Iran-China strategic partnership: The big picture
The key takeaway of President Ebrahim Raeisi’s state visit to Beijing goes way beyond the signing of 20 bilateral cooperation agreements.
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This is a crucial inflexion point in an absorbing, complex, decades-long, ongoing historical process: Eurasia integration.
Little wonder that President Raeisi, welcomed by a standing ovation at Peking University before receiving an honorary academic title, stressed “a new world order is forming and taking the place of the older one”, characterized by “real multilateralism, maximum synergy, solidarity and dissociation from unilateralisms”.
And the epicenter of the new world order, he asserted, is Asia.
It was quite heartening to see the Iranian president eulogizing the Ancient Silk Road, not only in terms of trade but also as a “cultural bond” and “connecting different societies together throughout history”.
Raeisi could have been talking about Sassanid Persia, whose empire ranged from Mesopotamia to Central Asia, and was the great intermediary Silk Road trading power for centuries between China and Europe.
It’s as if he was corroborating Chinese President Xi Jinping’s famed notion of “people to people exchanges” applied to the New Silk Roads.
And then President Raeisi jump cut to the inescapable historical connection: he addressed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which Iran is a key partner.
All that spells out Iran’s full reconnection with Asia – after those arguably wasted years of trying an entente cordiale with the collective West. That was symbolized by the fate of the JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal: negotiated, unilaterally buried and then, last year, all but condemned all over gain.
A case can be made that after the Islamic Revolution 44 years ago, a budding “pivot to the East” always lurked behind the official government strategy of “Neither East nor West”.
Starting in the 1990s that happened to progressively enter in full synch with China’s official “Open Door” policy.
After the start of the millennium, Beijing and Tehran have been getting even deeper in synch. BRI, the major geopolitical and geoeconomic breakthrough, was proposed in 2013, in Central Asia and Southeast Asia.
Then, in 2016, President Xi visited Iran, in West Asia, leading to the signing of several memoranda of understanding (MOU), and recently the wide-ranging 25-year comprehensive strategic agreement – consolidating Iran as a key BRI actor.
Accelerating all key vectors
In practice, Raeisi’s visit to Beijing was framed to accelerate all manner of vectors in Iran-China economic cooperation – from crucial investments in the energy sector (oil, gas, petrochemical industry, pipelines) to banking, with Beijing engaged in advancing modernizing reforms in Iran’s banking sector and Chinese banks opening branches across Iran.
Chinese companies may be about to enter the emerging Iranian commercial and private real estate markets, and will be investing in advanced technology, robotics and AI across the industrial spectrum.
Sophisticated strategies to bypass harsh, unilateral US sanctions will be a major focus every step of the way in Iran-China relations. Barter is certainly part of the picture when it comes to trading Iranian oil/gas contracts for Chinese industrial and infrastructure deals.
It’s quite possible that Iran’s sovereign wealth fund – the National Development Fund of Iran – with holdings at estimated $90 billion, may be able to finance strategic industrial and infrastructure projects.
Other international financial partners may come in the form of the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB) and the NDB – the BRICS bank, as soon as Iran is accepted as a member of BRICS+: that may be decided this coming August at the summit in South Africa.
The heart of the matter of the strategic partnership is energy. The China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) pulled out of a deal to develop Phase 11 of Iran’s South Pars gas field, adjacent to Qatar’s section.
Yet CNPC can always come back for other projects. Phase 11 is currently being developed by the Iranian energy company Petropars.
Energy deals – oil, gas, petrochemical industry, renewables – will boom across what I dubbed Pipelineistan in the early 2000s.
Chinese companies will certainly be part of new oil and gas pipelines connecting to the existing Iranian pipeline networks and configuring new pipeline corridors.
Already established Pipelineistan includes the Central Asia-China pipeline, which connects to China’s West-East pipeline grid, nearly 7,000 km from Turkmenistan to the eastern China seaboard; and the Tabriz-Ankara pipeline (2,577 km, from northwest Iran to the Turkish capital).
Then there’s one of the great sagas of Pipelineistan: the IP (Iran-Pakistan) gas pipeline, previously known as the Peace Pipeline, from South Pars to Karachi.
The Americans did everything in the book – and off the books – to stall it, delay it or even kill it. But IP refused to die; and the China-Iran strategic partnership could finally make it happen.
A new geostrategic architecture
Arguably, the central node of the China-Iran strategic partnership is the configuration of a complex geostrategic economic architecture: connecting the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship of BRI, to a two-pronged Iran-centered corridor.
This will take the form of a China-Afghanistan-Iran corridor and a China-Central Asia-Iran corridor, thus forming what we may call a geostrategic China-Iran Economic Corridor.
Beijing and Tehran, now on overdrive and with no time to lose, may face all manner of challenges – and threats – from the Hegemon; but their 25-year strategic deal does honor historically powerful trading/ merchant civilizations now equipped with substantial manufacturing/ industrial bases and with a serious tradition in advanced scientific innovation.
The serious possibility of China-Iran finally configuring what will be a brand new, expanded strategic economic space, from East Asia to West Asia, central to 21st century multipolarity, is a geopolitical tour de force.
Not only that will completely nullify the US sanction obsession; it will direct Iran’s next stages of much needed economic development to the East, and it will boost the whole geoeconomic space from China to Iran and everyone in between.
This whole process – already happening – is in many aspects a direct consequence of the Empire’s “until the last Ukrainian” proxy war against Russia.
Ukraine as cannon fodder is rooted in Mackinder’s heartland theory: world control belongs to the nation that controls the Eurasian land mass.
This was behind World War I, where Germany knocking out Russia created fear among the Anglo-Saxons that should Germany knock out France it would control the Eurasian land mass.
WWII was conceived against Germany and Japan forming an axis to control Europe, Russia and China.
The present, potential WWIII was conceived by the Hegemon to break a friendly alliance between Germany, Russia and China – with Iran as a privileged West Asia partner.
Everything we are witnessing at this stage spells out the US trying to break up Eurasia integration.
So it’s no wonder that the three top existential “threats” to the American oligarchy which dictates the “rules-based international order” are The Three Sovereigns: China, Russia and Iran.
Does that matter? Not really. We have just seen that while the dogs (of war) bark, the Iran-China strategic caravan rolls on.
Pepe Escobar is a Eurasia-wide geopolitical analyst and author. His latest book is Raging Twenties.
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