Iran’s Lifeline and China’s Foothold: Examining the possible implications of the pending Sino-Iranian Comprehensive Strategic PartnershipAugust 7, 2020 in China, Iran, United States
On 11 July 2020, the Iranian government was reported to have approved a draft 25-year deal with China on economic, military and security cooperation. Titled the “Sino-Iranian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”, Iranian officials have publicly stated that there is a pending agreement with China. A copy of the leaked 18-page document has been obtained by The New York Times labelled “final version” and dated June 2020. One Iranian official and several others who have discussed the agreement with the Iranian government have confirmed that it is the actual document waiting to be submitted to the Iranian parliament for approval. In China, officials have not disclosed the terms of the agreement and it is not clear whether Beijing has approved the deal . In the opening sentence of the document it states: “two ancient Asian cultures, two partners in the sectors of trade, economy, politics, culture and security with a similar outlook and many mutual bilateral and multilateral interests will consider one another strategic partners”. This Sino-Iranian pact throws Iran an economic lifeline at time as its economy is under severe pressure from United States sanctions. The pact also paves the way for Chinese influence to extend into the Middle East. The agreement may create further tension between Washington and Beijing, who are currently engaged in a trade war.
Components of the Partnership
The draft agreement, first proposed by Chinese president Xi Jinping in a visit to Iran in 2016, allows for 400 billion US dollars’ worth of Chinese investment in Iran in exchange for heavily discounted oil. China aims to invest in various sectors in Iran including oil and gas, telecommunications, banking, cyber security and transportation. Nearly 100 projects are cited in the deal including the construction of airports, high-speed railways and subways. Moreover, the deal proposes the development of free-trade zones in Maku, located in north-western Iran; in Abadan, where the Shatt al-Arab river flows into the Persian Gulf and on the Gulf island of Qeshm. The draft also proposes Chinese access to Jask, a major Iranian port located just outside the strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Persian Gulf. The strait is a strategically important choke point through which one third of the worlds liquefied natural gas and a quarter of the world’s oil pass. China will also build the infrastructure for 5G telecommunications network in Iran in addition to offering the new Chinese Global Positioning System to help the Iranian government in asserting greater control over cyberspace. The draft agreement describes deepening military and security ties, calling for joint military exercises, joint research and weapons development in addition to intelligence sharing. This military and security cooperation, according to the draft, will be in place to fight the “lopsided battle with terrorism, drug and human trafficking and cross border crimes”. The draft also allows for 5000 Chinese security personnel in Iran to protect Chinese projects.
Benefits to Iran
If implemented, the agreement gives Iran a critical lifeline. US president Donald Trump has been waging a maximum pressure campaign on Iran’s economy since 2018. Trump’s administration has threatened to sanction countries in Europe and elsewhere who buy oil and other exports from Iran. Trump said the campaign was aimed at eliminating the threat of Tehran’s ballistic missile program, to halt its terrorist activities around the world and to stop its “menacing activity across the Middle East”. Although Trump’s campaign against Iran has not achieved these objectives, it has pushed Iran deep into recession. Iran’s economy was expected to contract by 7.1 percent in 2019 according to the United Nations and by 9.5 percent according to the International Monetary Fund. The IMF estimated that Iran’s reserves of foreign currency have been reduced to 86 billion, 20 percent below their level in 2013. Oil exports have plunged since the US began imposing sanctions again in 2018. The COVID-19 outbreak, the worst in the Middle East, and rising tensions with the US have put further strain on Iran. Thus, the agreement alleviates a great amount of economic hardship from the Islamic republic.
Benefits to China
The most obvious advantage this agreement provides for China is discounted oil. China obtains 75 percent of its oil from abroad and is currently the world’s largest importer of the natural resource at 10 million barrels a day. Iran also provides an additional terrestrial route for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the ambitious global infrastructure development strategy Beijing adopted in 2013. However, trade with Iran has not been a priority for Beijing in recent years. China invested less than 27 billion dollars in Iran from 2005 to 2019. Annual investments have dropped every year since 2016. In fact, China has invested significantly more in Arab Gulf countries compared to Chinese investments in Iran. Furthermore, for years China has mostly abided by US sanctions showing that Beijing prioritised trade with the US over ties with Iran. This particular agreement between Tehran and Beijing was proposed only after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed. The JCPOA is an agreement between Iran and major powers including the US to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity in return for lifting sanctions. Therefore, it is possible that China is eyeing other benefits of the deal in addition to its economic dimension.
