), explained a little-known role of Persia: ‘We now know that Iranian peoples once covered an immense territory, extending all over Chinese Turkistan, migrating into China, coming into contact with Chinese, and exerting a profound influence on nations of other stock, notably Turks and Chinese. The Iranians were the great mediators between the West and the East, conveying the heritage of Hellenistic ides to central and eastern Asia and transmitting valuable plants and goods of China to the Mediterranean area.’ Then, as now, the inhabitants and traders of both countries were extremely pragmatic - utilitarian is Laufer’s word – in the ideas and products they decided to use or disseminate. The means of dissemination was the Silk Road linking East and West through Iran, which will be discussed below.

In the Preface to the first book ever written about the Chinese Muslims, Islam in China: A Neglected Problem (1910), Marshall Broomhall observed that the ‘accessible Moslem population of China is larger than the Moslem population of Egypt, Persia, or Arabia’. That hasn’t changed much. There is, however, one important difference. While in Iran the population is mostly Shi-ite, only around 9 per cent of the population being Sunni, and was forcibly returned to a unified religious stance by the events of the Revolution in 1978-9, in China there are wide and significant differences. Chinese Muslims do not constitute a single bloc either in time or in space. In terms of time, there have been several waves of influence and immigration, most notably the first influx as Islam spread eastwards in the early centuries of its history, and a second, mainly Sufi influx in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 

In recent years, China has moved gradually but ineluctably into closer relations with Central Asia through membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Observers admitted to the SCO include another deeply Islamic country like Pakistan (predominantly Sunni although 20 per cent of the population is Shi-ite), which is considered to be the ‘most stable and durable element of Chinese foreign relations, and also India, where there are around 170 million Muslims with a dominant Persian and Sufi heritage. India and Pakistan also have a common ‘Persian’ heritage of language shared in vocabulary and script between Farsi, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi, the latter three of which are derived from the former and are widely spoken in both countries and also in Afghanistan (the official language of Tajikistan, Tajik, is another variant of Farsi, though now written in Cyrillic script ). Iran itself also has observer status in the SCO, and could become a full member in the near future as relations with China deepen now that sanctions have been lifted. 

Friday worshippers at the distinctly Chinese-style       Niujie Mosque in Beijing

Friday worshippers at the distinctly Chinese-style       Niujie Mosque in Beijing

In coming years, pressure on the supply of oil and natural gas is likely to increase rather than decrease suspicions and resentments, and also to increase rather than decrease the number of such previously unimaginable partnerships as that between China and Iran. This may sound odd, or at first sight implausible. But if we think of some of the stranger alliances formed in opposition to American hegemony, such as those between Russia and Iran, China and Pakistan or China and Sudan, then we will see that this is not the case. In three or four decades much could change, and the aim of this book is to consider possible scenarios for the future based on an examination of past and present.

Oddly enough, there have only been two books in English dealing with China and Iran together. The first was A.H.H. Abidi’s China, Iran, and the Persian Gulf, published in 1982, most of which deals with relations between the two countries during the reign of the last Shah and in the first two years of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic. The second is John Garver’s more recent academic study China and Iran: Ancient Partners in a Post-Imperial World, published in 2007. The focus of Garver’s scholarly work - in spite of its title - is very much on the impact of relations between these countries on the United States and its foreign policy, and on such problems as China’s possible response to an American attack on Iran. Neither of those books considers the future geo-political consequences of Chinese-Persian relations per se. And neither imagines the present acceleration as President Xi of China was the first foreign political leader to visit Tehran after the lifting of US sanctions in January 2016.

This book is not only about China and Iran, for that relationship will succeed or fail against the backdrop of what the well-known futurologist James Martin has imagined as a ‘time of extremism, religious belligerence and suicidal terrorism’ driven by a wide range of problems such as global warming, the Islamic resurgence, terrorism, regional warfare, the depletion of oil and conflicts due to population increase.