Geopolitics

Tehran And That Other Superpower: China Aims At Iran’s Economy

While most of the attention around Iran is related to its nuclear program, an open ended deal may give China the legal foundations it needs to take a controlling stake in Iran's economy, and in time, undermine its independence.

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi have signed a 25-year Iran and China strategic partnership act.
Roshanak Astaraki

-Analysis-

LONDON — After several years of "secret talks', and to the dismay of many everyday Iranian citizens, officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran and China have signed a comprehensive 25-year agreement said to cover three broad axes of strategic-political, economic and cultural affairs.

The origins of the ambiguous document go back to 2015 when China's Xi Jinping visited the Islamic Republic and met, perhaps unusually then, with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The two heads of state then signed a joint communiqué declaring a commitment to actively upgrade ties through "comprehensive and strategic cooperation."

Five years later, in the summer of 2020, the government of the Iranian President, Hassan Rohani, approved a draft of the cooperation document and Rohani tasked his foreign minister, Mohammadjavad Zarif, with its public presentation.

The two countries have been moving closer for years as part of Khamenei's "Look East" policy format and with recurrent visits by top officials from both countries. That includes a recent trip to China by the head of the Iranian Armed forces joint headquarters, Mohammadhossein Baqeri, to discuss "enhanced defensive diplomacy."

Iran was placing major sectors like energy, security and military affairs under Chinese oversight.

Last July, the website Oil Price reported on some of the deal's details and scope. That report, in turn, prompted what may have been an Iranian foreign ministry "leak" in the form of an 18-page "correction," perhaps meant to counter the Oil Price article's impact on social media.

The Oil Price report suggested that Iran was placing major sectors including energy, security and military affairs under Chinese oversight, and effectively giving China control of its economic, political and military development for 25 years. Not surprisingly, U.S. President Joe Biden has publicly expressed concern.

Many Iranians are also alarmed, especially now that the deal has officially been signed. People have voiced their anger on Twitter using hashtags like "Iran on Sale", "Iran is Not for Sale" or "Shameful Agreement". There have been scattered protests in some Iranian cities like Tehran, Karaj, Isfahan and Kermanshah.

The refusal, on both sides, to reveal the terms of their agreement have only intensified concerns, as has the fact that, to avoid having to submit the text to parliamentary approval and effectively sidestep the laws of the Islamic Republic, Iranian officials aren't calling it an agreement — despite the scope of its concessions. Instead, they refer to it in lesser terms like a collaborative document, road map, or a document of understanding.

Article 153 of the regime's Constitution forbids "any agreement leading to foreign control of natural and economic resources, culture, army and other national institutions."

While Supreme Leader Khamenei has called the deal "correct and wise," critics see echoes of an earlier international agreement: The secret accord that was signed in 1919 between a weakened Persian government and Great Britain and that effectively placed Iran under British imperial tutelage.

Desperate for allies

While the Islamic Republic has for years sought out the friendship of Russia and China — the former communist bloc — as part of its systematic hostility to the West, the failure of more recent moves to improve ties with Europe have pushed it deeper into China's embrace.

Effectively, Khamenei's Look East framework has incremented Iran's subservience to Russia and China and effectively led it to a deal that looks like an outright surrender. And China, for its part, is delighted to walk the red carpet laid out before it. Iran not only has natural resources to meet the Asian giant's energy needs but also potential in other areas like mining or services, which Iran's post-revolutionary governments could not find much use for but could be put to good use in China.

China can use Iran's cheap labor and resources to cut the price of its exports to the West. Or it can invest in the petrochemicals sector, as the deal envisages, to fuel its factories. In political terms, the deal forwards its bid to establish a balance of power in the world, especially with its main economic rival, the United States.

The Islamic Republic expects benefits for itself.

It will also allow China to get ahead of two other rivals, Russia and India. China has been working on curbing India's expanding economy through massive investments in surrounding states including Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. This deal will thwart India's plans to turn the Chabahar port on the Persian Gulf into a link to Western Asian markets and a port to compete with Karachi, inside its hostile neighbor Pakistan. Chinese presence on the Persian Gulf will also solve the problem of distance from the Middle East, which had hitherto been a Russian advantage.

The Islamic Republic naturally expects benefits for itself. The deal is expected to mitigate the impact of Western sanctions and weaken the U.S.-imposed security cordon in the region. It may give Iran more leeway in negotiations with the West.

Iranian authorities also hope to modernize their aged naval and air equipment with Chinese help and reap some of the economic benefits of China's New Silk Road initiative.

While the pact may enhance the security of Iran's regime or even "immunize" it against the West, it can prove equally threatening to Iran and its people. A key danger is that officials of the Rohani government working with Ali Larijani, a senior conservative close to Khamenei, have forged a broad-ended and vague text that can thus remain outside the framework of international treaties, and absolve the government of any obligation to publish it or seek parliamentary ratification.

