What is Beijing up to? This is unprecedented – the Chinese Ministry of Defense paid a visit to Iran

On April 27, China’s Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe in the presence of a large Chinese delegation was welcomed in Tehran. The minister held talks with his Iranian counterpart Brigadier General Mohammad-Reza Ashtiani and Iran’s Chief of Staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri. The Chinese military delegation was also received by President Ibrahim Raisi.

China and Iran discussed expanding military-technological cooperation amid an escalating confrontation with the West and the conflict in Ukraine. As a result, the two sides signed a new framework military strategic agreement.

Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe said that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, together with Iran, is ready not only to support “Iran’s state sovereignty and national dignity” but also stability around the world.

The Iranian-Chinese rapprochement is based on what the Iranian president has called “the joint struggle against Unilateralism,” that is, the unconditional domination of the West in the world.

The visit of China’s national defense chief to Iran is a serious event, and it clearly contributes to the development of Iran-China strategic relations. Wei Fenghe is the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Iran since the two sides signed a 25-year comprehensive cooperation agreement last year to further improve bilateral ties.

History of the relationship

Western sanctions against Iran were imposed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Each new wave added sanctions and ruined Iran’s economy. From 2006-2010, the UN banned arms exports and nuclear materials and equipment for the nuclear industry imports. From 2010-2012, Iran was almost completely isolated from the global financial system and an oil export ban was imposed.

Iran is the world’s third-largest country by oil reserves. Before the sanctions, 80% of its income came from oil exports. Because of the sanctions over the past 10 years, the average annual GDP growth was only 0.58%. Iran’s GDP per capita declined by almost 70% between 2012 and 2020.

After the sanctions were imposed, Iran redirected all of its exports to Asia, mainly to China, which has become Iran’s main trading partner. Since then, cooperation with China has been very important to Iran.

More than five years ago, Iran and China began preparing a strategic agreement for the next 25 years. This agreement implies some guarantees for both sides for a very long period of time.

The strategic agreement with China is secret, so most of the country’s elite does not know the contents of this document. This is often the cause of criticism from the supreme power and accusations that the agreement is highly disadvantageous to Iran.

Terms of the 25-Year Agreement

On March 27, 2021 in Tehran, China and Iran signed an agreement on a 25-year partnership between the two countries. According to experts, the main provisions of the agreement between China and Iran have not changed during the period when the text was being negotiated. Therefore, when reviewing the terms of the agreement, major Western media outlets rely on the text of a draft that came to them, prepared back in 2016.

The New York Times reported in July 2020 that it had received an 18-page draft of Iran’s agreement with China. The main thing in it is Chinese investment in Iran of $400 billion. The agreement greatly expands China’s economic presence in Iranian banking, telecommunications, ports, railroads and dozens of other projects. In return for investment, China is guaranteed regular and heavily discounted oil supplies for 25 years.

The document also outlines deepening military cooperation, potentially giving China a foothold in the region. It calls for joint training and exercises, joint research and weapons development, and intelligence sharing – all to combat “terrorism, drug and human trafficking, and cross-border crimes.”

The agreement makes possible China’s greater involvement in the operation of Iranian ports, including along the coast of the Sea of Oman. One of the strategically important ports is in Jaska, near the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Being there would give the Chinese a strategic vantage point on the waters through which most of the world’s oil passes.

The passage is of critical strategic importance to the United States, whose Fifth Fleet Navy is headquartered in Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf.

As The Times specifies in September 2020, as part of the agreement, China will invest $280 billion in Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical industries. The Iran-China agreement authorizes the deployment of 5,000 troops of the People’s Liberation Army of China on Iranian territory with the possibility of increasing the number of personnel to protect and secure the transit of oil, gas and petrochemical products to China.

Goals of the meeting.

In recent months, China has sharply increased the volume of purchases of still-sanctioned Iranian oil, despite the fact that it has now become more expensive than Russian oil. At the same time, China has been reducing its purchases of Russian oil by similar amounts.

As expert on China Nikolay Vavilov says, “China has changed its general strategy of relations with sub-sanctioned countries, and the events of February-March in Russia are just a particular case of some new paradigm in China, when trade and economic relations with an anti-American contour are expanding regardless of the position of the United States, this is the new global trade and economic policy of the PRC.” He notes that it is likely that China is also negotiating with Iran to switch to the yuan in oil trade.

According to The Wall Street Journal, in recent months Iran has begun test restarts of onshore oil wells that have been idle for years because of sanctions. “We will be ready to sell more oil,” an Iranian official said. The goal was to significantly increase production to be able to export an additional 1 million barrels of oil a day once sanctions are lifted, officials said.

Meanwhile, The Times notes that China is strengthening its military ties with Iran to an “unprecedented” level as Beijing prepares for a possible confrontation with Washington.

China’s former ambassador to Iran Hua Liming noted in an interview with the Global Times that China and Iran are getting closer because of the United States. “Both China and Iran are targets of US hegemony. I think this is the most important common interest between the two countries,” Hua said. She called China’s military ties and cooperation with Iran “unprecedented.”

Elena Panina, director of the Institute for International Political and Economic Strategies, wrote that China’s visit is also aimed at pre-empting US actions and the possible lifting of sanctions. In her view, the shadow reason for General Wei Fenghe’s visit to Tehran is to resolve with Iran the issue of guarantees to maintain Iranian oil supplies.

“China understands that maintaining an alliance with Iran only at the level of military cooperation and bilateral energy trade alone will be difficult. So the investment cooperation, which Iran badly needs, comes to the forefront,” the expert believes. That is, we are talking about the implementation of the terms of the 25-year treaty.

If we rely on the draft of this agreement, extracted by The New York Times in 2020, it becomes clear that in conditions of real confrontation with the USA Iran remains a strategically important support for China. And that military cooperation with such a partner would give China a much-needed advantage at such a time, both militarily and economically. But will Iran be willing to accept such a Chinese presence if sanctions are lifted?

Today, the crisis in Ukraine, the nuclear deal, and the strategic partnership between Iran and China are intertwined in a knot that does not allow any of these issues to be resolved in isolation from the others.

Source: Rossa Primavera News Agency

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