Written by Ahmed Rajeev exclusively for SouthFront: Analysis & Intelligence
When the world is facing an economic structural crisis, the present hegemonic world power is exasperating to withstand its authority in every possible way. To encompass the future hegemony of the Chinese-Russia superpower bloc the Western supremacy already positioned numerous military and public-opinion-making establishments. One of the main reasons of the present Middle-Eastern crisis is a well-designed western device to disrupt the Chinese Silk-Road or the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project which has been aiming to connect entire Asia and Europe with a single business transportation route. If the highly ambitious OBOR project is materialized, it will bring China into the center stage of global hegemony. But the West doesn’t want it that way. They still pretend to exist as the only authority of the world. So, they have come up with a new idea of Chaos and Rule to confront the alternative blocs, and the wars in Middle-East are the good examples of the West global policy of Chaos and Rule. Eventually, those Middle-Eastern wars have been pushing back the Chinese dream of OBOR for an uncertain period of time. Meanwhile, those turmoil and wars have been driving Chinese Asian strategy to work closer to its neighbors in Western Asia, Central Asia, South Asia and South East Asia. And we all know, the Chinese-Russian power blocs are not safe enough in their country and neighboring regions, because the Western hegemony has a sharp eye over them. It is it clear that, very recently the western geostrategic tools have started diplomatic provocations in the historically and politically sensitive places in and around China and Russia. There have been growing trepidations over the East China Sea and South China Sea neighbors regarding the water-area disagreements. The West interceded into these regional conflicts under a cover of freedom and Navigation program. To avoid those unwanted wars with the neighbors and the Western contraction, China appears defensive and diplomatic. It is true that, if war breaks out, the West will be least affected. On the other hand, millions will die in Asia for the unwanted warfare. China knows well that if they can avoid the warfare, if they can pursue their One Belt One Road project, they will be able to successfully secure themselves by its Asian allies who will be the stakeholders of OBOR project. In these regards, a seemingly new partnership between two or more regional powers of Asia can have enormous geological influence to establish the OBOR projects which indirectly halt the monopoly of the Western geo-strategy in South Asia and South-East Asia. It is very evident that China and Iran are coming to such a platform from where they can jointly increase their mutual diplomatic influence in and around Asia and economically equipped with the idea of mutual development by the OBOR project.
Historical Relations between China and Iran
The historical relation between China and Iran is nearly 2500 years old. The diplomatic, cultural and economic relations between the cultures of China proper and Greater Iran is dating back to ancient times, since 500 B.C. There were high level cultural interactions between the Parthians and the Han dynasty, and between the Sassanid Empire and the Tang dynasty. And even those ancient times the Silk Road was the main way of connectivity between those two civilizations. During the period of Parthian-Han, the Silk Road played the key role in cultural interactions, in exchange of exotic commodities, helped to establish diplomatic embassies. Parthians and Hans came close to know each other well, later Buddhism spread through China from the Parthian land, where Buddhist monks from the Indian civilization had positioned themselves. In the Sassanid period, their relation developed more into cultural and economic associations. For example, the Sassanid had operated 13 embassies in Chinese land, they were enjoying land-based and maritime trade; both empires cooperated to form a security and safety arrangements to protect the Silk Road from the bandits, especially the Turks. In the end, the Arab-Muslim invasion (Abbasid) in Iran had created a diplomatic damage in the Sino-Persian historical relationship. And, after few decades of Islamic takeover, a war was fought between those two friendly civilizations. After that war which was won by the Abbasid Caliphate in Iran, the relationship was improved through diplomatic commotions. They again became friendly to each other. Throughout the centuries they had been developing economic and strategic partnerships.
Interestingly both countries rediscovered themselves during the post-WWII period, when China went through social, political and economic changes or the Chinese Revolution. China maintained good diplomatic ties with the Pahlavi dynasty and the relationship was not maltreated even by the Iranian revolution in 1979. Later, both revolutionized countries appeared inquisitive more about each other in a mutually beneficial approach.
Economy and Trade relation between Iran and China
Their economic relation is mainly based on oil since Iran possesses world’s second largest crude Oil reserve. In the past decade, China has signed several deals worth 120 billion dollar with Iran. 80% of the Iranian export to China is from oil, making Iran the third largest crude oil supplier of China. Iran supplies nearly one million barrels of crude oil per day to China. In last two year China has increased its demand of Oil by nearly 50%. Several Oil fields were developed in Iran by Chinese companies. Now, China is helping Iran to bring Caspian Sea Oil and gas to Southern Iranian ports for export in Europe and Asia. It seems that the Chinese diplomacy with Iran had been articulated by energy politics since the time China became an oil importer in the early 1990s.
Excluding oil, China has become a huge market for the Iranian petrochemical exports such as methanol. Chinese companies are negotiating a 5 billion dollar deal with Iran to set up a methanol plant in the city of Mahshahr. More than 70 Chinese companies are active in Iran. They have already invested in Tehran’s subway systems, dams, fishery, and cement factories, while Iran helped supply China with the highly desired minerals: coal, zinc, lead, and copper. The trade between the two countries also involved power generation, mining, and transportation equipment along with arms and consumer goods such as electronics, auto parts, and toys. Though, Iranian consumers have some dissatisfaction about the inferior manufactured Chinese goods, the trade value between the two counties will reach 100 billion dollars within years. In a 13 billion dollar deal, Iranian Construction and Development of Transportation Infrastructures Company in collaboration with China has been constructing a railroad network lengthening 5,300 km comprising of eight rail lines.
