The foreign ministers of Iran and China signed a 25-year Strategic Comprehensive Partnership Agreement on March 27 that will cover economic, political, and military cooperation between the two countries and bring $400 billion of Chinese investment into Iran.
The deal, signed in Tehran by Mohammad Javad Zarif and Wang Yi, would ensure that China gets a steady supply of Iranian oil in return for its investment. Experts say that though it looks like a bilateral deal, in reality, it’s setting the groundwork for nuanced geopolitics between multiple global and regional players in the region.
Zhao Lijian, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, told a press conference on March 29: “In January 2016, China and Iran issued a joint statement on establishing a comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries and agreed to sign a plan for comprehensive cooperation. Through communication and consultations, the two sides reached an agreement on the content of the comprehensive plan recently.
“The plan focuses on tapping the potentials in economic and cultural cooperation and charting course for long-term cooperation. It neither includes any quantitative, specific contracts and goals nor targets any third party, and will provide a general framework for China–Iran cooperation going forward.”
Hamid Bahrami, author and a geopolitical analyst of Iranian descent, told The Epoch Times in an email that he believes the deal isn’t published because it would be a domestic issue for the Iranian regime.
“Mullahs know what they have done and fear Iran’s society. In 1919, such a deal was signed with Britain but caused nationwide protests, and finally it was canceled,” Bahrami said, adding that Iranians have been protesting against the deal.
“A significant number of Iranians protested yesterday in front of parliament and called the deal ‘treason’ and ‘selling Iran to China.'”
Timing of the Deal
Experts have been opining about the timing of the deal and about the likelihood that the new Biden administration will follow a policy of “appeasement” toward Iran.
“China signed the deal with Iran not because of US pressure against Iran but due to Biden’s appeasement. China didn’t sign last June when US policy towards Iran in the next 4 years remained uncertain as to who would be the next president,” Xiyue Wang, a fellow at American Enterprise Institute, wrote on Twitter on March 27.
Wang said that when there was a lot of buzz about the deal in 2020, China didn’t comment nor sign it. If Trump remained in power, maximum pressure on Iran would have continued, and it wouldn’t have been in China’s interest to sign the deal. “China-Iran trade volume in 2020 was at its lowest in last 15 years,” he wrote.
“I wrote in late Nov/Dec, if Biden appeases Iran, China will sign the deal, because US appeasement creates a conducive environment for China in Iran. This is exactly what’s happening. In early 2021 Chinese gov. projects China-Iran trade to boost from $15 [billion] in 2020 to $20 [billion] in 2021.”
Wang called Biden’s approach “bad foreign policy” and said the United States is shooting itself in the foot. “Isn’t that mind-boggling that the US, the only country that can prevent China from being entrenched in Iran, and has every reason to do so for its own security considerations, is precisely helping China to entrench in Iran?” Wang wrote in another tweet.
He said the effectiveness of the Iran–China deal would depend upon how much the United States is willing to decrease pressure on Iran.
Bahrami said easing U.S. sanctions on Iran will speed up the implementation of the deal. “It depends on China. If Beijing is willing to confront U.S. sanctions, the deal will be implemented. I don’t think this would happen. It is a complex issue, and there are at least four other players including UAE, Saudi, India, and the U.S. along with China and Iran. I confidently believe if the United States eases sanctions, this deal will be implemented as soon as possible. Don’t forget, Iran still seeks the bomb,” Bahrami stated.
The situation is like an international football game, he said, with multiple players—with each side threatening its adversary with consequences while simultaneously creating pressure for negotiations.
China will use the deal to weaken the United States’ position in the “Arab States’ view,” according to Bahrami, who added that the Chinese foreign minister is visiting UAE and Saudi Arabia to test the waters.
“Beijing seeks to distance authoritarian Arab states from the U.S. We don’t know if it can or not, but in my opinion, it depends on the Western approach towards Iran. This means if the West continues the policy of appeasement towards Iran, Arabs will get close to China in order to isolate the Iran regime,” he said, adding that Turkey will join this “international football” game staged on an Iranian field after a few years, as currently it’s a NATO member and can’t displease its allies.
What Do China and Iran Seek?
Bahrami said the Iranian regime seeks two “contradictory aims” by signing the deal—the first, he said, is the regime’s need to get close to the East, particularly to China, and the second is to obtain the censorship technology from China to consolidate the regime’s power over Iran.
“This is because the two regimes are authoritarian, having an anti-Western values agenda. The West can’t have such a relationship with a theocracy, whose roots come from Islamic fundamentalism and dictatorship. Thus, the Iranian regime chooses China as they have the same soul,” Bahrami said.
“Second, the regime’s existence is at serious risk, particularly by the people of Iran. The regime is riddled with corruption as well as economic crisis, which [could] cause an overnight revolution. In his speech on the Iranian new year, the supreme leader called to restrict the internet.”
The Chinese regime has a unique technology for censorship that’s absolutely state-controlled, and Khamenei is seeking to buy it, he added.
“The supreme leader considers the regime’s future and his successor, possibly his son, seeking a security guarantee for this. Khamenei hopes that China can give him such a guarantee. Receiving cash in order to rebuild its proxies is another primary reason to sign this deal,” Bahrami said.
China, on the other hand, sees the deal as an opportunity to continue its Belt and Road Initiative.
“China seeks to be the dominant power in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean in the next 10 years. Iran is the most important country to achieve this goal. Iran has thousands of miles of coastal lines with some important ports like Chabahar and Jask. China currently controls Gwadar [in Pakistan], and Beijing was concerned that India can threaten it by getting control of Chabahar or Jask. With this deal, the Chinese navy will be dominant in the Gulf in the near future,” he said.
Bahrami believes that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi should improve relations with the Arabs and convince the Biden administration to take a tough stance against Iran.