Is Iran set to forfeit its national interests to China?

A partnership planned between Iran and China is intended to strategically link the two countries for a quarter of a century. It is unclear, however, exactly what the alliance will entail and whether its lofty ambitions can indeed be fulfilled. Iranian politicians of almost every persuasion remain highly sceptical. By Ali Fathollah-Nejad

By Ali Fathollah-Nejad

Many uncertainties remain about the planned 25-year "comprehensive strategic partnership" currently in negotiation between Tehran and Beijing. A lack of transparency regarding the final details of this cooperation project, which after all touches on sensitive economic, military and security policy areas, has sparked a great deal of uproar in Iran – among the general public, but also across the entire political spectrum.

Even Parliament, which has been dominated by hardliners since the February 2020 elections, has been harshly critical. This is all the more surprising, given that revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei is the most prominent advocate of an eastward orientation for the Islamic Republic, the essence of which is long-term strategic partnership with China.

To appease the MPs, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has indicated that the agreement will definitely be submitted to parliament for ratification as soon as the final version has been negotiated by both sides.

An 18-page copy of the treaty drafted by the Iranian Foreign Ministry in June, which lists in fairly general terms how cooperation is to be extended and deepened, has been circulating recently in the media. According to unconfirmed information, China is to invest 800 billion dollars in Iran over the next 25 years. Beijing is thus expected to expand its already strong presence in the country across all sectors: banking, telecommunications, ports, railways and a dozen other projects.

In return, China will continue to receive Iranian oil at a preferential rate for a quarter of a century. Military cooperation between the two countries is also to be intensified; in addition to joint exercises, armaments research and the exchange of intelligence information are planned.

Caricature of the week by Mana Neystani: Iran-China cooperation agreement (photo: Mana Neystani)

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A ray of hope from China

The sheer scale of the planned cooperation and its current timing give some indication of Tehran's motives. The high-profile dissemination of this news by the Iranian government – but not by the Chinese – indicates one thing in particular. The Rouhani government, which is under immense pressure, wants to signal to the Iranians that their economic situation – severely affected by domestic political factors, U.S. sanctions and the pandemic – could recover with the help of China; in other words, at the end of a long dark tunnel, the long-awaited ray of hope is to come from the East.

Due to the immense foreign and domestic political pressure the Islamic Republic is under, many Iranians fear a sell-out of their country to China. In return, the regime in Tehran would secure its survival for the foreseeable future, thanks to China's economic, political-diplomatic and security policy support.

Iran is thus negotiating from a position of weakness, which has certainly not escaped China's attention. In addition to ongoing significantly cheaper oil exports to China, Iranian concessions are feared in the following areas, to name but a few: de facto Chinese control over important seaports in the Gulf of Oman, establishment of a Chinese military base in the strategically important Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, and privileged access for China to Iranian free trade zones.

Essentially, however, the Iranian-Chinese alliance is suffering from cognitive dissonance between the two camps. While the relevance of Beijing for Tehran can hardly be overestimated, Iran is only one of several close partners in the region (above all Riyadh and Abu Dhabi) for China. Moreover, the expansion and deepening of relations with Tehran represents something of a minefield for Beijing, a risk to China's far more crucial relations with the United States, Iran's arch-enemy.

From China to Iran – a consignment of aid to fight the coronavirus pandemic (photo: picture-alliance/Zuma Press/TPG)
Von China für den Iran - Hilfsgüter zur Bekämpfung der Corona-Krise

Betrayal of the independence leitmotif?

In Iran, such Chinese interests are met with widespread rejection, especially since they run counter to the country's self-image dating from the 1979 revolution, that of always maintaining its independence from the great powers, be they Western or Eastern.