Political and social relation between China and Iran
The shared ideological themes of anti-imperialism and third world camaraderie helped both country to congeal the relationship but they became associates as a way to counterbalance the Soviet Union and the United States throughout the Cold War. Once the USSR signed the Soviet-Indian friendship pact, the relationship became a system to counter the growing Russian influence in the Persian Gulf. But there remained some distance between Mao’s regime and that of the Shah because of the ideology. The Shah was approachable towards the United States while Mao was a communist. As soon as the Shah was overthrown during the Islamic Revolution, China hastily acknowledged the new government on 14th of February 1979. But China was positioned into a challenging situation throughout the Iran–Iraq War in 1980 since both countries were allies to China. China was clever enough to remain outside of the conflict and push for a diplomatic resolution to the engagement. But the growing cooperation of China with Israel and the United States can be seen as insubstantial understanding between the China-Iran relations.
However, both countries have been suffering domestically with their liberal youths. Corresponding to the rest of the world, Iranians have also had deep admirations for the Chinese growth, and Iran respects and appreciates the Chinese contribution to Iran. As a historical ally, Iran is accepted as the founding member of the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). There has been a discussion for incorporating Iran as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as well, in which Iran now maintains its observer seat. Iran is dependent on China in its UN diplomacy, especially the Chinese veto power in the UN Security Council. China refused to support the UN arms embargo against Iran and abstained from many US-led sanction proposals. But China supported the 2010 UN sanction against Iran which caused some tensions and retaliation from Iran by a brief Muslim insurrection in China. Later, the brief tension between those two countries was considered as a little political adjustment hiccup.
The Chinese and Iranian societies expressively identify each other’s national pride and historical identity at the modern descendant states to olden civilizations. Notwithstanding the psychological variance, there was shrinkage in contacts after the Chinese Revolution in 1949 but social and political interactions upgraded after the 1960s. For instance, Iran supported the Chinese state’s action at Tienanmen Square and China condemned the United States’ attack on an Iranian passenger plane. Very recently, Iran has been experiencing an introduction of Chinese restaurants into its cultural life.
Military and Nuclear cooperation between Iran and China
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Western power tried to scrutinize the Chinese military might and strategic military relations with Iran. Despite the Western warnings, China is believed to have facilitated Iran’s militarily by conducting trainings for the high-level officials on cutting-edge systems, by delivering technical support, supplying specialty steel for missile construction, providing control technology for missile development, building a missile factory and a test range. There were reports that China had been aiding Iran in the development of advanced conventional weapons including surface-to-air missiles, combat aircrafts, radar systems, and fast-attack missile vessels.
Iran also plays a vital role to help China establish its influence in the Gulf and beyond, given Iran’s strategic location between the Caspian Sea and the Gulf. However, Tehran toughens the security of China’s oil supply; it concurrently offers China with a westward source of oil, by straying through the Strait of Hormuz. These tactical considerations are being as well displayed in the present military collaboration between China and Iran.
On the 20th of September 2014, the 17th escort task force of the Chinese Navy docked at the port of Bandar Abbas in southern Iran for the very first five-day visit. And then China and Iran participated in a joint military exercise in the Persian Gulf named Velayat 3. China with its Iranian partners is asserting onward Chinese strategy of ‘going westward’ and China’s future possibility of activities includes areas such as the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, which are also China’s maritime energy supply sources.
China also built the first nuclear research reactor in Iran. Later China supplied four other reactors. China helped Iran to build its Uranium hexafluoride enrichment plant near Isfahan. Iran, with the Chinese help also resumed their Bushehr Power plant which was abandoned by the French and the Germans. After the Soviet fall, the International Atomic Energy association increased their scrutiny over the Iran-China nuclear activities. Despite the Western protest against Iran’s nuclear program, there have been reports that China is directly involved and sometimes indirectly helping Iran with its nuclear programs. In 2005, 7 Chinese companies accused of helping Iran nuclear programs were black listed in the US for 2 years. But it did not end there – many Chinese Nuclear experts, scientists and technician are already present in Iran and are helping them to continue its ‘Peaceful Nuclear Programs’ even though the 2010 International sanctions on Iran was agreed by the China.
China always blocked extreme and tough actions against Iran during the phase of Tehran’s international isolation over its nuclear programs because of historical and strategic considerations as well as profit-making interests. Since the political and strategic moves of Beijing-Tehran axis historically proved to be mutually beneficial. China needs Iran for its energy resources and Iran needs Chinese support for its ambitious Middle-Eastern hegemony. However, with the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal in July 2015, China and Iran are the winners of a larger geostrategic balancing against the United States – by counterbalancing the US power in Western Asia, while, at the same time, China is expanding its geo-strategic footprint and influence into the region. Meanwhile, the West with its regional partners is encompassing an alternative bloc with several trade agreements and military advancements which make the alternative bloc counteract with more unity within themselves. The mutual and strategic partnership between China, Iran and Russia can play a vital role for future trade and geopolitics in Middle-East and beyond. But to play a long lasting role in a Middle Eastern peace and stability process, it is high time for Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons. Only a Nuclear armed Iran, by creating a power balance in the region of in and around the Middle East, can put an end to the present Middle-Eastern crisis and pave ways there for future peace and stability which will subsequently create well-founded political and diplomatic platform for the China-envisioned OBOR project in the near future.