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Geopolitics

Iran's Secret 25-Year Trade Pact With China May Really Be A Military Deal

Iranians only have online speculation to guess how much the country's clerical regime has conceded to China as part of the New Silk Road initiative. There are now reports of 5,000 Chinese security agents being deployed in Iran to "protect" Chinese personnel working in the oil sector.

photo of a man with a mask crossing a blue foot bridge

Crossing that bridge in Tehran

Sobhan Farajvan/Pacific Press via ZUMA

A member of the Tehran Chamber of Commerce recently cited unconfirmed reports of some 5,000 Chinese security agents deployed in Iran, under the pretext of protecting Chinese personnel working in the oil and gas sectors.

The presence of Chinese forces inside Iran would be within the framework of the 25-year cooperation pact between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People's Republic of China. Reza Padidar, head of the Tehran Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture's energy committee, says the reports are fueling concerns about the mechanics of implementation of the Iran-China pact.


Padidar was critical of reported plans by China to postpone for up to two years payments on oil and gas projects, adding that Iranian business sectors were concerned about how far the 25-year pact would contribute to Iran's development.

Meanwhile, Iranian Oil MinisterJavad Owji, has announced that Iran is planning to develop several oil and gas fields with foreign participation through recently signed deals worth $4.5 billion. The government has divulged few details on the deals and said nothing about which companies would sign agreements with a state under U.S. sanctions.

New Silk Road brings security agents

Other reports on China's expanding presence in Iran indicate that the government is allowing China to open a consulate in Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf. The head of the Tehran Chamber's investments services office, Feryal Mostowfi, told the website Eqtesad Online that since the provisions of the 25-year deal with China were not published, anything said on the pact was speculative. Knowing little, she said, business actors were unable to make constructive comments on the agreement.

She added that "economic actors and the private sector are not asking for security and military clauses to be published and are concerned only with economic affairs, so they can make suggestions for improvements and to safeguard national interests as far as possible." She cited information from the website Oil Price to the effect that Iran and China had agreed to proceed with some projects without tenders or transparency.

The journal believes 5,000 Chinese security agents were sent to Iran to protect its workforce there, though this cannot be confirmed without official documents.

When Xi met Khamenei

Mostowfi says that the Chamber had asked various government offices to provide it with a text of the pact for consideration in its assembly, though "none had answered." In time, she says, its contents would inevitably become public.

The accord, with political, strategic, economic and even cultural dimensions, was signed after five years of secret talks. Its origins go back to 2015 when China's President Xi Jinping visited Iran and unusually perhaps, met with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The presidents of both countries issued a joint statement on that trip on boosting bilateral ties.

Reports have emerged since on its possible provisions in websites like Oil Price and on social media, including a "leaked" 18-page final draft. The leaked draft, a copy of which was emailed to Kayhan London, may have been a calculated move by the regime to counter revelations by Oil Price about the concession of key sectors to China over decades. But even the "leak" had few details and only generalities supposedly showing the deal's benefits for Iran.

photo of military men in uniform on a tarmac

During a joint naval drill of Iran, Russia, and China in the Indian Ocean in January

Iranian Army via ZUMA

Economic cooperation or a treaty of surrender?

Iranians remain concerned that the pact will effectively make Iran a client state of the communist superpower. It will certainly turn it into a link in China's global trading and production chain, known as the New Silk Road, providing China with cheap labor, local consumers and a government willing to pay it vast sums for big construction projects.

Crucially, the pact also envisages closer security and military ties. There have already been reports of firms like Huawei and ZTE working with Iranian intelligence and security agencies, but Oil Price suggests the deal even envisages a Chinese military base in Iran and control over its military infrastructures, and will ultimately give China a new role with much more leverage in Middle East affairs.

The provisions reportedly include ceding partial control of bases in Hamadan in western Iran, Bandar Abbas, Chabahar and Abadan to China and Russia, allowing the two powers to install advanced electronic and anti-aircraft systems. Likewise, in return for training 110 revolutionary guards officers a year, the two countries are to keep 110 advisers and officers in Iran annually.

Such reports prompt Iranians to ask whether this was an economic cooperation pact or a military treaty of surrender. The Islamic Republic may have bought China's protection against regime change for the price of an entire country and its resources.

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