Explainer: What is the 'Iran-China comprehensive strategic partnership'?

Explainer: What is the 'Iran-China comprehensive strategic partnership'?
Former President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has come out to condemn it, criticising Iran for "plundering the country" and for "allowing foreign troops to enter". But what does it really entail?
3 min read
09 July, 2020
Iranwire claim to have obtained a leak of the document [Getty]

An 18-page document which purports to outline the terms of a 25-year accord between China and Iran has been leaked to Iranwire, amid sharp domestic criticism of Iran’s apparent capitulation to Chinese interests.

Ever since Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced the accord to a stormy session of Iran’s parliament on Sunday, speculation has been rife over what the deal, whose intention had been made public in January 2019 when President Xi Jingping visited Tehran, would comprise.

Rumours abounded in Iran that it included a lease on Iranian Islands in the Persian Gulf and the deployment of Chinese armed forces in the country, in exchange for billions of dollars of Chinese deals for the Islamic Republic. 

The response among hardline voices was loud, with some calling it a "colonial contract", Radio Farda report, likening it to a 19th century treaty with Russia, where historic Persia ceded large swathes of its territory to Russia.

Former President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad came out to condemn it, criticising Iran for "plundering the country" and for "allowing foreign troops to enter Iran".

Yet on closer inspection, the alleged document of the deal, obtained by Iranwire, appears to reflect little more than a restatement of Iran’s far-fetched ambitions with China, its largest trading partner.

As analyst Reza Haqiqatnezhad wrote on Twitter, the document offers proposals "made of dreams and floral language between Iran and China", with no specifics of any major deals.

In the document, Iran offers a written "commitment" to provide China with crude oil for 25 years. In return, China  will "pay attention to optimal use of the financial resources gained from oil sales”.

The countries will also seek to cooperate on renewable and civilian nuclear energy, as well as the construction of highways and railways and the development of ports, the document states.

Iran proposes China has "no obligation" to invest in oil field but has "the right to enter Iran’s oil and gas industry if it so wishes", assigns China "the development of the fifth generation of mobile phones (5G) network in the country".  

With China's relations with the Islamic Republic ultimately a function of Beijing's relations with the US - whose sanctions against Iran continue to cripple the its economy - the proposals in the accord seem idealistic at best.

Read more: China and Iran’s strategic partnership: A zero sum game?

Many will see the document as a manifestation of a Iran's broader appeasement of China.

Tehran continued to allow Mahan Flights to operate to and from China until February 24, nearly a week after the country reported its first coronavirus-related death and two months after Beijing altered the World Health Organization (WHO) to the new disease.

Iran has also turned a blind eye to the state-sanctioned abuse of China’s Uyghur minority, even as the country's Supreme Leader has urged India to "stop the massacre of Muslims"

Furthermore, Chinese firms also continue to exploit seabed resources of the southern coast of Iran, in a form of fishing known as "bottom trawling", destroying marine reservoirs and local fishing economies.

While China has historically been a key market for Iranian crude imports, figures released by Chinese officials show that crude deliveries reached a 20-year low in March 2020.

Even though the dip reflect a drop in demand amid the coronavirus pandemic, China’s oil imports from Russia and Saudi Arabia did not decrease by anywhere near the same magnitude.

Further, a trade agreement signed between the US and China early this year could see the US export $50 billion worth of oil, Liquefied natural gas (LNG) and coal to China.

Analysts say this would increase the US role in China's energy security and increase competition, with Beijing unlikely to sacrifice its trade market with the US for trade with Iran.

Agencies contributed to this report

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