China-Iran ties are on the right side of history

The three-day state visit by Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi to China on February 14-16 will have a deep impact on regional politics and international security

February 19, 2023 by M.K. Bhadrakumar
Chinese President Xi Jinping meets Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua

The three-day state visit by Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi to China on February 14-16 is a landmark event affecting regional politics and international security. The red carpet welcome accorded to Raisi signified the high importance attached by Beijing to the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Iran in the prevailing international milieu.

In a ‘curtain-raiser’ on Monday, Global Times wrote that the visit “shows the Raisi administration’s unswerving determination to promote the ‘Look to the East’ policy.”

The CCP Central Committee newspaper then went on to make a profound statement: “Iran’s ‘Look to the East’ policy meant the transition from its policy of negative balancing and non-alignment to building alliances with non-western world powers that have similar political structures to Iran, such as Russia and China.”

This must be the first time that Beijing explicitly hailed Iran’s transition toward an alliance with non-western world powers that do not qualify as liberal democracies — “such as Russia and China.” This characterization becomes the leitmotif of Raisi’s visit to China. Indeed, Beijing, Moscow and Tehran are sailing in the same boat as the pioneers of a democratized world order defying US hegemony.

On the following day, in a lengthy editorial, Global Times dwelt on the strategic ramifications, taking note that “outside the US-West bloc and its influence circle, there is huge space and potential for win-win cooperation” between Beijing and Tehran. It said:

“China’s deepening cooperation with Iran also has anti-hegemony and anti-bullying feature. Both China and Iran uphold independent foreign policies, firmly defend the principle of non-interference in internal affairs on international occasions, and safeguard the common interests of developing countries. This is conducive to promoting the multi-polarization and diversified development of the world, and conforms to the general trend of the times…

“Under Washington’s moves, the international structure is being divided and restructured, with the vicious trend of forming blocs and camps again emerging, which puts the non-Western world in a difficult situation and once again faces historical choices. The existing US-led international system has designs to bully and exploit developing countries and emerging countries. Now Washington still thinks that it is not convenient enough, that the interests of developing countries have increased in weight, and wants to reconstruct a new international system with a stronger tendency, which is undoubtedly a major challenge for the non-Western world and needs to be resisted by forming a joint effort.”

This compelling thought appeared in the opening statement of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the meeting with Raisi on Tuesday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing when he said that “amid the profound changes in the international situation, China and Iran have constantly consolidated their strategic mutual trust and steadily advanced pragmatic co­operation. They have promoted their common interests and upheld international fairness and justice, writing a new chapter for China-Iran friendship.”

Xi underscored that “China supports Iran in safeguarding its sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national dignity as well as resisting unilateralism and hegemony, and opposes attempts by external forces to interfere in Iran’s domestic affairs and undermine its security and stability.”

The big picture comprises three key elements here: Moscow’s ‘friendship without limits’ with Beijing, Iran’s Eurasian integration, and the Russian-Iranian alliance in the making. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation provides a platform for all three countries for strengthening communication and coordination in a spirit of mutual respect and trust and jointly work on regional security issues.

Raisi’s visit will accelerate the implementation of the 25-year agreement signed in 2021 between Iran and China. The program, including energy, trade and infrastructure, faced obstacles due to the pandemic and the escalation of US sanctions. But things are on the cusp of change. China watches Russian stealing a march on it, although the latter’s 25-year agreement with Iran is still a work in progress.

To be sure, the talks in Beijing focused on how to advance practical cooperation between Iran and China, even as China is coming out of the self-imposed restrictions during the pandemic, is raring to go and is revving up the Belt and Road.

However, what is yet to sink in is that a major outcome of the confrontation between Russia and the NATO countries is that Iran is set to break through the rings of western containment through the past four decades since the 1979 revolution. Beijing sees that Russia is providing strategic depth for Iran in a win-win engagement.

Just before Raisi embarked on the state visit to Beijing, the new governor of Iran’s central bank, Mohammadreza Farzin stated in Tehran that “The financial channel between Iran and the world is being restored.” In effect, he was announcing that Iran and Russia have taken a significant step towards linking their banking infrastructures amid Western sanctions.

After years of work, the two countries have managed to connect Iran’s SEPAM national financial messaging service to Russia’s Financial Messaging System of the Bank of Russia (SPFS), the Russian equivalent of SWIFT, that aims to link with other major powers like China and India. The tie-up signifies that Moscow today has the political will to forge ahead with an optimal partnership with Iran, as they also pursue greater use of their national currencies in trade.

Moreover, Russia and Iran are creating a firewall to sequester their defense cooperation from the prying eyes of the US. Moscow is about to transfer cutting-edge military technology to Tehran, including the famous Su-35 multipurpose 4+ generation fighter jets as part of a $3 billion arms deal that also includes two S-400 air defense systems. None of this is escaping Beijing’s attention. (Interestingly, Farzin was included in Raisi’s delegation to Beijing.)

Beijing understands that the confrontation between Russia and the US is working to the advantage of two of its key partners to break out of the Western stranglehold of sanctions and realize their full potential as regional powers — North Korea and Iran — which has profound implications for the power dynamic in the Asia-Pacific and West Asia. The Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces General Mohammad Bagheri greeted the newly-appointed North Korean counterpart General Pak Su-il recently with a call for expansion of military ties “to confront any move that disrupts global security.”

China-Iran relationship is entering interesting times. Fortuitously, the Gulf states themselves are decoupling from the US-Israeli strategy to whip up anti-Iran frenzy. Meanwhile, Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia are steadily improving and the latter is developing diversified external relations as well with accent on partnerships with China and Russia. The growing similarity lately in the respective diplomatic trajectories of Iran and Saudi Arabia would have a calming effect incrementally on Gulf security and eliminates the scope for US interference in the GCC interaction with China (and Russia.)

President Xi highlighted to Raisi the importance of stability in West Asia, saying that upholding stability matters to the well-being of the countries and people in the region and also has great relevance to world peace, global economic development and the stability of energy supplies.

Xi noted in particular that “China appreciates Iran’s willingness to actively improve relations with neighboring countries, and supports countries in the region in resolving their differences through dialogue and consultation to realize good neighborliness.”

This paradigm shift in Gulf security puts the Sino-Iranian partnership on the right side of history.

MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. The views are personal.