For instance, this deal possibly allows China a potential foothold in the Middle East, a US dominated area of the world that is becoming increasingly vital to Beijing. About 40 percent of China’s energy needs are imported from the region. Thus, Beijing has significantly increased its economic, political and, to a certain degree, security footprint in the region in the past decade. China became the biggest trading partner and external investor for a significant number of Middle Eastern countries including Iran. Beijing currently participates in anti-piracy and maritime security missions in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden and maintains a military base in Djibouti for such activities. Beijing has increased mediation efforts in crises in the region such as Syria and Yemen. China has conducted joint naval exercises with Iran on three occasions beginning in 2014. China’s energy needs push the country to have a greater presence in the Middle East. Iran is the only major oil rich country in the region not influenced by Washington, which presents an obvious opportunity for Beijing. The Sino-Iranian agreement could provide Beijing with a greater security role to protect its commerce and energy supply in Iran and the Persian Gulf. For example, access to the major Iranian port, Jask, gives Beijing a strategic vantage point in an area where most of the world’s oil transits and has been the strategic preoccupation of the US for decades. The US Navy’s fifth fleet is headquartered in the Kingdom of Bahrain, not far from the strait of Hormuz. China has constructed a series of ports along the Indian ocean creating refuelling and resupply stations from the South China sea to the Suez Canal. The ports are commercial in nature but also potentially have military value. For example, Beijing has access to ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan which are widely considered to be potential foot holds for Chinese military presence.
Impact on relations with US
The pact could also have significant implications for Sino-American relations, potentially creating dangerous flashpoints within their deteriorating relations. The US’s 2018 National Security Strategy identifies China as an adversary and depicts the country as a “revisionist power”. On 23 July 2020 the US ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas. China retaliated by closing down a US consulate in south-western China. The US state department warned that China would be undermining its own stated goal of promoting stability and peace by defying US sanctions and doing business with Iran. The implementation of this deal could signal Beijing’s frustration with Washington. In 2018 the US started a trade war with China imposing sweeping tariffs on Chinese goods to which Beijing retaliated. The US started a major campaign against Huawei, a major Chinese telecommunications company, barring it from involvement from 5G development in the US. Washington also attempted, without much success, to persuade other countries follow suit. It is likely that Washington will further sanction Beijing if this agreement is implemented. It is also very likely that China will retaliate in like. Sino-American relations are likely to continue to sour over China’s deepening ties with Iran.
The security implications of what appears to be a foreign policy matter.
Moscow’s expansion of its arms sales in the Middle East gives it another dimension through which to pursue its geopolitical goals. Moscow has long been the world’s second largest arms exporter after the US, with average annual income in 2012−15 reaching $14.5 billion. But over the past decade, it has particularly increased its arms exports to the Middle East, part of a broader Russian strategy of re-establishing Moscow as a key player in the region. However until recently, Russia was cautious in using weapons exports as political leverage. This has changed, and the growth of the Russian share of the Middle East arms market will make the Kremlin more decisive still. The instability in the Middle East suggests that that region will remain one of the chief markets for arms for years to come and will help Russian arms suppliers to challenge US dominance there.
On the 16th of August, The Russian Defense Ministry reported long-range Russian TU-22M3 bombers based in Iran have struck a number of targets inside Syria. Russian bombers flying from an Iranian air base struck rebel targets across, dramatically underscoring the two countries’ growing military ties and highlighting Russia’s ambitions for greater influence in a turbulent Middle East. The long-range Tu-22 bombers took off from a base near Hamadan in western Iran and launched raids in the Syrian provinces of Aleppo, Deir al-Zour and Idlib. The ministry said the bombers were accompanied by Russian fighter jets based in Syria. Russia has carried out strikes in support of government troops there where both countries are loyal allies of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russian intervention marked a turning point in the fate of the Assad regime, which had been losing ground to rebel forces. But until now, Russia’s long-range bombers, which require longer airstrips, had to be launched from Russian territory more than 1,200 miles away. Now, those same bombers need to fly only about 400 miles from Iran to Syria. The shorter distance, using less fuel and allowing a bigger payload, will allow Russia to intensify its air campaign against rebel-held areas. Syrian government troops and opposition fighters are now locked in a battle for the strategic city of Aleppo, where residents face a growing humanitarian crisis. The flights marked the first time Russia has launched strikes from Iranian territory. Iran has long banned foreign militaries from establishing bases on its soil. But the raids appeared to signal a budding alliance that would expand Russia’s military footprint in the region.
Russia’s Defense Ministry reported that its long-range bombers only struck targets linked to the Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, a group that formally split from al-Qaeda last month and changed its name from Jabhat al-Nusra. The strikes destroyed five major ammunition depots, training camps and three command posts. But rights groups have criticized both Russia and the Syrian regime for repeated strikes on civilian targets, including homes, schools and hospitals. Conversely Russian and Syrian officials have denied those reports.
