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Turning eastward: Iran and China strengthen ties in the face of western pressure

Iran and China have grown closer as US sanctions on Tehran grow increasingly stringent - but where is this relationship headed?
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, meets Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on 17 May 2019 (AFP)
By Rohollah Faghihi in Tehran

The past few months have witnessed deepening relations between China and Iran. With the United States waging a trade and economic war against both countries, high-ranking diplomatic, military and trade officials from Beijing and Tehran have met repeatedly in recent months.

In late August, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced during a trip to Beijing that he had proposed a 25-year roadmap for bilateral cooperation in order to "consolidate the comprehensive strategic partnership between Iran and China".

During the most recent of these meetings on 11 September, Iranian armed forces chief commander General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri arrived in China in order to establish a joint military commission, in a trip described by Iran's government-run IRNA news agency as "conveying an important message to the region and world".

Following this trip, Iran's military officials announced that Iran, China, and Russia would hold a joint military exercise in international waters.

But is Iran and China's recent rapprochement a sign of lasting cooperation - or a realpolitik consequence of ever-increasing US pressure on Iran since 2018? And how do the two countries reconcile economic interests and political disagreements?

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Belt and Road

While Iranian-Chinese relations have deepened in the past year, US sanctions haven't been the sole impetus for bilateral relations.

In 2016, China sent a delegation to Iran to hold high-level negotiations, culminating in an agreement to create a comprehensive memorandum between the two countries, Majid-Reza Hariri, the chairman of Iran-China Joint Chamber of Commerce, told Middle East Eye. 

Hossein Malaek, Iran's former ambassador to China, told MEE that plans for a 25-year cooperation agreement occured in parallel with China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - also known as the "One Belt, One Road" initiative - launched in 2013 to develop Chinese ties to the rest of the world, mainly through infrastructure projects.

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"One Belt, One Road is the platform of China's foreign policy, and whatever is being discussed between Tehran and Beijing can be defined within that initiative," Malaek said, adding that the Chinese-Iranian plan was "all about the investments and corporations over the infrastructures and oil sectors".

Hossein Kanani Moghaddam, the founder of Iran's conservative Green Party who has accompanied Iranian officials on trips to China, told Middle East Eye that "the plan is moving forward seriously, and it has given Iran a very important role that requires that the necessary protocols be concluded between Iran and China".

"Iran is a significant part of China's plan due to its geopolitical location, with the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus to the north, the Persian Gulf and Arab countries to the south and Turkey and Europe to the west," Moghaddam added. "That makes Iran the perfect transport hub of the region, and this is why China considers Iran an important country through which many of its projects' routes pass."

A 'new colonial power'?

But while the Iranian government has shown enthusiasm for the growing ties with Beijing, some observers are more cautious about the motivations behind China's overtures towards Iran and their likelihood of success.

For retired Iranian diplomat Fereidoun Majlesi, who served in Iran's embassy in the US before the 1979 revolution, the 25-year agreement "won't be enforced easily, but it should scare Europe and the West".

'China is like a new colonial power'

- Fereidoun Majlesi, retired Iranian diplomat

"The issue that worries me is that China is like a new colonial power, because they've set up bases wherever they go, bases with economic, political and security aims," he told MEE.

Meanwhile, according to Shahid Beheshti University's international relations professor Mohsen Shariati Nia, Iran's decision to strengthen ties with China is likely motivated by its desire to decrease the pressure of numerous US sanctions imposed under President Donald Trump since May 2018. 

"Naturally, under the current conditions, China is part of the solution for Iran," Shariati Nia said in an interview with Iran's Quds newspaper on 30 September. "Iran looking to the East [was decided] in an emergency rather than by choice."

Shariati Nia nonetheless cautioned that while China may be taking advantage of the vacuum left by the US, "we are in a highly structured global economy where the interests of key players are intertwined," noting that China was still affected by US sanctions on any third- party doing business with Iran.