Not that ratification is a problem in Islamic Iran. When parliament is told to ratify, it will: it voted in the 2015 nuclear pact within minutes!

In the next stage, the government will be able to implement the deal through specific agreements with China on sectors or projects. And China will be able to expand its presence and do business in Iran this way, for 25 years.

For many Iranian officials, communist China is not just a partner, but a "model." Chinese firms will now flow into Iran and proceed to crush domestic production, before tightening their grip on the country's economic, political and military forces.

Twenty five years gives them more than enough time. And who can be sure they will not move troops onto parts of Iran's southern shores or its islands in the Persian Gulf?

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Thousands of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Сайн уу*

Welcome to Friday, where the new U.S.-UK-Australia security pact is under fire, Italy becomes the first country to make COVID-19 "green pass" mandatory for all workers, and Prince Philip's will is to be kept secret for 90 years. From Russia, we also look at the government censorship faced by brands that recently tried to promote multiculturalism and inclusiveness in their ads.

[*Sain uu - Mongolian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• U.S. facing multiple waves of migrants, refugees: The temporary camp, located between Mexico's Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in Texas, is housing some 10,000 people, largely from Haiti. With few resources, they are forced to wait in squalid conditions and scorching temperatures amidst a surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of recently evacuated Afghan refugees wait in limbo at U.S. military bases, both domestic and abroad.

• COVID update: Italy is now the first European country to require vaccination for all public and private sector workers from Oct. 15. The Netherlands will also implement a "corona pass" in the following weeks for restaurants, bars and cultural spaces. When he gives an opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will defy New York City authorities, who are requiring jabs for all leaders and diplomats.

• U.S. and UK face global backlash over Australian deal: The U.S. is attempting to diffuse the backlash over the new security pact signed with Australia and the UK, which excludes the European Union. The move has angered France, prompting diplomats to cancel a gala to celebrate ties between the country and the U.S.

• Russian elections: Half of the 450 seats in Duma are will be determined in today's parliamentary race. Despite persistent protests led by imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, many international monitors and Western governments fear rigged voting will result in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party maintaining its large majority.

• Somali president halts prime minister's authority: The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed marks the latest escalation in tensions with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble concerning a murder investigation. The move comes as the Horn of Africa country has fallen into a political crisis driven by militant violence and clashes between clans.

• Astronauts return to Earth after China's longest space mission: Three astronauts spent 90 days at the Tianhe module and arrived safely in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first of crewed missions China has planned for 2021-2022 as it completes its first permanent space station.

• Prince Philip's will to be kept secret for 90 years: A British court has ruled that the will of Prince Philip, the late husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who passed away in April at 99 years old, will remain private for at least 90 years to preserve the monarch's "dignity and standing."

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

With a memorable front-page photo, Argentine daily La Voz reports on the open fight between the country's president Alberto Fernández and vice-president Cristina Kirchner which is paralyzing the government. Kirchner published a letter criticizing the president's administration after several ministers resigned and the government suffered a major defeat in last week's midterm primary election.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€150

An Italian investigation uncovered a series of offers on encrypted "dark web" websites offering to sell fake EU COVID vaccine travel documents. Italy's financial police say its units have seized control of 10 channels on the messaging service Telegram linked to anonymous accounts that were offering the vaccine certificates for up to €150. "Through the internet and through these channels, you can sell things everywhere in the world," finance police officer Gianluca Berruti told Euronews.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

In Russia, brands advertising diversity are under attack

Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

❌ "On behalf of the entire company, we want to apologize for offending the public with our photos..." reads a recent statement by Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi after publishing an advertisement that included a photograph of a Black man. Shortly after, the company's co-founder, Konstantin Zimen, said people on social media were accusing Yobidoyobi of promoting multiculturalism. Another recent case involved grocery store chain VkusVill, which released advertising material featuring a lesbian couple. The company soon began to receive threats and quickly apologized and removed the text and apologized.

🏳️🌈 For the real life family featured in the ad, they have taken refuge in Spain, after their emails and cell phone numbers were leaked. "We were happy to express ourselves as a family because LGBTQ people are often alone and abandoned by their families in Russia," Mila, one of the daughters in the ad, explained in a recent interview with El Pais.

🇷🇺 It is already common in Russia to talk about "spiritual bonds," a common designation for the spiritual foundations that unite modern Russian society, harkening back to the Old Empire as the last Orthodox frontier. The expression has been mocked as an internet meme and is widely used in public rhetoric. For opponents, this meme is a reason for irony and ridicule. Patriots take spiritual bonds very seriously: The government has decided to focus on strengthening these links and the mission has become more important than protecting basic human rights.Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"Ask the rich countries: Where are Africa's vaccines?"

— During an online conference, Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, implored the international community to do more to inoculate people against COVID-19 in Africa and other developing regions. The World Health Organization estimates that only 3.6% of people living in Africa have been fully vaccinated. The continent is home to 17% of the world population, but only 2% of the nearly six billion shots administered so far have been given in Africa, according to the W.H.O.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

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