On Tuesday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said Syrian and Russian troops have used banned incendiary weapons in civilian areas. The joint Syrian-Russian military operation has been using incendiary weapons, which burn their victims and start fires, in civilian areas of Syria in violation of international law.
Incendiary weapons, as the term is understood in international humanitarian law (IHL) describes weapons that act mainly through fire and heat. Napalm and white phosphorous are probably the best known incendiary substances used in incendiary weapons. 1980 Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons (Protocol III to the CCW) prohibits the aerial delivery, in relation to the conduct of hostilities during armed conflict, of incendiary weapons within a concentration of civilians.
The illegal use was already addressed in June 2016 when the Russian state-run television reportedly released a video footage showing incendiary weapons, specifically, RBK-500 ZAB-2.5SM bombs, being loaded on a Su-34 fighter-ground attack aircraft. The use of incendiary weapons by Russia was confirmed by Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, in a letter to Human Rights Watch. Lavrov attributed the ‘significant humanitarian damage’ caused by incendiary weapons in Syria to their ‘improper use’. Incendiary weapons have been used at least 18 times over the past nine weeks, including in attacks on the opposition-held areas in the cities of Aleppo and Idlib on August 7, 2016.
Countries meeting at the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva on August 29, 2016 should condemn the use of air-dropped incendiary weapons in civilian areas of Syria in violation of the treaty’s Protocol III on incendiary weapons. However it is important to remember that the implementation of such a belligerent tactic has been historically shared by many other countries despite the international conventions; an example of that is the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Ukraine conflict in 2014.
Islamic Republic of Iran test-fires ballistic missiles for two consecutive days. In the Alborz Mountains in the northern area of Tehran, on Tuesday 08th March, a medium range missile was successfully tested covering a range of 750km. The following day at the same lunching site a further test was performed to establish the nation’s longer range capabilities; covering over 1400km, landing in the south-east part of the country. We assess that such range and proved capabilities poses a plausible threat to neighbor’s countries. Missiles are capable of reaching Iran’s archenemy Israel in the event of a potential direct attack. This is causing friction and tensions within the international arena raising questions over the violation of UNSC resolutions and the current nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers.
Since January 2016, Tehran met the demands for implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Despite these developments, Iran presents an enduring threat due to its support to regional terrorist and militant groups and the Assad regime. A key agenda item within the Iranian regime is the development of advanced military capabilities. Tehran views itself as leading the “axis of resistance” which includes the Assad regime and subnational militia groups aligned with Iran, especially Lebanese Hezbollah (considered an international terrorist organization by the U.S.) and Iraqi Shia militants; all antagonist of Israel.
Iran support to the Shia group Hezbollah is of particular interest considering the hardening of the Lebanese current scenario. There are indications arising from recent events of an alleged Hezbollah plan to take over Beirut by purposely bombing the organization’s own munition factories as well as military positions of the Lebanese army. It is believed that Hezbollah in cooperation with forces in the Lebanese army may plan to initiate a wave of attacks against its own facilities in Lebanon which will give it legitimacy to cease Beirut. A clear indicator of the unfolding of this events is the current fighting between opposition and government supporters; on the 9th of March after a series of armed attacks Hezbollah ceased most of western Beirut.
Iranian long standing position is to undermine Israel; the supreme leader expressed his belief in several occasions by clearly stating that Israel as a country will not exist within the next 25 years. The country wishes Israel to cease existing but there is no gathered evidence of any intentions in engaging into a direct conflict, at least in the medium term.
The JCPOA played the important role of enhancing the transparency of Iran’s nuclear activities. A broader access has been granted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other investigative authorities under the Additional Protocol in line with the Comprehensive Safeguard Agreement. As a result, the international community is well postured to promptly detect changes to Iran’s declared nuclear facilities designed to shorten the time Iran would need to produce fissile material. Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about a year. Furthermore the JCPOA also provides tools for the IAEA to investigate possible breaches of prohibitions on specific unauthorized R&D.
Iran most likely views the JCPOA as a mean to uplift sanctions while preserving some of its nuclear capabilities and a safe option to eventually expand its nuclear infrastructure. However, it is unclear wheatear or not Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.
We assess with a moderate degree of confidence that the strategic objectives of implementing and enhancing regional influence, prestige, security, financial and economic ties with several players both domestically and internationally will lead to pursue the required capabilities in the research and development of nuclear energy and technological industry. This will indivertibly confer the ability to build deliverable RCBNs in the event that such political choice will be made. The lack of foreseeable technical barriers within the production process makes Iran’s political will the central issue. The pursuit of this strategy will define its level of adherence to the JCPOA over time.
