BEIJING/DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- With the end to economic sanctions on Iran in sight, Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to visit late in the month to prepare the way for businesses to follow.
Xi hopes to be the first foreign leader traveling to the Middle Eastern country after the sanctions are lifted, diplomatic sources revealed, with potential stops in such neighboring countries as Saudi Arabia and Egypt as well. Around 100 business leaders, mostly from state-owned resource companies, are expected to accompany him to Iran.
Tehran agreed to greatly scale back its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief in a July deal with the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Russia and China. President Hassan Rouhani said Monday that the sanctions could be lifted within days. Federica Mogherini, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said the restrictions could end soon.
Before such steps are taken, the International Atomic Energy Agency must first verify that Iran has curbed its nuclear development.
Iran boasts not only rich reserves of oil, natural gas and other resources, but also a potential market of roughly 78 million people. Tightly restricted oil exports and trade are expected to boom once the sanctions are gone. Japanese and European companies that have held back on doing business in Iran are eyeing opportunities for rapid expansion into the market.
Xi aims to establish friendly relations early on to back Chinese corporations' efforts there. With many Iranian conservatives still staunchly against importing American products, Chinese businesses could gain an opening to win significant market share.
Tehran also hopes to strengthen ties with Beijing, which took a softer line in the nuclear talks, to continue smooth negotiations with the other five countries.
Visiting Iran from Friday to Sunday, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Ming met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. They pledged cooperation in areas including infrastructure, trade and energy, as well as collaboration on China's "One Belt, One Road" trade route initiative.
Beijing is also interested in Middle East stability. Zhang called on senior Iranian officials to take a calm, restrained approach in their recent row with Saudi Arabia. He had made similar calls in Saudi Arabia just before his Iran visit.
The Asian giant is trying to increase its clout by taking a different approach from the U.S. and Russia, which have had a big presence in the Middle East. Beijing has invited both Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and Khaled Khoja, president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, for visits since December. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke with them separately, acting as a mediator.
Beijing has traditionally kept its distance from conflicts in the Middle East. It may have decided to take a more active role on the rising influence of the Islamic State group, which it worries may incite separatists in China's Muslim-majority Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
Beijing may also hope to play up its importance in the international arena, especially as territorial disputes in the South China Sea strain relations with the U.S.