Commentary: China plays the Iran card against the US

WASHINGTON: Earlier this month, Iran announced that it is negotiating a 25-year agreement with China encompassing trade, energy, infrastructure, telecommunications, and even military cooperation.

For Iran, the prospect of a strategic partnership with China comes at a critical time. The Iranian government has been confronting popular discontent over a sinking domestic economy, which has been battered by American sanctions and, now, COVID-19.

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Making matters worse, a recent series of explosions across the country has deepened the sense that the regime is under siege.

Damaging at least two sites associated with the Iranian nuclear and missile programs, these incidents appear to be part of a broader strategy by the United States and Israel to cripple Irans capabilities.

A WELCOME DIVERSION

News of a large deal with China is thus a welcome diversion for the Iranian government, and may even buy it time to maintain the status quo until the November 2020 US presidential election.

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The outcome of that contest will determine the trajectory of US-Iranian relations and the fate of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), while also influencing Irans own presidential election in June 2021.

To be sure, Iranians historically have been averse to aligning too closely with any great power, and they are even less willing to accept economic tutelage.

With Irans relationship with China already a source of domestic controversy, it is possible that the countrys parliament will refuse to ratify the deal unless it is revised to meet certain concerns.

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But Irans economy has been in free-fall since 2018, when the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA and launched its “maximum pressure” campaign of heavy sanctions designed to squeeze the regime.

Moreover, with the regime as a whole facing a public backlash, Iranian President Hassan Rouhanis government has been under tremendous internal pressure.

The announcement of a deal with China allows Rouhanis government to demonstrate that it is not putting all its eggs in the Western basket. The message to the Iranian people is they are not isolated, and may even enjoy economic improvements despite US sanctions.

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a news conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 26, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

At the international level, Iran has always sought to balance one great power against another. Over the past decade, in response to US diplomatic and economic pressure, its security forces looked to Russia, key economic sectors looked to China, and the Rouhani government reached out to Europe.

Now, with Sino-American tensions rising, Iran is looking to China to shore up its economy and balance the US. Closer ties with China would give Iran more leverage in future talks with the US and Europe when it comes to revising or restoring the JCPOA, as well as in its dealings with regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

A MINEFIELD FOR CHINA

By contrast, a strategic partnership with Iran is a minefield for China. Although China continues to trade with Iran and invest in the countrys infrastructure, a deepening of ties could raise Americas ire at a critical and increasingly sensitive diplomatic juncture.

By potentially exposing itself to US sanctions, China risks losing some access to the US market (which is far larger than that of Iran). Not surprisingly, Chinese officials have been relatively quieter about the negotiations than their Iranian counterparts have been.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi shake hands at a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN-related meetingsin Singapore, August 3, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Feline Lim)

Likewise, China does not want to upset its regional partnerships with Israel or Saudi Arabia, each of which is currently engaged in proxy wars with and covert operations against Iran.

Nonetheless, China obviously sees some value in forging a comprehensive arrangement with Iran – a large, important regional player whose vast energy resources and tremendous economic potential make it a natural candidate for Chinas westward-looking Belt and Road Initiative.

China already buys discounted oil from Iran – not exactly a negligible benefit for the worlds foremost consumer of energy – and has become Irans key trading partner, including as a principal supplier of heavy machinery and manufacturing goods.

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More broadly, China has steadily increased its interest in West Asia over the past decade. It is the chief sponsor of the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and it has invested upwards of US$57 billion in Pakistan.

With the US set to leave Afghanistan, a partnership with Iran will give China a near-stranglehold over the strategic corridor stretching from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea.

As part of this expansion, China could even gain contRead More – Source