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What does the new China – Iran alliance mean for us all?

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi shakes hands with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a meeting at the Diaoyutai state guest house. - Credit: Getty Images

While the world has been distracted by other issues, relations between Beijing and Tehran have become closer than ever – with major implications for the rest of the globe, Jonathan Fryer reports.

With European media attention largely focussed on Covid, Brexit and Donald Trump’s chances of re-election, a major geopolitical realignment has gone largely unnoticed. But it has the potential to affect security in the Persian Gulf and beyond for decades to come.

Over the summer, the Iranian government revealed that it had negotiated a 25-year ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ with China, now awaiting parliamentary approval in Tehran.

According to a leaked copy of the 18-page agreement, the two countries have signed up to unprecedented levels of economic, technological and military cooperation involving hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese money.

While Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have been busy exerting “maximum pressure” on Iran through sanctions, the Iranians have looked elsewhere for political and economic support.

They had hoped European powers would do more to stand up to Washington in their desire to save the 2015 nuclear deal, but the flow of trade with, and investment from, Europe has been disappointing, so Iran has turned to China instead.

It was the virulently anti-American Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who first proposed what he called a “pivot to the East” during his presidency (from 2005 to 2013). But the idea was really kick-started by China’s president Xi Jinping on a visit to Tehran in 2016.

He had identified Iran as a key piece in the jigsaw that is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure development project that is opening up new markets to Chinese goods, expanding China’s political influence and giving it access to valuable natural resources.

In the case of Iran, the main resource in question is oil, for which China – the world’s largest oil importer – has an insatiable appetite. Under the new Comprehensive Partnership agreement, China will secure a reliable supply from Iran, probably at a favourable discount, until nearly the middle of the century.

The Chinese will meanwhile invest in improving Iran’s oil facilities while also helping the country develop its nuclear energy capacity and upgrading industrial sites.
In return, Iran will open its domestic market up to even more imports of Chinese consumer goods than at present and will award China the contracts to develop Iran’s 5G telecommunications technology. Several Western countries have baulked at the prospect of giving Huawei, in particular, too large a footprint, but Iran apparently has no such qualms.

China will also invest in improving Iran’s railway network, roads, airports and seaports and will develop three free trade zones, at Abadan, Maku and on the island of Kish. The Makran coastline of Iranian Baluchistan is targeted for massive redevelopment, including new tourism infrastructure. The Chinese are all in favour of developing tourist resorts where they become the major, or sometimes only, visitors, as anyone in Cambodia will tell you.

Some of Iran’s neighbours will understandably be concerned by this planned resurgence of the country’s economic power, not least Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain which, together with Egypt, form the Arab Quartet of countries that have been trying to keep Iran in check. However, it is China’s plans for military cooperation with Tehran that will really set alarm bells ringing, not only regionally but globally.

This military cooperation is planned to include not just joint development of defence industries but also intelligence sharing and even joint military manoeuvres.
Iran already carries out coordinated military operations with Russia, notably in Syria, but the potential with China is so much greater, especially at sea. Moreover, China is not going to bow to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy, no matter how loudly Pompeo or any successor as Secretary of State may shout about it.

All this is happening in the context of growing tensions between the United States and China, which some analysts now identify as a nascent Cold War Mark II. If that is indeed the case, then Iran is currently pitching its tent firmly within the Chinese camp.
Iran will thereby benefit from reducing its political isolation, while China will be delighted to have this heavyweight support in challenging US hegemony.

European capitals, including London, will watch this with dismay. But Tehran has largely given up taking Europe seriously, despite Britain, France and Germany all standing firm in their determination to save the Iran nuclear deal and in rejecting Washington’s attempt to institute the so-called ‘snapback’ mechanism on sanctions, on the grounds that the US walked away from the deal.

Similarly, Washington has been pressing for the arms embargo against Iran that is due to expire in October to be extended. This move failed at the UN Security Council recently.

China and Russia did not even have to use their veto – as they might well have been tempted to do – as all the other members of the Council, except the Dominican Republic, abstained, thereby ensuring the measure did not pass. That included all the Europeans currently on there – Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany and the United Kingdom – but the Iranians were annoyed that none of these voted against. As far as the Tehran was concerned this was further proof that when push comes to shove, the EU and Britain will do nothing to really stand up against the United States.

In addition to implementing UN sanctions operational since 2006, relating to Iran’s uranium enrichment, the EU imposed a number of additional sanctions covering trade in various goods, including arms and dual-use goods, a prohibition on the import of energy and petrochemical products, the freezing of bank assets and banning Iranian cargo planes carrying certain goods from using airports in the EU.

Since then, some of those restrictions were eased, but there are still enough in place for the Iranian government to say to Europe, “with friends like you, who needs enemies?”
So for the Iranians the hunt has been on to identify what it sees as true friends. communist China and the Islamic Republic of Iran are at first sight not the most obvious of political bedfellows, though there is an element of what Winston Churchill referred to as “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

The United States is still the Great Satan in the Iranian government’s eyes and there has been no let-up in the anti-American rhetoric in Tehran. But there is something even stronger than anti-Americanism binding China and Iran together: an outright rejection of liberal democracy and Western notions of human rights.

This mutual adherence to authoritarianism is so strong that both sides are prepared to ignore the most glaring inconsistency in their new friendship pact: the significance of religion. Iran is still a theocratic state in which people’s everyday lives are ruled by a particular interpretation of Islam. That is as unpalatable to the Chinese government as communism is to its Iranian counterpart. Yet each is prepared to turn a blind eye to the fundamentals of the other’s political and social system.

This even extends to Iranian silence over the gross violations of the rights of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. A prominent former member of the Iranian Majlis or parliament, Ali Motahari, recently tweeted that it was embarrassing that Iran had not spoken out about the matter, implying that this was because of the need for Chinese economic support.

However, this triggered a storm of adverse reaction from people close to the country’s religious leadership who argued that the Chinese government was correct to suppress what it called the hardline Wahabi Takfiri brand of Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia which had ‘infected’ Xinjiang.

Among ordinary Iranians, though, there is greater ambivalence towards China than the forthcoming 25-year Comprehensive Partnership would suggest, not only because of Xinjiang.

Many traders in Tehran’s Bazaar – historically an important player in the country’s power politics – are worried by the prospect of Chinese goods swamping the market and undercutting local produce. An even greater bone of contention is the issue of Covid-19.

Although the authorities in Tehran have not echoed Trump’s habit of referring to the coronavirus as the ‘Chinese virus’, many Iranians blame closer ties with China for the severity of the pandemic in the country, which has suffered particularly badly.

Officially there have been almost 400,000 cases in Iran and 23,000 deaths, though some opposition sources claim the true figures are significantly higher.

Despite doubts in sections of the Iranian population about the wisdom of cosying up too close to Beijing, the government line is clear. As the preamble to the leaked Comprehensive Partnership text says, “Two ancient Asian cultures, two partners in the sectors of trade, economy, politics, culture and security with a similar outlook and many mutual bilateral and multilateral interests will consider one another strategic partners.”

The world will have to come to terms with that.

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