The most high-profile case has been that of Meng Wanzhou, the Canada-based chief financial officer of Chinese telecom giant Huawei currently at the centre of a legal fight to avoid being extradited to the US, where she is accused of  allegedly violating Iran sanctions and lying about it to US banks.

Malaek concurred.

"China has reduced or stopped oil purchases from Iran because of US oil sanctions," he said. "We are even witnessing the halt of their energy investments [in Iran]. This indicates the US's power to enforce global policy - and this is not a positive point for China in relation to us."

Casualties of diplomacy

The two countries' tense relationships with the US have proven to be a point of unity, as Chinese officials have on several occasions expressed concern about the "extreme pressure" applied by Trump on Iran, including appealing for calm after the US president revealed he had considered bombing Iran in June.

With Russia as a mutual ally, it comes as no surprise that China has followed Moscow's lead and repeatedly vetoed UN Security Council resolutions related to the conflict in Syria, where Russia and Iran are actively backing the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

But the economic benefits of fostering closer ties with China also come with the uncomfortable side effect for Iran of having to compromise with China's human rights records - particularly its ill-treatment and imprisonment of members of its Muslim minority, the Uighurs.

In 2009, Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi denounced the deaths of some 200 people, including Uighurs, during the Urumqi riots in northwestern China.

"The horrible news from Xinjiang province about the mass killings and oppression of Muslims in the region greatly saddens any Muslim and free man," Shirazi said at the time. "It is true that the Chinese government and nation have close and intimate economic and political relations with us and with other Islamic countries, but this [doesn't allow them] to suppress our Muslim brothers and sisters in that region."

Since then, however, Iran has kept largely silent, despite China’s "re-education" camps interning millions of Uighurs in the Xinjiang province gaining international attention in the past year.

However, Moghaddam affirmed that Iran has privately conveyed its concerns about Uighurs' situation to Chinese officials on multiple occasions.

"We told them that Chinese people should have more religious freedom," he told MEE.

But Moghaddam seemed to indicate that Iran has not openly challenged Chinese affirmations that "no obstructions have been made" to Uighurs' religious freedoms, and that the Chinese government's treatment of that community was incidental to "serious worries about the infiltration of extremists and Wahhabi groups".

Seeing the bigger picture

A number of sources in Iran, including Moghaddam, believe that Tehran and Beijing could establish a bloc with Russia and India to make a united front against "US unilateralism" - while others assert that China sees Iran as a tool to "divert" the US's attention away from Beijing. 

"China has an exceptional geopolitical position among foreign powers present in the Middle East, it has managed to maintain favourable relations with all countries in the region and doesn't want to endanger its position by expressing explicit political stances or outlining a specific regional strategy within the framework of alliance with Iran," Massoud Rezai, a senior research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies in the Middle East, wrote in local news website IR Diplomacy on 21 September.

'We will face these two economies in the future and we must decide which one to work with'

- Hossein Malaek, Iran's former ambassador to China

"For obvious reasons, China would like Iran to [act] as a major US distraction to [prevent Washington from] pivoting to the East," he added. "Historical evidence suggests that whenever China feels that Iran has no choice owing to unfavourable international conditions, it has sought to maximise its demands from Iran."

Meanwhile, Malaek said Tehran had very few options, caught between the two major global economic powers.

"We will face these two economies in the future and we must decide which one to work with," he said. "Due to the restrictions that westerners have already imposed on Iran, we will start to have a meaningful distance from them. 

"Non-ideological logic tells us that it is better to work with the Chinese, because the Chinese will not cause us any trouble," Malaek added, while claiming that Chinese ideology was nonetheless "closer" to Iran than to the West.

But Shariati Nia said Iran would do well not to see China as its only option.

"Looking to the East does not mean looking at China. It's true that China is at the heart of any [regional] policy, but the potential of other Asian countries shouldn't be overlooked," he told Quds newspaper, citing Japan and India as examples.

"Iran must have a balanced view of Asia."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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