The Chinese Communist Party has abolished the freedoms and semi-autonomous status promised to Hong Kong in the ‘one country two systems policy’. So, it’s hardly surprising that another authoritarian state, Iran, is a close ally of China. Moreover, Iran is situated at the heart of a crucial section of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s flagship foreign policy juggernaut designed to acquire geopolitical dominance to rival that of the US and the EU.
During the period of contemporary industrialisation, China developed excess capacity, with massive construction companies and surplus capital that was redirected to BRI investments in foreign infrastructure, energy, agriculture and commerce. The colossal enterprise aims to establish a Sino-centric world and increase internationalisation of the renminbi. Often expressed in altruistic terms, fostering trade, growth and diplomacy, BRI projects have been criticised for hidden, unsustainable build-up of participating nations’ debt, long-term risks to their sovereignty, and potential military use of strategic ports developed by China.
Originally named the New Silk Road for the historical Silk Road trade routes, the BRI aims to overhaul Eurasia, connecting roads, rail and ports. Vague in the initial description of its scope, the land and maritime venture has grown to encompass over 130 nations, often lured by low-interest loans for infrastructure upgrades.
Iran’s strategic location on a planned 2,000-mile railway from western China to Europe offers a crucial link in the BRI’s Eurasian supply chain. Iranian projects have been allocated a $10 billion loan for infrastructure, such as power generators, dams, a port on the Gulf of Oman, the Tehran metro, country-wide rail lines and a transnational rail to Inner Mongolia. Chinese companies are developing Iranian oil and natural gas fields, but aside from its large fossil fuel reserves, Iran offers China a consumer market with untapped potential.
Although their interdependency is asymmetric, Iran and China share common interests and characteristics. Both are belligerent, with China militarising man-made islands in the South China Sea and Iran enlarging its footprint in the Middle East and beyond via proxy militias. Both nations are grappling with US sanctions and the upcoming presidential election. Reportedly, Chinese and Iranian government hackers have attempted to compromise the Gmail accounts of staffers working for the US presidential candidates.
Iran and China are consistently criticised for human rights violations. In Iran, women are imprisoned for removing their headscarves in public. Same-sex relations, adultery and apostasy are capital crimes. Oppression of ethnic minorities is widespread and includes Bahais, Kurds, Christians, Balochis and Arabs.
In China, human rights defenders can be detained without trial and families of overseas activists interned. Government authorities are reportedly detaining Uyghur Muslims to indoctrinate communism and eliminate Uyghur language, culture and religion. Chinese authorities have also mandated new regulations in Tibet, aimed at further erasing Tibetan culture. Automated mass surveillance has facilitated China’s internal program of reward and punishment for controlling society and policing dissent. External projection of control was manifest in the CCP’s rapid, forceful punishment of Australia for spearheading an independent, global Covid-19 inquiry.
Methods might differ, but Chinese and Iranian aspirations to expand are similar. Iran’s ambition to achieve regional hegemony and worldwide Islamic influence advances Khomeini’s Shiite revolution that transformed Iran into an Islamic theocracy. The revolution’s ideology is weaponised by paramilitary proxies such as Hezbollah, which operates as a global terror tool of Tehran, and the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces that rose to become a dominant political faction in Iraq. Overseen by the extra-territorial Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s armed campaign created a Shia Crescent through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean is a major military asset for Iran and a dividend for China’s development of the BRI in the region.
The ravages of Covid-19 have revealed the extent of Chinese involvement in Iran, particularly in the city of Qom, where early cases of infection emerged. China Railway Engineering Corp. is building a $2.7 billion high-speed railway line through Qom, linking Tehran to Isfahan, and Chinese technicians are assisting restoration of a nearby nuclear power plant. Over 10,000 Iranians have died of Covid-19, and figures could be higher, as the IRGC, privileged with immense economic, political and security powers, has kept medical statistics secret while controlling healthcare facilities.
In spite of crippling sanctions, a plummeting currency, low oil prices and a health crisis, Iran has diverted funds gained in Obama’s 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal. Instead of providing for people’s basic needs, the revenue was channelled to foreign military adventures,
Cash-strapped Iran has not been amenable to reining in the Quds force or renegotiating the nuclear deal with the US, their defiance enabled by China’s purchase of oil, sale of weapons and transfer of nuclear expertise. In return for Chinese assistance, Iran has sold discounted crude oil to Beijing.
For decades, China has reportedly aided Iran’s nuclear program in violation of commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and allegedly, some of China’s nuclear sharing with Pakistan was passed on to Iran. Recently, China has strongly defended Iran’s efforts to prevent IAEA inspectors from visiting previously undeclared sites of suspected nuclear activity.
The prospect of China and Iran becoming ‘responsible stakeholders’, respectful of human rights, and peaceful participants in the international system smoothed China’s admission to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 and propelled the nuclear deal. Not surprisingly, these hopes proved illusory, since authoritarian states are unlikely to behave as liberal democracies or meet their expectations.
Unlike other nations tied to China in the BRI, the China-Iran relationship is much more than mercantile. It functions as a collaboration of two authoritarian governments bent on challenging democratic values and the liberal international order while charting new avenues advantageous to their expansionist goals.
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Ida Lichter is the author of Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression
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