We judge that, in the event of deploying RCBNs, Tehran would choose ballistic missiles as its preferred delivering system. Tests run in the last days are indicators or proven capabilities in terms of delivery system. The U.S. intelligence community assessed that Tehran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East and they are inherently capable of delivering WMD.
The country’s desire to deter the United States and its allies provides Tehran with the means and motivation to develop longer-range missiles, including ICBMs. A supplementary area of concern for the global security industry is the Iran’s progress on space launch vehicles. It has been reported to cooperate with Russia and China both technologically and financially in gaining ground in the ongoing outer space race.
Iran’s judiciary has announced that a verdict has been issued in the trial of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian on charges that include espionage.
While officials have not given the details of the judgement, they hinted at a conviction. Appearing on state television late on Sunday, judiciary spokesman Gholamhoseyn Mohseni-Ezhei stated, “he (Jason Rezaian) has been convicted, but I don’t have the verdict’s details,” adding that “the time for an appeal is not yet over. So the court waits and if it doesn’t receive an appeal…the verdict becomes final.” Mr Mohseni-Ezhei disclosed that Mr Rezaian and his lawyer were eligible to appeal the conviction with twenty days.
Jason Rezaian, 39, has been detained in Iran for more than a year on charges, which the Post has dismissed as absurd. Washington Post foreign editor, Douglas Jehl, has called the ruling “vague” and stated that it was unclear if Mr Rezaian had been sentenced.” He disclosed that “we’ve now heard from the Iranian government today’s (Sunday) announcement that a verdict has been issued in Jason’s case, but that its not final and that its subject to appeal…That’s really all we know, and unfortunately it reflects a continued pattern of mystery, opacity and gamesmanship surrounding the way Iran has handled this case…The only thing that’s been clear from the beginning is Jason’s innocence. Everything else has been under a real shadow of darkness.”
Mr Rezaian faces between 10 to 20 years in prison. He, along with his wife, who is also a journalist, and two photojournalists, were arrested in July 2014 in Iran. However Mr Rezaian was the only one of the group not to be released. Mr Rezaian, who was the Post’s Tehran bureau chief since 2012, was charged with espionage and distributing propaganda against the Islamic Republic. He was tired in four hearing behind closed doors, with the last one occurred in August. He is a dual Iranian-American citizen.
On Tuesday, major powers reached an agreement with Tehran aimed at ensuring that the country does not obtain a nuclear bomb and which will also open up the country’s stricken economy.
The agreement, which was reached on day 18 of marathon talks in Vienna, is aimed at ending a 13-year standoff over Iran’s nuclear ambitions after repeated diplomatic failures and threats of military action. Both Iran and the European Union have hailed the agreement as a new chapter of hope for the world. At the start of a final meeting to formally sign off on the accord, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini stated, “I think this is a sign of hope for the entire world and we all know this is very much needed in this time,” adding, “it is a decision that can open the way to a new chapter in international elations and show that diplomacy, coordination, cooperation can over come decades of tensions and confrontation.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated that the agreement is a “historic moment,” noting, “we are reaching an agreement that is not perfect for anybody but it is what we could accomplish and it is an important achievement for all of us.” The agreement effectively places strict limits on Iran’s nuclear activities for at least a decade and calls for stringent UN oversight, with world powers hoping that this will make any attempts to make an atomic bomb virtually impossible. In return, international sanctions will be lifted and billions of dollars in frozen assets will be unblocked. The agreement, which was built on a framework in April is US President Barack Obama’s crowning foreign policy achievement and comes six years after he told Iran’s leaders that if they “unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” The agreement may also lead to further cooperation between Washington and Tehran.
The head of the UN atomic watchdog announced Tuesday that he has signed with Iran a “roadmap” for probing suspected efforts to develop nuclear weapons, a key part of an overall accord with major powers. Ahead of the expected announcement of the historic agreement with major powers, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Yukya Amano stated that he “…just signed the roadmap between the Islamic republic of Iran and the IAEA for the clarification of past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear programme,” adding that he aims to issue a report on the watchdog’s investigation by 15 December. According to Amano, the roadmap “sets out a clear sequence of activities over the coming months, including the provision by Iran of explanations regarding outstanding issues. It provides for technical expert meetings, technical measures and discussions, as well as a separate arrangement regarding the issue of (Iranian military base) Parchin,” adding “this should enable me to issue a report setting out the Agency’s final assessment of possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme, for the action of the IAEA board of Governors, by 15 December 2015.” The wider accord between six major powers and Iran is expected to be announced in Vienna later on Tuesday.