Proposed Sino-Iran strategic cooperation

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Dr Muhammad Khan

YET to be formally inked and publically announced, the China-Iran humongous strategic cooperation deal is being viewed with lot of optimism at Beijing and Tehran. This optimism in China and Iran has sent shock waves of pessimism at rival capitals where policy makers are having sleepless nights and distressed days. The proposed 25 Year, China-Iran Deal will allow China to invest over $400 Billion for the development of Iranian communication network, development of its ports and railway lines besides exploration of huge energy resources. If materialized, this deal would enable Tehran to come out of the economic crisis; the Islamic Republic is enduring since last fifteen years. Owing to its covert nuclear activities (Enrichment of Uranium to weapon grade), Tehran has been under international sanctions since 2005. There was partial easing of these sanctions after a nuclear deal between Iran and P-5 plus One in 2015 through, “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) signed on July 14, 2015.In the light of JCPOA, Iran pledged major cuts in its nuclear programme. Indeed, Tehran extended a hand of cooperation towards international community by promising to ‘eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, cut its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98%, and reduce by about two-thirds the number of its gas centrifuges for 13 years.’
Besides, the Islamic Republic also pledged that, for next 15 years, it will only enrich uranium up to 3.67%. It also fulfilled its promises of not building any new heavy-water facilities for this duration. Since then Tehran is limiting itself to a single facility using first-generation centrifuges (for 10 years). From 2015 onwards, Iran has been cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in all areas agreed in JCPOA. President Obama of United States had a key role in brokering this nuclear deal. It was also expected that, Washington will protect and honour its commitment for the continuation and implementation of JCPAO. Unfortunately, President Trump took a U-turn in May 2018 and unilaterally left JCPOA. Since then, Washington has re-imposed sanctions on Tehran on multiple grounds, compelling Islamic Republic to look for other avenues for its economic survival. Indeed, there was a major shift in the US priorities in the wider Middle Eastern region, immediately upon conclusion of JCPOA. Washington changed its focus with a clear leaning towards Tehran, leaving GCC region at great confusion and insecurity. Many US and European corporate sectors rushed to Tehran for getting contracts and making major economic investments in Iran.
Besides, there were great deals between Iran and India for the development of Iranian economic sectors strategic cooperation including Indian investment for the development of Chabahar Port in Iran. Chabahar port was a strategic response to Pakistani deep sea Gwadar Port and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. While India has benefitted from its deep-rooted economic and strategic engagements with Iran till-date, some of the European and American companies which had started their economic activities were forced to cease functioning after US pulled out of the deal. Despite US sanctions all over the foreign investment and economic activities in Iran, India was allowed to purchase energy resources from Iran and develop the strategically significant Chabahar Port without any sanctions. Chinese President Mr Xi Jinping made a historic visit of Tehran in 2016, after commencement of physical implementation on JCPOA. At that time Beijing and Tehran agreed on a $600 Billion Chinese investment in Iran over next 25 years. Nevertheless, in the subsequent years, Tehran was seen more inclined towards European and American continents for re-start of its post sanctions economic up-lift. US unilateral pull-out from the deal in 2018 brought a great set-back for the Tehran. Since then, it has started looking for alternatives and China was found the most apt choice, since later needed energy sources and former had these resources in abundance.
In the wordings of Dr. James M. Dorsey, “Hobbled by harsh US sanctions and a global economic downturn, Iran has discovered a new opportunity: hot air that carries messages to its opponents. China, albeit far less economically impaired, sees virtue in the business too.” China needed a destitute, needy and committed partner at the opening of wider Middle Eastern region and Iran badly needed to come out from the falling economic status. For the analysts of global politics, there are numerous advantages for China in case the deal is materialized and subsequently implemented. Indeed, while under strict US sanctions, Tehran could see Beijing as the only hope to balance US coercions and frequent military threats besides putting flesh on the skeleton of Iranian economy. The proposed $400 billion 25 Year Partnership Agreement will be more than economic cooperation; Chinese investment to develop Iran’s oil, gas, and transportation sectors. It will have strategic connotation and long-term security impacts on the regional and global politics.
It is to be noted that, in last two months (May and June 2020) a visible change was observed in Chinese handling of regional and global issues. Unlike past, China was more vigorous while dealing with Indian violations of disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) in East Ladakh region (Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir). Besides, there was more offensive military postures, Chinese Navy demonstrated in South China Sea where US was seen in contesting mood to have a navigational freedom for its Naval assets and those of its regional allies. The proposed China-Iran deal will contribute towards peace and a balance of power in South and West Asian regions. Besides opening new avenues for economic development and job opportunities, it will counter the rival forces, which are operating to destabilize the region for their vested interests.
— The writer is Professor of Politics and IR at International Islamic University, Islamabad.

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