A 25-Year Pact with China: Iranian Public Opinion and Foreign Policy

30 Apr, 2021    ·   5765

Majid Izadpanahi contextualises the Iran-China 25-Year Cooperation Programme and its implications for Iran and its foreign relations. 

Majid Izadpanahi
Majid Izadpanahi
Research Intern

On 27 March, China’s Foreign Minister and State Councillor, Wang Yi, and Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Javad Zarif, signed the Iran-China 25-year Cooperation Programme during the former’s visit to Iran. This article gives an overview of the deal’s domestic reception, and analyses potential Chinese influence in the Iran-India relationship.

Iranian Public Opinion
The deal has generated concerns among the Iranian public for several reasons. These include China’s colonialist record; secrecy regarding the deal’s details; the role of Ayatollah Khamenei’s adviser, Ali Larijani; the Iranian parliament’s silence; concerns regarding China’s role in the future of Iranian politics and independence; and lack of a government response to the public’s concerns.

According to Iran’s former Foreign Minister and incumbent Head of the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, Kamal Kharazi, Yi insisted on the Nizam’s (the power centre under Ayatollah Khamenei) representative for negotiations. This representative was Ali Larijani, the Ayatollah’s senior adviser. Yi’s demand was premised on the logic that presidents in Iran change every four years, whereas the Chinese ruling party’s  tenure has more in common with the Islamic Republic’s clerical leadership. However, Zarif denied this in a ‘Clubhouse’ event; a meeting independent Iranian journalists and media were prevented from joining. When public objection escalated and comparisons of the Iran-China deal with the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay and the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement emerged, Ali Rabiei, a government spokesperson, stated that China did not permit publishing the document. China dictating terms to Iran— whether on a negotiator or disclosing the deal’s details—demonstrates the extent of Beijing’s control over Tehran.

Impact on Foreign Policy
The Iranian government requires foreign investment to develop the country’s economy and energy resources, and defend it from existing and perceived threats through military and espionage equipment. The long-term deal with China is a direct consequence of these needs. However, power differentials can have a critical impact on relationship dynamics.

For example, Tehran is a self-proclaimed defender of Muslims rights worldwide. Yet, the ayatollahs have overlooked Chinese treatment of the Uygur Muslims. Further, a few months ago, when Iran’s Health Minister, Kiyanoush Jahanpour, described China’s COVID-19 figures as a “bitter joke,” Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and foreign ministry criticised him for “offending the Government of China,” to the extent that he had to retract his statement. Official Iranian opprobrium is instead directed west. For example, Ayatollah Khamenei suggested that the US’ ulterior motive in helping Iran combat the pandemic was to collect Iranian citizens’ genetic data.

With regard to the deal, the anticipated Chinese investment in Iran (approximately US$ 280-400 billion) is substantially more than its investment in Pakistan via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, whose estimated total cost is US$ 87 billion. One, this highlights Iran’s significance in China’s grand strategy and Beijing’s potential to ‘direct’ Tehran. Two, it could have an adverse impact on India’s presence in the Persian Gulf region: its attempt to establish commercial routes to Central Asia and Afghanistan through Iran, as well as New Delhi’s overall Tehran policy. China’s access to Iran’s Chabahar Port complements the goal of a network of Chinese naval bases and maritime infrastructure and connectivity from the Chinese mainland to the Horn of Africa.

China’s massive investment in Iran and this long-term deal will therefore inevitably strengthen Beijing’s influence over Tehran. One dimension of such influence will be China gaining unrestricted access to the Indian Ocean. If Chinese investment in the Chabahar port materialises, it could potentially enable Beijing’s long-term military presence in Iran. Furthermore, such heavy financial dependence could potentially lead to a relationship trajectory akin to China’s with Kenya or Sri Lanka. Further, given Chabahar Port’s strategic location, it could be linked to Chinese facilities in other countries such as Pakistan and Djibouti, and connect China to Russian facilities in Syria.

Iran has entered an imbalanced deal with China, and negotiated from a position of weakness. On the domestic front, it has been met with largely negative public opinion. On foreign policy, China’s ability to influence Iranian decision-making can extend to its India approach, with Beijing’s presence in Iranian ports and the Oman Sea creating security concerns for New Delhi. Against this backdrop, the Iran-China deal will strengthen China’s position vis-à-vis India.

Majid Izadpanahi is a former IPCS Research Intern.