Iran's clerical regime is handing over vital economic sectors to its "allies," Russia and China. But future generations may end up paying the real price for the country's "Look to the East" philosophy.
LONDON — Soon after the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran turned the popular chants of "Neither East Nor West But An Islamic Republic" and "Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic" (Esteqlal, azadi, jomhuri-e eslami) into official slogans and cornerstones of its ideology. These conveyed the new regime's desire to be firmly non-aligned in its goals and affiliations. The government even placed the first slogan over the gates of the foreign ministry in Tehran.
In actual fact, the regime has based its foreign policy on a distinctly "Not Western" foundation. The assault on the U.S. embassy in Tehran late in 1979 was a clear indication of its leanings, even if the regime did seem to sway Westward at particular and sensitive points over the next 40 years. It has been years, however, since it displayed any independence from the emblematic powers of the Eastern block, Russia and communist China.
As for the rest of its slogans, the Islamic Republic has not been associated with freedom or independence since its inception, while 43 years of systematic corruption and criminal brutality have shown what it really thought of the Islamic religion and republican governance.
Iran's "Look to the East" policy
Iran's regime has arguably ruined the lives of its citizens and those of future generations, who may have to live with the outrageous concessions it is making to powers like China. Sell-out is the term Iranians use to describe pacts like the 25-year agreement with China and a 20-year cooperation treaty with Russia. They follow the "Look to the East" policy framework set out by the country's current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
On a recent visit to Moscow, the country's 13th president, the ultra-conservative Ebrahim Raisi, was shown bowing in prayer inside the Kremlin while his foreign minister, and previous ones from purportedly reformist governments, love to tweet goodwill messages in Mandarin to China's communist leaders. These are not just mere formalities. The real gesture is the opening of Iran's gates so that China and Russia can have their fill of the country's resources.
Ultimately, Russia and China will earn more from that vast gas field than Iran itself
In Beijing, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian recently announced the start of the "operational phase" of the 25-year pact with China. Of course, Iranians have yet to be told of its provisions or those of the 20-year pact with Russia. Their government is not big on revealing facts and was similarly loath to divulge the text of its 2015 nuclear pact with world powers.
On the pact with China, the head of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy committee, Mojtaba Zolnuri, has said, "We don't have a problem with giving out information. Our country is quite particular in terms of transparency with information, but usually, with these types of accords, both sides decide how much information should be divulged. Right now, the Islamic Republic is not keen to state details." He added that they would only reveal "generalities."
Iran's pact with China has varied economic, security, military, industrial and energy-related dimensions
A murky, long-term pact with Beijing
The text of this murky, long-term pact with China includes provisions to sign more project-related contracts. These will be entrusted to Iranian ministries, which are rife with cronyism and embezzlement. The Raisi government's Economy Minister Ehsan Khanduzi has said in turn that several ministries have "entered into negotiations with the Chinese side to reach an agreement, and once these agreements get going, the investments and growth we've envisaged will become effective." This phase of the treaty remains in its early stages.
Khanduzi's "investments" are in fact concessions of Iranian public interests to communist China. The pact with China has varied economic, security, military, industrial and energy-related dimensions, which were previously laid out in the five years of secret talks that preceded its signature. China has been present in the country's oil sector for some years now, though the agreement will see it entering the gas sector, notably through investments in the Chalus gas field in the Caspian. Ultimately, Russia and China will earn more from that vast gas field than Iran itself.
Some parliamentarians have also proposed legislation to provide Chinese firms with tax breaks and other incentives for activity.
The risks of Tehran's "Look to the East" approach
The Iranian regime prefers to reveal parts of the pact that can, in its opinion, sway or influence domestic opinion. One of the goals it hopes to finally implement is its plan for a national, and controlled, internet system with Chinese help. As one legislator said in early 2021, Iran must recover the sovereignty "we've lost over our cyberspace." Some experts believe Iran's internet plans are more propaganda than a feasible proposition.
Iran may just become a cheap source of labor and an unwilling consumer market for China
Artificial Intelligence expert Iman Samizadeh said that a bid to control the internet was like a joint venture to build chariots as the world shifts to electric cars. Germany-based telecommunications consultant Mahmud Tajjali-Mehr also believes that while a national Internet plan is not feasible, it would become an excellent means of pocketing public funds.
But the publicity given to this plan serves perhaps to hide from Iranians the more lucrative — or costly — aspects of the agreement, like opening the mining, construction and manufacturing sectors to the Chinese.
In time, Iran may find itself in the same, ruinous position as countries like Sri Lanka, and heaving under the weight of debt and obligations to an overbearing partner. Given Iran's particular position in strategic terms, China might make concessions, of course, in return for Western concessions on bigger issues like Taiwan. Or thanks to its blinkered leaders, Iran may just become a cheap source of labor and an unwilling consumer market for the future superpower.
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