Despite public outcry, consensus builds for China-Iran deal

Bourse and Bazaar | Rohollah Faghihi: The relationship between Iran and China has improved considerably over the past two decades, but the two countries are far from enjoying the mutual understanding that is necessary for deeper strategic ties. Iranian public perceptions of China are increasingly, negative particularly in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis.

In April, while the coronavirus was raging in Iran, health ministry spokesperson Kianoush Jahanpour called China’s official death toll a “bitter joke”. He then traded barbs with Chang Hua, China’s ambassador to Tehran, on Twitter. The Chinese envoy urged the Iranian official to “respect the great efforts of Chinese people.” This heated exchange drew the attention of many in Iran, while Jahanpour’s “unconsidered” remarks enraged conservatives.

Jahanpour later backtracked and was eventually replaced, but Iranian public opinion had turned against China, and social media users reprimanded the Rouhani administration for not standing behind their official. Things got so tense that the Chinese ambassador blocked a number of Iranian users on Twitter including a famous Iranian singer. Reformists also jumped into the fray, slamming Rouhani’s government for its “unbalanced” ties with China.

It speaks to the complicated politics around Iran-China relations that the Rouhani administration has been accused of both being too dismissive and too dependent on China. Conservative politicians in Iran, who are eager for closer ties with China, have laid blame at the feet of the Rouhani administration for the dismal state of bilateral relations.

Ahmad Tavakoli, an influential conservative, has argued that Rouhani failed to welcome Xi Jinping warmly enough during a state visit to Tehran in 2016, sending his foreign minister to receive him on the tarmac. Hamid-Reza Taraghi, a political activist, recently claimed that “Some of [Iran’s] government officials have the wrong behavior towards our Chinese partners, and even the trip of Chinese President [ended up being useless] while it could have been the beginning of massive developments.”

Majid Reza Hariri, the Chairman of Iran-China Chamber of Commerce, told the hardline newspaper Kayhan, that following the implementation of the nuclear deal officials, in the Rouhani administration “talked to any Chinese official coming to Iran [in a way], as if [they] were his servants. He was [so] rest assured that Renault, Siemens and Total have formed a line [to invest in Iran] that he formally and publicly told Chinese that they are at the end of the line.”

While Xi Jinping signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) agreement with Iran during his state visit, little was implemented in the subsequent four years. Mahdi Safari, Iran’s former envoy to Beijing, stated recently that  “The Chinese tell us that ‘you see us as spare parts, and when you get into trouble with Westerners and your relationship with them goes sour, you come to us.’” Adding that “We need to build trust to correct this perception.”

According to Gholamreza Mesbahi-Moghaddam, a former conservative MP, as the Rouhani administration exhibited “no determination” to pursue the CSP, Ayatollah Khamenei intervened, sending the then parliament speaker Ali Larijani on an important mission to Beijing last year in order to revive the languishing agreement. now that the Rouhani administration is belatedly pursuing a new 25-year framework for the CSP agreement with China, that Khamenei’s intervention is bearing fruit.

But the public sentiment towards China threatens to prevent the deal from progressing. As a leaked 18-page document detailing negotiating points for the new CSP circulated on social media and critics labelled the terms as another Turkmenchay—the 1828 treaty between Persia and Imperial Russia under which the Persian government ceded control of territory in the South Caucasus. Rumors circulated on social media that the deal would see Iran host Chinese military forces and to cede the island of Kish to the Chinese, prompting denials from Iranian authorities.

Even conservative political figures, perhaps surprised by the public reaction to news of the deal, sought to turn the criticism towards the Rouhani administration. The conservative camp had itself been subject to similar criticism when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad signed a deal with Chinese officials in 2008 in an effort to safeguard oil exports in the face of international sanctions. The deal, which restricted Iran’s access to its own oil revenues, was also compared to Turkmenchay.

Hojjatollah Abdolmaleki, a prominent conservative political figure, cast doubt on the Rouhani administration’s ability to garner public support for the deal. Conservative figures even sought to amplify the rumors of embarrassing concessions. Mahmoud Ahmadi Bieghash, a newly elected radical MP, told claimed in an interview on state TV that the rumors about Iran ceding Kish to China were correct, but that “the [reaction] of people and parliament” forced a change in plans.

According to Fereidoun Majlesi, a former Iranian diplomat, the hardline politicians have found an issue around which to engage the wider public. “The radicals know that a large number of people are disappointed. Therefore, to attract their votes in the coming presidential election in 2021, they are bringing up such rumors to discredit their rivals, while portraying themselves as patriots,” Majlesi explained in an interview.

Despite their electoral ambitions, the strategic logic of an upgraded partnership deal between Iran and China is undeniable for Iranian authorities across the political spectrum. The conservative Farhikhtegan newspaper heralded the deal as “[the best opportunity] through which Iran can target the core of the maximum pressure policy,” referring to the sanctions reimposed by the Trump administration in November 2018.

Prominent economist Saeed Laylaz recently stated the agreement with China “will return balance to Iran’s foreign relation, while averting the exceeding demands of US and is [also] a response to Europe’s inaction,” adding that “Those who [care] for Iran should welcome this agreement. Because it both reduces the pressure on the country and increases our bargaining power against the West.”

Laylaz explained that Iran has no option but to pursue a more functional relationship with China. “If we do not use this opportunity with China, the West will never give us a chance. [Our] experience has shown that the West is nothing but the United States until further notice. Counting on Germany or the European Union is similar to building a house on the sands by the sea,” he said.

This view was echoed by Diako Hosseini, a senior director at the Centre for Strategic Studies, which is affiliated with the presidency. “Prior to US withdrawal from the JCPOA, strategic cooperation of Iran and China was just a choice. After US withdrawal, it was turned into a ‘preference,” he tweeted. Hosseini added that the Trump administration’s maximum pressure sanctions made such a deal a “priority,” and that further economic pressure would make the deal as “necessity,” describing any such agreement as the “price the [U.S.] should pay.”

Clearly, there is a growing consensus that an agreement with China would bolster Iran’s hand in future negotiations with the U.S. by increasing the means by which to survive the pressure of U.S. sanctions. However, some in Tehran are worried about Beijing’s ability to take advantage of Tehran’s current weak economic position.

Majlesi told Bourse & Bazaar that “Iranians are naturally worried that the Chinese will follow the playbook of Russians regarding Iran. For a period of time, Russia used Iran as a winning card to solve its own problems with the U.S. However, I strongly believe that China has unique abilities and if they decide to help us, they are certainly able to do so. “

Despite these headwinds, the Rouhani administration appears newly determined conclude this agreement. Mahmoud Vaezi, chief of staff to the president, has asserted that the negotiations on the document are likely to be “concluded by the end of the [Persian] year” (before March 2021).

An informed source told Bourse & Bazaar that this agreement “will be implemented during Rouhani’s presidency for sure,” adding that the political consensus in Iran is now clear, despite the public rhetoric. “Currently, there is no problem with implementing the agreement on the side of Iran, and everything is now dependent to China.”

No matter what administration is to come next, the Iranian political system and Ayatollah Khamenei will adamantly pursue the 25-year deal in order to more fully implement the CSP first signed in 2016. The hope will be that an economic uplift from China’s renewed commitment to Iran will win the hearts and minds of a wary public.