Despite widespread international attention and much political excitement in India, the Iran-China deal worth $400 billion is an ambitious plan, not a confirmed deal. The plan has been under consideration for long, but remained unimplemented. On the face of it, it makes sense to both. Tehran is desperate to break out of the American sanctions’ chokehold. Tehran’s hope that Europe will defy the Trump Administration and prevent Iran’s commercial isolation, has evaporated. Moscow can certainly create political space in Tehran’s fight with Washington, but it can’t bring the scale of economic engagement that Beijing is capable of. China has no difficulty in recognising that an all-encompassing strategic partnership with Iran could make China the dominant power of the Gulf region.
The breadth and depth of the envisaged Sino-Iranian partnership is indeed spectacular. It involves China’s massive investments to modernise the entire expanse of Iran’s economy — from roads and railways to ports, and from telecommunication and digital infrastructure to the oil industry. It is also reported to include a significant expansion of defence and security cooperation between the two countries, including the construction of a strategic port at the mouth of the strategic Hormuz Strait, through which the Gulf countries export their oil to the world. In return for its investments, China is said to get preferential access to Iranian oil production.
While the proposed deal offers many long-term benefits to Iran and China, it also carries big political risks. Within xenophobic Iran, there is strong political opposition to handing over the economic keys of the proud nation to a foreign power. Tehran knows that Beijing will be ruthless in taking advantage of Iran’s current weakness. Although the heat being turned up by the Trump Administration is getting to the regime, Tehran knows the dangers of jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Sacrificing Iran’s strategic autonomy will be too much of a price for the Chinese economic lifeline. Iran is also aware that the proposed deal with China will accentuate the confrontation with the US. Beijing also knows Iran is not pliable Pakistan and will not simply accept China’s harsh terms for the bailout. China is also aware that pushing ahead with the Iran deal at this juncture will add another element to the deepening political contestation with the US. Having teased out the prospects for a historic agreement, Tehran and Beijing are likely to wait till the outcome of the US presidential elections in November. Iran and China hope that Trump’s defeat will encourage Washington to reconsider its current hostility towards Tehran and Beijing. If Trump gets re-elected, Tehran and Beijing might decide there is no option but to take some risks. In the interim, the proposed deal helps the Biden campaign argue that President Trump has foolishly pushed Iran into China’s lap.
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