In the last few weeks, the news of a 25-year comprehensive strategic agreement secretly signed by the Iranian government with its Chinese counterpart has gained an exaggerate attention from international media and some prominent political figures both within and outside Iran. The deal inflamed the debate because of its supposed secrecy and the nature of the concessions Iran was going to make to China, which allegedly ranged from the transfer of some islands in the Persian Gulf to rumours of about up to 5000 Chinese military personnel to be stationed in Iran.
Contrary to the words of the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was the first to denounce the secrecy of the agreement, the negotiation process began in 2016 and continued through the years, with several public exchanges between top-level Iranian and Chinese authorities. Furthermore, the final draft of the cooperation document, which has circulated since last week, does not mention the transfer of Kish or other islands to China, nor any Chinese military presence in the country.
Besides calling for various infrastructural projects and multilateral initiatives in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the 18-pages document frames a partnership that aims to be strategic as much as comprehensive. China and Iran will deepen their cooperation in key areas such as telecommunication and software development, as well as encouraging Chinese investment in the Iranian special economic zones and coastal areas. The agreement recognises Beijing as a regular and preferred customer of Iran’s oil, suggesting the possibility of substantial discounts. Furthermore, it touches military and defence cooperation, mentioning the creation of a joint commission for military industries, exchange of knowledge, joint projects and drills, and counterterrorism collaboration. Certainly, it is an ambitious agreement which, however, lacks the details and the implementation tools that are typical of a binding contract.
Unsurprisingly, the draft of the cooperation document under scrutiny is coherent with the framework publicly agreed by Xi Jinping and Hassan Rouhani in January 2016. On that occasion, the two presidents announced that China and Iran were beginning the process of elevating their relationship to the level of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), presenting a 25-year roadmap for enhancing the ties between the countries in numerous areas of cooperation. Notably, the inception of the CSP came immediately after the JCPOA implementation day, signalling the intention of both China and Iran to continue and expand their cooperation in the new international environment that would have seen Tehran’s progressive re-integration in the global economy.
In August 2019, amid growing tensions in the Persian Gulf, Iran’s minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif visited China to present to its Chinese homologue, Wang Yi, the first Iranian draft of the 25-year cooperation document. Interestingly enough, the purpose of Zarif’s visit was public and it was followed by the publication on London-based news outlet of a suspicious piece claiming that China had agreed on investing a hyperbolic sum in Iran and, noteworthy, was prepared to send military personnel to the Iranian soil. The current draft, despite being marked as final, needs the approval of the Chinese government and, most importantly, has to be ratified by the Majlis, as established by article 77 of the Iranian Constitution.
Having that said, in the last four years, the implementation of the roadmap of cooperation between the two countries has been remarkably slow. By one side, the significance of China-Iran relations should not be overestimated. In fact, while Tehran has progressively increased its interest in developing a more substantial “Look to the East” policy, traditionally it has prioritised its relationships with the West. Arguably, that was one of the main objectives and expectations of the Rouhani’s administration after having reached the Nuclear Deal. By the other side, the election of Donald Trump in November 2016, which quickly led to the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and the re-imposition of secondary sanctions amid the so called “maximum pressure” campaign, forced Iran to turn its interest of broadening its relationships eastward into a necessity.
Yet, while China has remained strongly committed to the JCPOA and politically supportive to Iran, it substantially failed to answer Tehran’s call for a sustained economic partnership in defiance of US sanctions. In fact, despite being the only major international buyer of Iran’s crude even after the expiration of the oil waivers, Beijing has progressively downgraded its commercial ties with Tehran. In March 2020, the value of oil imports reached its 20-year minimum, increasing Iran’s trade deficit with its main economic partner further.
All things considered, China’s cautious approach towards its partnership with Iran has little to do with the absence of a finalised bilateral agreement between the two countries. More realistically, China’s Iran policy is inevitably influenced by its growing footprint in the Persian Gulf, where Beijing is carefully building a presence that is based on non-alienating regional actors, and more broadly, with the global confrontation with the United States. Arguably, this is one of the reasons for the unresolved divergence between ambition and implementation of the Beijing-Tehran partnership.
If anything, the exaggerated and politically biased reception of the final draft of the 25-year cooperation document should suggest a more sober understanding of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between China and Iran.