Trump has pushed Iran into China’s arms

August 12, 2020

TEHRAN: When Hassan Rouhani announced in the run-up to the 2013 presidential elections that it would be better and easier to negotiate with the United States as the “headman of the...

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TEHRAN: When Hassan Rouhani announced in the run-up to the 2013 presidential elections that it would be better and easier to negotiate with the United States as the “headman of the village,” it was hard to imagine at the time that seven years into his presidency, ties with the United States would have been virtually cut off and he would be negotiating a 25-year accord with China, foreign media reported.

Rouhani is considered a moderate in Iran, and he won the 2013 race promising to de-escalate tensions with the West, standing in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who favored shifting Iran toward China. This shift brings to public view a rivalry inside the country between Western-minded reformists and pro-China hard-liners, a clash that has been ongoing since the 1979 revolution.

The ascendance of one faction over the other at various points has had a significant impact on the direction of Iranian politics. Reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s government (from 1997 to 2005) improved its ties with European countries within the framework of his “constructive interaction” doctrine, but Ahmadinejad (who was president from 2005 to 2013), his immediate successor, chose to focus his foreign policy on building closer ties with Russia and China. At the end of Ahmadinejad’s term, as international sanctions were bringing the Iranian economy to its knees, the public wanted again to pivot back toward the West.

Rouhani tapped into this feeling and won the presidency by promising to solve the issues surrounding international sanctions and Iran’s nuclear program. He put all his political capital into negotiating with the West over the nuclear program, which eventually produced the landmark 2015 deal that put strict limits on Iran’s nuclear capabilities in return for lifting sanctions and revoking all anti-Iran U.N. Security Council resolutions.

But Rouhani’s hard-line opponents harshly criticized him for what they called his “pivot to the West,” saying that he had unnecessarily ignored the East. Pro-Eastern sentiment in Iran is rooted in two major modes of thinking. On the one hand, hard-line groups prefer an authoritarian style of government similar to that of China and Russia, and they have little interest in the West’s democratic ways. On the other, many groups in Iran have extensive trade relations with China and were concerned that those ties could be disrupted if Iran began to cultivate economic ties with European and U.S. companies. These were the forces Rouhani had to balance as he negotiated with the West, and while former U.S. President Barack Obama was in office, they mostly worked in his favor. But the hard-line approach taken by US President Donald Trump has dashed the hopes of the Rouhani administration. When Trump announced in May 2018 that the United States would withdraw from the nuclear deal, he effectively scuppered the gains made by Rouhani and his allies and gave renewed relevancy to the country’s hard-liners.

Now, after more than two years of crippling economic pressure, Rouhani seems to have resolved that the only way to save Iran is to follow the hard-liners’ demands and pivot to the East.

On June 21, a draft 25-year agreement between Iran and China was approved by the Iranian cabinet. Details about the agreement have not been made public, and there has been much speculation about its contents. But growing public concern over the deal has forced senior officials to comment on the deal. While it is officially billed as an economic partnership, there is speculation that there will be a military component.

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