TEHRAN (Press Shia) – Iranian Ambassador to China Ali Asghar Khaji called on Beijing to help safeguard the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), saying Tehran will resort to “other options” if its interests are threatened by US sanctions.

Beijing had a positive role to play in upholding the JCPOA, and should boost economic cooperation with Tehran, Khaji said in an interview with the South China Morning Post published on Monday.

He also said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif chose Beijing as his first stop on a whirlwind diplomatic tour last week because of China’s “importance” to Iran.

“We expect other remaining members of the JCPOA, including China, to help implement and continue this deal, and fulfil their commitment and obligations according to this deal,” Khaji said.

“If we could gain these rights and benefits from this deal we will stay in it. If these Iranian rights were not satisfied, and our interests were not reached, we will think about other options,” he said without specifying what the other options were.

German newspaper Welt am Sonntag reported on Sunday that diplomats from Europe, China and Russia are discussing a new accord to offer Iran financial aid to curb its ballistic missile development, in the hope of salvaging the 2015 deal. The officials will meet in Vienna in the coming week under the leadership of senior European Union diplomat Helga Schmid to discuss the next steps.

Last week, Zarif met his counterparts from China and Russia, as well as Britain, France, Germany and the European Union, in a bid to rescue the deal. Despite Washington’s withdrawal, all the other signatory nations have vowed to keep the pact alive.

“So with this positive atmosphere, we believe that, and we hope that, we can continue the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action without the United States,” Khaji said.

Khaji added that Zarif “intentionally” made Beijing his first destination on the trip, before Moscow and Brussels, because China is Iran’s top trading partner and No 1 oil and non-oil buyer, as well as major investor.

“This decision was made because of the importance of China for us,” he said. “We expect China, as a member of the 5+1, to continue to play its positive role to implement and safeguard the nuclear deal.”

Khaji criticized the US pull-out as “totally illegal” and said it signaled to the international community that Washington was not trustworthy.

“Not only Iranians, but also other nations and countries lose their trust in the United States because of this withdrawal,” he said.

The ambassador did not rule out the possibility of renegotiation with the US, or even a new deal, but said Iran would make decisions according to the current situation and would follow up on its legal rights, according to the South China Morning Post.

During Zarif’s three-hour meeting with his counterpart, Wang Yi, in Beijing last Sunday, the Chinese side reaffirmed his country’s commitment to safeguard the agreement and also agreed to expand economic cooperation between the two sides.

“Our Chinese friends again reaffirmed their stance against unilateral sanctions and actually pictured the framework of the future cooperation between the two countries on how to expand the relations,” Khaji said.

On Thursday, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh also said state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation was ready to replace Total on a major gas field project in Iran if the French energy giant pulled out.

China has been Iran’s biggest trading partner and export market for the past 10 years. In 2017, their two-way trade jumped 21 per cent from a year earlier to reach US$37.3 billion, while more than 200,000 trips were made between the two countries.

Iran is also an important part of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” – aiming to boost trade and infrastructure links from Asia to Africa and Europe – because of its strategic location between East and West, just as it was a center of the ancient Silk Road. Iran signed a memorandum of understanding to join the initiative in 2016, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Tehran.

The bilateral relationship between the two countries has also improved in other areas such as security, Khaji said.

Iran is an observer at the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation security bloc, and Xi has invited Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to this year’s SCO summit in Qingdao next month.

“We are positively looking at this invitation,” the ambassador said.

Khaji also condemned Israel for causing the deaths last week of more than 60 Palestinians protesting at the Gaza-Israel border over the US moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem al-Quds, saying US and Israeli actions were destabilizing the region and it was like “putting oil on this fire and escalating tension in the region”.

“One of the important causes of the instability in the Middle East region is the US decision and actions,” he said.