Iran's mullahs are selling out to China

This past weekend, China and Iran signed the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, a 25-year strategic agreement that is the fruition of discussions that began in 2015, when Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Tehran and met supreme leader Ali Khamenei.  Following this visit, Khamenei sent a private message to Xi asking to hold talks about an agreement.  Majid Reza Hariri, the head of the Iran-China Chamber of Commerce, later said that any opinions came from the regime, as represented by Larijani.

The Iranian regime has not released the full text of the agreement.  It is an entirely "behind the scenes" document.  A few things, though, are known:

The agreement seemingly offers little to Iran except for providing it with an oil market in China.  Even some of the regime's supporters have described the agreement as resembling the Turkmenchay Treaty of 1828, a giveaway in which Iran ceded some of its northern provinces to Russia.  Those opposed to the regime suspect that it intends to use the prospect of cheap oil for China as its trump card in its negotiations with the U.S.  It badly wants to rid itself of the sanctions Trump imposed.

The Petroleum-Economist website reported that there are 5,000 Chinese security forces on Iranian soil as part of an agreement to protect Chinese projects.  Last July, British author and financial journalist Simon Watkins was trying to tease out the details of the security agreement between the two countries.  He concluded that the parties would cooperate on military and intelligence matters.  In addition, China would make a $400-billion investment in the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries, which would include upgrading Iran's infrastructure.

For its investment, China would get the first option to bid on oil, gas, and chemical projects in Iran, as well as a huge discount on all oil, gas, and petrochemical products.  It would also be granted generous timing on the terms for payment and to use soft currencies accrued in Africa and the former Soviet Union — which offer very good exchange rates.  There's much more detail in Watkin's article.

By September, Watkins reported that his intelligence sources said the then-proposed plan would see Beijing help install 15 million CCTV cameras through Iran.  All these cameras would be connected to China's main state surveillance systems.  Iran would also get a Chinese-style "national internet."

My review of Iranian social networks after China and Iran signed the agreement saw people complaining that it was a "shameful agreement" and that the agreement was "[b]ribing to prevent [the regime's] overthrow."  Iranian citizens consider the agreement a danger to the interests of Iranian citizens and a betrayal of Iran's national interests.

Some citizens emphasize that China is unpopular among Iranians.  Others recalled the Chinese trawlers in the Persian Gulf destroying the lives of poor Iranian fishermen.

The mullahs are stuck, trapped by the pressure of sanctions, a deadly virus, and a downtrodden society on the verge of explosion.  The regime is seeking a way out of this impasse.  Meanwhile, surprisingly, the Biden administration has not yet lifted the sanctions and is also talking about restrictions on missile programs and Iran's meddling in the region.

The main issue for Khamenei is his regime's survival, including preventing possible uprisings.  If any one of the issues facing the regime worsens, it will lose its balance gravely.  Khamenei, therefore, thinks that with a "look toward the east" policy, he can free his regime from sanctions and thus ensure its survival.  If that means large concessions and expending Iranians' capital to China, Russia, and North Korea, so be it.  Khamenei wants to get out of the predicament the Trump presidency forced upon him.

Khamenei ignores what history has repeatedly shown: when a government loses its people's support, entering into agreements with foreign powers cannot guarantee the government's survival.  The mullahs can't forget that most Iranians in 2017 and 2019 expressed their antipathy for Khamenei's religious dictatorship in numerous demonstrations and called for the establishment of a democratic government.  Sooner or later, it will be the people who will determine the future of this regime.

The big question is whether the agreement with China can be a salvation for a regime that is suffering from economic suffocation?  The essence of the contract is colonial because China will be in charge of Iran's cash flow and security.

Can a regime mired in corruption solve the problem of poverty, unemployment, and inflation?  Can the regime solve the explosive problem of 35 million poor living in shantytowns?  And is the regime even looking to solve these problems?  The answer is no.

For that reason, I strongly doubt the Iranian regime can use its deal with China as a way to prevent popular uprisings against it.

Hassan Mahmoudi is a Europe-based social analyst, researcher, independent observer, and commentator of Middle Eastern and Iranian politics.  He tweets under @hassan_mahmou1.

Image: Khamenei and Xi in 2015.  YouTube screen grab.

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