More than 100 Iranians from around the world have penned a letter to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, expressing concern about an upcoming deal between Iran and China which they say will erode Iranian sovereignty. The co-signatories are a remarkable group of luminaries from all walks of life: artists, former cabinet ministers, scholars and journalists.
Among them are scholars such as philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, political scientist Mehrzad Boroujerdi and historians Touraj Atabaki, Mohamad Tavakolli-Targhi and Camron Amin, the president of the Association of Iranian Studies. There are Ebi and Dariush, easily the two best-known contemporary Iranian pop singers, joined by comedian Maz Jobrani and Oscar-nominated actor Shohreh Aghdashloo. There are several former cabinet ministers in their ranks, including the veteran women’s rights activist Mahnaz Afkhami, who served as a minister without portfolio in charge of women’s affairs from 1975 to 1978, alongside feminist campaigners of more recent years such as Mehrangiz Kar. Politicians of Iranian origin in other countries have also signed, most prominently Ali Ehsassi, a sitting Canadian MP.
Concerns about China’s undue influence over Iran have long been widespread in Iranian society. Years of US-led sanctions on Iran created an opening for Beijing, which, many Iranians now believe, has taken advantage of the country’s dire economic conditions to further its own interests. But what sparked this particular letter were recent reports of a 25-year “strategic partnership agreement” between Iran and China, the text of which was leaked to IranWire in July.
Comprehensive and heavily weighted in China’s favor, the deal has its roots in a visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping to Iran in early 2016, whereupon he promised a “new chapter” in the countries’ bilateral relations. Since then, Trump’s adoption of a “maximum pressure” policy against Iran has made Iran ever more desperate – and thus vulnerable to an unequal and exploitative relationship with China.
The threat to broad Iranian interests, Ali Ehsassi told IranWire, was what brought such a diverse group of people together in protest. He added that it had been “entirely a collective and collaborative effort from start to finish.”
“Personally,” Ehsassi went on, “I believe the most distressing aspect is that the Iranian government has steadfastly refused to act in an accountable fashion by either sharing any pertinent details with its citizens, or to consult with experts and stakeholders. Any such agreement will have intergenerational implications for Iran’s citizens, and as such it is completely unacceptable for the Islamic Republic to act in such an opaque and surreptitious fashion.”
The draft Iran-China agreement states that Iran is to “actively” participate in China’s Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative, which is already seeing participant companies rack up huge debts to the People’s Republic. Among the planned projects are a railway corridor linking Pakistan and Iran, Iraq and Syria to ease movement of pilgrims; a highway traversing the massive deserts of central Iran; the electrification of existing railways; and other transport corridors that link the Chabahar port in southeastern Iran to central Asia, Turkey and the Republic of Azerbaijan.
The plan also promises large-scale military co-operation between the two countries and a commitment by Iran to sell crude oil to China for 25 years. Moreover, it gives China the rights to developing the fifth generation of mobile phones (5G) network in the country and even to future Iranian airports and aircraft navigation technology.
The details of the agreement have led to widespread alarm. The signatories of the letter to the UN conclude that “the Islamic Republic intends to tether Tehran to Beijing politically and embed China into the economic and social fabric of Iran” in a manner that will “severely restrain its political and economic sovereignty.”
“Iranians have historically proven averse to allowing their country to align too closely with any great power,” the group adds. They compare the leaked text of the would-be China agreement to two widely-despised past deals: the Turkmenchay treaty of 1828, according to which Iran lost its territories in the Caucasus to the Russian empire, and the Anglo-Iranian agreement of 1919, which was never ratified by the Iranian parliament because of popular outrage at its furthering of British colonial interests.
“We are worried that signing such a deal with threaten Iran’s national interest and territorial integrity,” Mehrzad Boroujerdi told IranWire. He decried the lack of transparency about the deal and said China’s track record in signing such agreements with South Asian countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka was worrying.
The letter’s signatories are aware that bilateral deals fall outside the mandate of the UN and Guterres. The main purpose of the letter, Boroujerdi says, is to raise awareness of the draft agreement and what it could mean.
The leaked text mentions 400 billion dollars’ worth of Chinese investment in Iran over 25 years, which sounds implausible. “China makes a lot of promises and strikes deals that it doesn’t really deliver,” says Ariane Tabatabai, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and co-writer, with Dina Esfandiary, of the 2018 book Triple Axis: Iran’s Relations with Russia and China.
“I think there’s a lot of emotional reaction to the deal,” she adds, “which makes sense given Iran's experience with foreign powers and the loss of sovereignty at various points. But we don't even know what the final deal will look like yet. What matters to most Iranians is how they perceive this through the prism of the county’s historical experiences.”
Still, Tabatabai believes strong reactions to the proposed deal are “unsurprising, given Iran’s relationship with various major powers throughout the past three centuries.”
Jacopo Scita, an Al-Sabah doctoral fellow at Durham University who researchers Iran-China ties, agrees that the final deal may look markedly different: “China is an important partner for Iran but it has also demonstrated on many occasions a rather questionable score in delivering its commitments.”
He faults the Iranian group’s letter of objection, however, for “failing to improve the debate... For instance, by not mentioning the kinetic effect of U.S. sanctions in pushing Iran towards China. A constructive debate about this deal should expose that the Islamic Republic is engaged in a potentially risky gamble but should also be frank about the reasons why this is happening, as well as consider the broader context and the historical trajectory of China’s relations with the Persian Gulf.”
Scita agrees, however, that there is a “concrete risk” of deals with China “under the pressure of sanctions and domestic economic mismanagement” helping to “sharpen the power imbalance existing between Tehran and Beijing, favoring the latter.”
With Iran and Iranian citizens in dire enough straits already, their historical instinct has put them on high alert about yet another superpower encroaching on the country’s oft-threatened sovereignty.