October 19, 2020

New Chinese-Iranian agreement envisages a closer military partnership, helps China to play a stronger role in the Middle East….

Much talk has been going on about China and Iran new partnership. There were rumors about such agreements being discussed since at least June. In fact, such negotiations started way back, in 2016, when Iran finalized its nuclear deal and Chinese president Xi Jinping met with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Both leaders then announced their intent to pursue a closer partnership. And now a document – that further suggests Iran and China are entering a very strategic 25-year partnership – has been leaked. Such partnership does not regard merely trade, politics and cultural issues, but it also has a security/military component. And that certainly bothers the US. The agreement will do a lot of good to Iran’s economy (badly affected by sanctions) through the sale of Iranian gas and oil to China. It also ensures China’s energy security. But there is much more to that.

It will take a while for the whole agreement to become public. According to the alleged leak and to several experts, besides telecommunications, health-care and other important sectors, the deal will also include intelligence sharing and military cooperation. Iran is a major regional power and its location (connecting Central Asia and the Middle East) also makes it strategic to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Both Iran and China have been damaged by Donald Trump’s administration – which is pursuing a trade with China and reimposed sanctions on Iran. Chinese authorities fear that the US might pressure other countries into no longer supplying China with energy – and China’s energy policy has always been one of diversifying its sources.

Furthermore, an Iranian-Chinese cooperation opens the way for China to play a stronger – and perhaps different – role in the Middle East. The Chinese “apolitical” (or pragmatic) approach focus on developmental peace and not necessarily “democratic peace” – this basically means that the Chinese are not interested in promoting wars for expanding “democracy” or their own notion of what democracy should be.

In fact, China is not the only key player getting closer to Iran: so is Russia. Russia and Iran of course have been partners for some time. But Moscow-Tehran ties are developing. The fact the Iran’s Foregin Minister Mhammad Zarif visited Moscow three times in the last six months is a good indicative. Both countries have been recently playing an important role in the Middle East region in terms of deterring terrorism and reinforcing regional stability. For example, it is widely acknowledged that the Russia-Iran-Syrian coalition played a vital role in neutralizing and weakening the terrorist Islamic State (Daesh) organization. Although Chinese military presence in Syria was rather modest, it did increase during the Syrian conflict. This also shows that China-Iran cooperation must be understood as part of a larger context, with regional and global implications.

US envoy to Iran, Brian Hoo, told reporters in June that Russia and China would be “isolated” (at the United Nations) should they oppose the US bid to extending the weapons embargo on Iran (it ends on October). Some have described the Middle East as the next “battlefield” where a Chinese-American dispute for hegemony will take place. But it is not just the Middle East. Such dispute extends to the ocean itself.

The US, in a way, has lorded over the seas (replacing England, who used to hold such post). But this is being challenged by some new developments that could lead to the US losing its current naval supremacy. Last year, for example, an unprecedented Russia-China-Iran joint naval exercise took place (in the Gulf of Oman and in the Indian Ocean). The same year the Chinese Navy also made a great display of its power and capacity by crossing the so-called International Date Line in a sea exercise – thus showing it is active not only in the western part of the Pacific Ocean, but can also reach deeper into the central and eastern Pacific. Well, now China might be increasing its presence in the Persian Gulf. There is indeed a geopolitical dispute for the oceans.

Traditional geopolitics (see Halford John Mackinder and Alfred Thayer Mahan) may describe both China and Russia as “land powers” – while the United Kingdom and the United States would be good examples of “sea powers”. It would seem, though, that China (and Russia also) are looking closer to the ocean. And Iran holds a very important position in this dispute.

Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts

 

 

 

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