What China Teaches Us about Easing Iran Tensions

Part II(a) of “Reconciliation with America: Iran, China, and USSR”

But what is the likelihood of an IRGC-led hardline coup?  The following section is an attempt to answer that question by looking back in time.  As it turns out, we have much to learn from the last two times America’s major adversaries eased tensions with the US.

The two most relevant historical examples of reconciliation with the West are: (1) the free-market-ization of China’s economy under Chairman Deng Xiaoping, and; (2) the dismantling of the Soviet Union under General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and President Boris Yeltsin.  Based on these two case-studies, I hypothesize that a growing economy shields reformers from hardliners’ attempting a coup. 


The year is 1978.  The grand-daddy of China’s Communist Revolution, Mao Zedong, steps down from the Chairmanship.  In his place is Deng Xiaoping, one of the original Chinese revolutionaries.  Deng inherits a broken system: China is starving to death, crushed by exponential population growth and terrible centralized mismanagement.

china famine

But Deng—who was in and out of favor at various times under Mao’s rule, much like Rouhani—is a pragmatist and a fixer.  “I do not care if the cat is black or white.  What matters is it catches mice,” he said, demonstrating his dedication to repairing China’s faults instead of clinging to Communist orthodoxy like a captain going down with his ship.  Shedding Communism’s traditional approach to economics, Deng liberalizes, and aggressively so.


The foundation for this liberalization, however, was laid a decade before Deng came to power.  Both American and Chinese leaders signaled to each other their intent to ease tensions as early as 1969 (Nixon wrote positively about China in Foreign Affairs’ October 1967 issue).  Pakistan relayed messages back and forth.  In 1971, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger secretly visited China.  All of this work behind-the-scenes culminated in President Nixon’s very public visit to China in 1972.  During the visit, Nixon and Mao signed the Shanghai Joint Communiqué, thus resuming economic relations after 21 years of virtually no US-China trade.

nixon mao

State Department memos reveal the importance of this behind-the-scenes prep work: Chinese leaders were afraid of appearing weak.  They needed to be sure America wouldn’t stab them in the back by touting China’s efforts to engage as evidence of US victory and supremacy over China.  Principalists in the Majles expressed the exact same sentiment after Rouhani’s trip: “America and other negotiators must not imagine that they will negotiate a solution due to Iranian weakness by speaking of submission in a violent and demanding way.” (F)

Let’s now look at some economic data.  Deng became Chairman in 1978, but the earliest data I can find for China is from 1980.  That’s not ideal, but it is still illustrative.  We can reasonably assume that total trade flows (exports + imports) with the United States indicate to a large extent the state of an economy.  Especially before the 2008 financial crisis, trading with America was an easy and reliable way to ride capitalism’s coattails and grow economically.  Also, because this research hopes to reveal a strategic reality about sanctions against Iran, trade flows with the US are of utmost relevance.

In 1980, according to the Congressional Research Service and based on data from the US International Trade Commission, America’s trade flow with China equaled $4.9 billion.  Five years later, US exports to China were roughly the same, but imports from China more than tripled (see pg 3 of the CRS report).  This makes sense, considering China’s massive production of consumer goods and the rich American marketplace willing to buy those goods.

US-China Trade

What did this mean for Deng’s rule?  He simultaneously lifted his country out of poverty with one hand while suppressing dissent and consolidating authority with the other.  Case in point: Deng “The Liberalizer” crushed the pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square.  All the while, he never faced anything remotely close to a hardline coup against his economic reforms, despite the fact that his words and actions essentially rejected orthodox Communist ideology.

Deng crushed democracy

Here is a list of lessons we can learn from Deng’s transformation of China, and their relevance for US-Iran relations today:

1.  Time.  Secret diplomacy and other behind-the-scenes efforts are needed to build confidence between longtime adversaries before meaningful, open, public diplomacy can take place.  Diplomats worked for three years before Nixon’s visit, and it was another six years before Deng came to power and really got reform moving.

    • But today, Rouhani is trying to push reconciliation at light speed, publically setting the goal of a nuclear deal—and therefore sanctions relief—within three to six months.

2.  Economics.  Success is most probable if reformers focus first on liberalizing the economy, as opposed to politics or other domestic issues (this will be further demonstrated in the following article on the collapse of the USSR).  And again, time is necessary to open a closed economy.  The Shanghai Joint Communiqué was signed in 1971: by the time Deng came to power, US-China trade flows had been open for seven years.  If you’re looking for a target—an amount of total trade flows with the US for which to strive before really reforming in earnest—aim for around $5 billion (a conservative approximation based on the US Total Trade flows chart, below).

    • Yes, Rouhani is focused squarely on the sanctions that are hamstringing Iran’s economy.  But those sanctions are related to three separate issues: Nuclear Program, Human Rights, and Support for Terror.  These issues combine domestic and foreign policy in complicated ways, and they make it difficult to only focus on the economy in the way that Deng did.

3.  Expect Suppression.  With a booming economy at his back, Deng was more than just insulated from a hardline coup; he actively assaulted dissenters.  History remains the judge on whether or not that will come back to haunt China.  Many analysts argue that as its middle class continues to grow, China is boxing itself into a position in which it must democratize or face a popular—not hardline—revolution.

    • When it comes to Iran, a country with a long history of human rights abuses and support for terrorism, it should be understood that easing sanctions will pour money into the coffers of the perpetrators of those crimes, as well as into those of the everyday Iranian.  The question is whether or not authoritarian suppression and profit, like the kind we saw from Deng, is worth getting concessions on Iran’s nuclear program (keeping in mind that regular Iranian citizens also stand to benefit).
    • It’s also relevant to remember the 2009 Green Movement in Iran, which could be considered Iran’s Tiananmen Square.  And it’s worth seriously considering whether or not Iran’s very young population today would tolerate suppression à la Deng.  Click on the “People and Society” tab under the Iran entry in the CIA World FactBook to see that the vast majority of Iranians are between the ages of 20 and 40.

US Total Trade Flows










Data in foregoing chart is based on US Census Bureau information

(F) indicates Farsi-language source