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July 18, 2020

Towards a new cold war?


July 18, 2020

The international media is awash with the reports of a possible 25-year strategic partnership between China and Iran. Though not officially concluded yet, the draft agreement says that China will pump a total of $400 billion in Iran’s petroleum and infrastructure sectors besides carrying out joint military exercises, training, and research and development of the weapons systems. In return, China will get Iranian oil on discounted rates for a period of 25 years.

The details of the draft agreement have coincided with Iran expelling India from the much-touted Chabahar rail project that sought to provide India with an opening into the Central Asian markets, an initiative pursued by India since Narendra Modi’s visit to CARs in 2015.

The North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) that was envisioned by Russia, India, and Iran to achieve the shared objective of connectivity between the Eurasian countries was presumed to keep Iran within the ‘sphere of influence’. Among other things, the idea of building this trilateral partnership was meant to present an equally viable option of connectivity as promised by China’s BRI.

While as much as Iran and Russia wanted the Corridor to become operational and were willing to make a requisite investment for the purpose, India was never interested to go the whole hog with Iran, fearing that such an engagement with the Islamic Republic could present challenges to its deepening partnership with the United States. Together with the Chabahar port that was marketed as a rival to CPEC-funded Gwadar Port, New Delhi used the alliance to keep China and Pakistan at bay.

With India officially out of the Chabahar rail project, and Iran entering into a long-term strategic and political partnership with Beijing, the perception of India doing American bidding as the most ‘allied ally’ will become deep-rooted. Its sustained opposition to CPEC and by extension the Belt and Road Initiative, has American interest written all over it.

Over the last two decades since the signing of the Vision 2000 document, Indian foreign policy has increasingly been shaped by thinking that tilts heavily towards Washington. The foreign and political establishment in New Delhi has shown considerable concern about the manner its policies are received in Washington.

The China-Iran partnership represents the extension of the BRI vision that China has marketed globally as creating a community of shared interests and building win-win partnerships. With CPEC, a flagship project of the BRI, having entered the second phase of implementation, the strategic deal will position China as a predominant stakeholder in the Greater South Asian region.

Already mired in a trade war and controversy about the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic with the US, the China-Iran partnership will further deepen the divide between the two superpowers, thus providing a fresh impetus to the notion of a new cold war germinating. South Asia is likely to be the foremost theatre where Beijing and Washington will fight it out most feverishly by deploying their influence and economic clout.

In whatever form the final strategic partnership emerges, the tight Chinese embrace of Iran highlights the limitations of America’s Iran policy. On July 14, the US’s effort to get the arms embargo on Iran extended indefinitely met with vehement Chinese opposition.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s in a virtual meeting of the UNSC said, “Don't just take it from the United States, listen to countries in the region. From Israel to the Gulf, countries in the Middle East – who are most exposed to Iran's predations – are speaking with one voice: Extend the arms embargo’’; this, however, failed to achieve the desired objective.

The US might have succeeded in discouraging its European allies from conducting business with Tehran despite their manifest apprehensions and disagreements over President Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), but it has clearly failed in isolating the Islamic Republic. Trump’s ‘maximum suffocation policy’ as described by the Russian ambassador to the UN is not working the way Washington would like it to work.

In an election year, President Trump cannot afford to risk an armed confrontation with Iran, a prospect he himself dialed down after hostilities between the arch-rivals came to a breaking point in the backdrop of the killing of top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.

With China ready to serve as a supply line, the Iranian economy has got a new lease of life. The potential partnership also showcases a more confident and self-assured China that is expanding its global footprint under President Xi. Beijing seems to have assessed the pros and cons of the choices it is making, given Washington’s unwavering opposition to Iran.

In their analysis, reporters Farnaz Fassihi and Steven Lee Myers put it aptly when they said, “At a time when the United States is reeling from the recession and the coronavirus, and increasingly isolated internationally, Beijing senses American weakness.” The Chinese leadership must have war-gamed the scenarios including the cost of defying an angry US, including how to operate in the unchartered territory of global affairs.

However, this is not to suggest that the China-Iran partnership is going to get smooth sailing. Despite the fact that the deal enjoys the blessings of the supreme Iranian leader and has been okayed by President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet, its terms and conditions are likely to be fiercely debated in the Iranian parliament that is dominated by conservative elements.

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been reported to be leading a campaign against the partnership, stating that it signals the ceding of Iranian sovereignty to China. Iran has, historically, been a fiercely independent nation with pride in the centuries-old civilization. It has often balked at the economic concessions and the prospects of a return to the international mainstream in return for scaling back its nuclear program, stating in unequivocal terms that such a trade-off goes against the imperatives of national security and sovereignty.

There is already talk that the deal mortgages Iran’s natural resources to China, a newly emerging partner whose sincerity is yet to be tested at the crunch time. A clash of narratives is likely to emerge in Iran as the rival camps frame the deal in terms that help in winning over the larger support.

Of equal interest will be the response of the GCC countries and Israel to the China-Iran partnership. China has meticulously maintained a fine balance in its relations with Iran and its rival GCC countries as well as Tel Aviv. Explaining the deal to them, while maintaining the current level of relationship, will be a major test of the Chinese diplomatic machinery.

Despite the possibility of the heightened tension between Washington and Beijing in the wake of the conclusion of the partnership, nothing concrete is likely to happen to upset the status quo. However, whosoever emerges as the winner following the American presidential election in November will have a job cut out on the Sino-Iranian front as the foremost foreign policy challenge.

How Pakistan can leverage this regional development requires a detailed analysis for another day.

The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @Amanat222