By Arab News
By Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami*
Iran’s Cabinet last month announced that it had studied and approved the final draft of the 25-year comprehensive cooperation program between Iran and China. The draft will now be referred to the Islamic Consultative Assembly for approval.
The government defended the agreement by arguing that it boosts strategic cooperation between Beijing and Tehran and will open the door for the two nations to participate in essential projects and the expanding of infrastructure, including China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Iranian leadership asserted that the agreement offers an opportunity for attracting investments in various economic fields. Meanwhile, the government rejected rumors that the deal involved other matters, such as ceding Kish Island and selling oil at a cheap price, describing these as vicious rumors circulated by Iran’s enemies, who are opposed to boosting ties between China and Iran.
President Hassan Rouhani’s Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi said: “We should not rush into looking at how the final formula of this document will be. In recent months, due to the coronavirus crisis, this memorandum of understanding has been delayed. It is difficult to hold such negotiations via videoconference. We hope to reach a solution before the end of the current Shamsi Hijri year, which will be on March 20, 2021.”
Overall, the regime — both the fundamentalist factions and the Iranian government — have been tirelessly promoting propaganda selling this agreement. Moreover, some officials have even gone beyond this, downplaying the criticism leveled at the deal. They have gone on the defensive by playing the victim card and arguing that the criticism is part of an ongoing “plot” hatched against Iran by its enemies and opponents.
For example, in remarks to Tasnim News Agency, which is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the former Iranian Ambassador to China, Mehdi Safari, said: “When such issues are raised, the Westerners, Israelis and reactionary Arab countries worry that implementing such agreements will render the US sanctions on Iran ineffective. Therefore, they seek to topple the agreement and spread uncertainty in this respect.”
These remarks constitute a clear effort by a regime official to evade and deflect criticism through slandering others, rather than laying out the facts of the deal in front of the Iranian public.
There is another vital aspect to the deal, on which the government is deafeningly silent but the Iranian public has quickly seized — namely that the regime has decided to fully place the country under Chinese custodianship. The agreement has been portrayed by most Iranians as a treacherous sale of Iran to China as part of the regime’s efforts to gain Chinese support at the UN Security Council.
Iranians believe that the economic and financial hardships facing Iran will quickly leave it unable to fulfill its obligations to the Chinese, which will allow Beijing to demand ownership of major and vast assets in Iran. Given the international sanctions that are still in place against the country, this can only lead to Iran’s bankruptcy.
Citizens have been expressing their outrage at the agreement on social media platforms, deeming the deal “the beginning of Chinese colonization.” As part of this outpouring of public fury, social media users tweeted the hashtag “#iranNot4SELLnot4RENT” 17,000 times in 24 hours. According to BBC Persian, a similar hashtag, “#Chinese_Turkmanchai,” was tweeted 10,000 times.
In their criticism, Iranians have focused on several main points, including the government’s failure to provide any details on the terms and basic objectives of the agreement. Instead, regime officials have only made general statements, while the deal lacks transparency. This ambiguity prompted many young Iranians to view the agreement as a form of de facto Chinese colonization. Some labeled it “Turkmanchai II” in reference to the peace treaty signed in the town of Turkmanchai between the Russian empire and the Qajari dynasty, which ended the 1826 to 1828 Russo-Persian War. This treaty stipulated that Iran would cede the regions of Erivan and Nakhchivan to Russia, as well as committing it to pay 20 million rubles in reparations. Moscow was also awarded several economic and customs privileges and concessions.
It is worth noting that Chinese officials and news websites have not provided any extensive coverage of the agreement, offering no details about it. For an example of Beijing’s opacity in regard to the deal, when a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman was asked about its details last month, he dodged the question with a typically bland and evasive statement, saying: “China pays great attention to all its friends and seeks to boost cooperation with all the countries of the world. Iran is a friendly country and the two countries have a normal state of exchange and cooperation. As to your question, I could say that I have no information about it.”
This answer raises grave and numerous doubts about the objectives of the agreement signed with the Iranian regime, given the Chinese state’s apparent deliberate ambiguity.
Despite this ambiguity from both the Chinese and the Iranians, some details of the deal emerged last year in an article published by the English-language Petroleum Economist magazine, quoting a source close to the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum. According to this article, the agreement includes a provision allowing 5,000 Chinese troops to be stationed in Iran, with China to invest $400 billion in the country. In return for this, the Chinese will be granted concessions similar to the D’Arcy oil concession, Reuter concession, and the tobacco concession initially agreed in the era of Naser Al-Din Shah Qajar, according to the reformist newspaper Hamdaly.
The paper commented on the Petroleum Economist article, saying: “If what was published in the magazine is correct, this agreement is colonialist and breaches the sovereignty of Iran in some sense.”
Ali Salih Abadi, editor in chief of the Setareh Sobh newspaper, wrote an article titled “We should not pin hopes on Russia, China or the result of the US elections.” He wrote: “After the US pullout from the nuclear deal, the Iranian government embraced the policy of turning eastwards, while Russia possesses nothing but weapons. China, in addition to weapons, has commodities and technologies which are far weaker than those of the West. For this reason, the world turns to the West instead of Russia and China.”
Abadi added: “Some people in Iran have been, and are still, pursuing a hostile policy when it comes to international relations rather than an interactive policy. This policy has led to increasing sanctions and the issuing of six resolutions against Iran by the UN Security Council and a decision issued by the board of governors, which is one of the two policy-making bodies of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), against Iran. At the Security Council, the UN chief accused Iran of being involved in missile attacks on the Saudi oil facilities.” China and Russia tried to convince some other members of the IAEA board of governors to join them in a bid to thwart this resolution.
In conclusion, the Iranian regime’s motives for signing such a long-term agreement remain unknown. Is it seeking to woo the US and Europe by promoting such an agreement, under which China would win exclusive access to the Iranian market in case the European and American positions remain unchanged? Has the Iranian regime reached such a state of total frustration with the West that it will attempt to use this agreement to gain more time before collapsing at home and abroad? Or is this a desperate last-ditch effort by Iran’s government to instill some hope in Iranian society — as with its promotion of the 2015 nuclear deal — to prevent more protests and waves of anger at home, which ultimately threaten to wash it away?
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami