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Will is Not Enough to Expel US from the Region

Will is Not Enough to Expel US from the Region

Wednesday, 22 July, 2020 - 09:45

It was not an Iranian or Chinese newspaper that broke the news about the Chinese-Iranian agreement. On July 11, the New York Times told us that Beijing and Tehran had reached a massive economic and defense cooperation agreement. Other Western news outlets provided further information:

The 25 year 400-billion-dollar agreement stipulates that China will buy Iranian oil at reduced prices (a discount of more than 30 percent) and build infrastructure projects in Iran. The two sides also agreed to hold joint military exercises, cooperate on developing weapons and exchange intelligence.

Iran, blockaded by the US, having lost hope in Europe as an alternative, sees China as the only economic and political power able to break the blockade. The recent and ongoing bombing of its facilities, which some have attributed to the Israelis, has put Tehran in an increasingly embarrassing position and made finding strong allies far more pressing. China, in turn, is taking advantage of Iran’s size and position, as a regional power at the intersection of the Middle East and Central Asia, to promote the “Belt and Road Initiative” and expand its economic and strategic presence and influence, taking advantage of its American rival’s contraction.

The humble beginnings were in 2016, with Xi Jinping’s visit to Tehran. In 2018, when the US withdrew from the nuclear deal and the sanctions began to rain down on it, Iran became certain that reaching an agreement with China was inevitable.

But the agreement does not dispel major questions: in all likelihood, China will not go very far in its defiance of the US, as the last thing it wants is for the complicated trade negotiations between them to come to a halt, to move from a controlled trade war to an open-ended one. Indeed, over the past two years, the Chinese have withdrawn from a few projects in Iran, and, last September, the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied the existence of such an agreement. Besides, the volume of bilateral trade has declined over the past few years due to US pressure, though China nevertheless remains a major trading partner for Iran. In the end, the ability of China’s commercial and banking sectors to move the relationship with Iran further, in light of the threat of US sanctions, remains in doubt.

The reality is, and this may be fatal to the agreement, that the two parties’ relationship with one another is affected by each of the two parties’ relationship with Washington. Both treat the other as a replacement to something that had been lost and the US is what both had lost. The upcoming presidential elections in the United States prevent both from losing hope, and these hopes demonstrate a major fact: China's growing weight in the international economy is not enough to sustainably alter the international balance of power.

It is noteworthy, for example, that the Tehran’s move towards Beijing seemed to slow down after having received the Chinese leader, because it had just struck the nuclear agreement (2015), and it was keen to avoid irritating the Americans. Progress on this front did not accelerate until after America’s withdrawal from the deal.

There is also an ideological dimension: Maoism may have just become nominal in China, but this is not true for Khomeinism in Iran. The document obtained by the ''Times'' begins by defining the two countries as "two ancient Asian cultures" and frames Iran as a minor Asian power rather than the major Islamic power envisaged by Khomeini's slogan "neither East nor West." True, Khamenei described the agreement as "wise," while it is said that Rouhani and his "teacher" the late Rafsanjani are pragmatists who admire the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. But the Khomeinist establishment’s position is not unanimous: Ahmadinejad, who may run for president in 2021, lambasted the agreement that has not yet been officially announced or presented to parliament, decrying the "secret negotiations" with China.

Jawad Zarif, returning from a visit to Beijing, faced sharp questioning in parliament. Ali Mutahari, a deputy, tweeted that before signing an agreement with China, his country ought to raise the issue of Muslims’ persecution in that country. Others have emphasized that Iran is negotiating with China from a position of weakness because of the economy and the coronavirus and that the agreement has provided the Chinese free access to their natural resources for a long period.

Other reports have mentioned popular trepidation about China and the impression that Iran’s relationship with it is the reason for the high coronavirus infection rate in Iran. Other critics have said that China benefited from sanctions on the country, flooding its market with sub-par products. Others have cited Chinese projects in Africa and Asia that exacerbated the impoverishment of those countries and heightened their dependence on Beijing. Iranian officials were forced to deny the reports that oil would be sold to China at reduced prices, or that the touristic island of Kish (91,5 km2) in Hormuz would be handed to China. Other officials denied that the agreement stipulated the deployment of Chinese military forces in Iran.

Western critics, for their part, compared that agreement to the Turkmenchay Treaty of 1828 between Persia and Tsarist Russia, which forced the Persians to cede land in the South Caucasus. Egypt's relationship with the Soviet Union is also analogous: Nasser brought the Russians to the region, in the mid-1950s, after he had been rebuked by the Americans. After the 1967 defeat, he brought in Russian advisers, but his successor Anwar Sadat expelled them soon after, in 1972.

At that time, and today, it seems that getting America out of the region is more complicated than the will of some enthusiasts.

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