Furthermore, the image of China in Iran, which has traditionally aligned itself towards the West, is pretty negative. Since Europe withdrew from the Iranian market under U.S. pressure, China has become omnipresent, damaging domestic industry and Iranian development goals with its cheap products, regarded as inferior in quality to those of the West. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Iran's technocrats are highly sceptical of China. The Chinese connection relating to the spread of coronavirus in Iran may be seen to have done the rest.

Political consequences of closer relations with China

It is no coincidence that the biggest advocates of a geopolitical orientation of Iran towards China represent the most authoritarian and monopolistic capitalist wing of the power apparatus, headed by Khamenei himself. They see China as something of a life-saver, providing the regime with economic life insurance for years, if not decades. At the same time, China would actively oppose "American imperialism" politically and diplomatically on the side of the Islamic Republic.

Chinese navy in the Persian Gulf for joint manoeuvres with Iran in 2014 (photo: IRNA)
Chinesische Marine im Persischen Golf für ein gemeinsames Manöver mit dem Iran 2014

Nevertheless, and this is also acknowledged by the Iranians, the Chinese – past and present – have always lagged miles behind Iran's great expectations. After all, for China, as for Russia or India, it is relations with the USA that are decisive, not those with Tehran. Thus, in the past, both Beijing and Moscow have proved opportunistic actors, rather than partners on Tehran's side.

During the nuclear dispute, both Russia and China, despite their rhetorical rejections, repeatedly agreed to sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council. Only recently, the chairman of the Iranian-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry announced that almost no banking transactions had been conducted with Russia and China. This had not only been due to the U.S. sanctions, but also to Iran's inclusion, on account of its inadequate legislation, on the Financial Action Task Force's (FATF) blacklist against money laundering and the financing of terrorism.

Potential impact on democracy and human rights

If Tehran were indeed to turn away decisively from the West and orient itself towards Asia, for which the prevailing scepticism at home would first have to be overcome, the political culture of official Iran would change. On the other hand, as the Iranian political scientist Hamidreza Azizi rightly points out, "in view of the predominant western-oriented political culture in Iranian society, long-term partnerships with non-democratic powers could deepen the rift between the Iranian state and its people." After all, when it comes to repression - offline or online - China is an important market and also a source of inspiration for Iranian autocrats.

As indicated above, it is questionable – not least because of the U.S. factor – how close Iranian-Chinese cooperation, let alone a corresponding axis or strategic partnership, will be. In its rejection of democratic and human rights standards, China, like Russia, is no doubt a desirable partner for the Iranian leadership, especially since it is unlikely to use human rights issues to exert pressure on Tehran.

Conversely, however, one should not make the mistake of thinking that democracy and human rights in foreign policy are paid anything more than lip service by the West (be it the USA or Europe). This is something we have observed for decades in the [Near and] Middle East. In essence, therefore, we have both Western and Eastern great powers, all of whom, in different ways, prefer authoritarian stability to democratisation in the region, because this could be accompanied by instability to the detriment of their own interests. The only difference lies in the democratic constitution of the Western countries, which can, in theory, always demand a foreign policy based on the same values.

Large swathes of the Iranian population remain unconvinced, either that closing ranks with Russia and China would not be detrimental to them, or that the West actually pursues noble values in its foreign policy.

For many Iranians, given their desperate plight, this is extremely sobering, not to say disillusioning. Rather than having to choose between the West or the East, an Iranian foreign policy that serves the national interest and the country's economic and political development would need to maintain good relations "in all directions" – with both West and East. But for this to happen, the enmity with the USA, so central to the regime's ideology, would have to be significantly tempered, thus ensuring the great American shadow ceases to loom over Iran's Asian ambitions.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad

© 2020

Ali Fathollah-Nejad is senior lecturer in Middle East and Comparative Politics at the University of Tübingen. He is the author of the recently published The Politics of Culture in Times of Rapprochement: European Cultural and Academic Exchange with Iran (2015–16) and of the forthcoming Iran in an Emerging New World Order: From Ahmadinejad to RouhaniTwitter: @AFathollahNejad