by Pepe Escobar, cross posted with the author’s permission
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.
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.
Raisi in Beijing: Iran-China strategic plans go full throttle
The visit of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Beijing and his face-to- face meeting with counterpart Xi Jinping is a groundbreaking affair in more ways than one.
Raisi, the first Iranian president to officially visit China in 20 years, led an ultra high-level political and economic delegation, which included the new Central Bank governor and the Ministers of Economy, Oil, Foreign Affairs, and Trade.
The fact that Raisi and Xi jointly supervised the signing of 20 bilateral cooperation agreements ranging from agriculture, trade, tourism and environmental protection to health, disaster relief, culture and sports, is not even the major take away.
This week’s ceremonial sealing of the Iran-China comprehensive strategic partnership marks a key evolution in the multipolarity sphere: two Sovereigns – both also linked by strategic partnerships with Russia – imprinting to their domestic audiences and also to the Global South their vision of a more equitable, fair and sustainable 21st century which completely bypasses western dictates.
Beijing and Tehran first established their comprehensive strategic partnership when Xi visited Iran in 2016 – only one year after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iranian nuclear deal.
In 2021, Beijing and Tehran signed a 25-year cooperation deal which translated the comprehensive partnership into practical economic and cultural developments in several fields, especially energy, trade and infrastructure. By then, not only Iran (for decades) but also China were being targeted by unilateral US sanctions.
Iran: gotta modernize everything
Beijing and Tehran are already actively cooperating in the construction of selected lines of Tehran’s subway, the Tehran-Isfahan high-speed railway, and of course joint energy projects. Chinese tech giant Huawei is set to help Tehran to build a framework for a 5G telecom network.
Raisi and Xi, predictably, stressed increased joint coordination at the UN and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which Iran is the newest member, as well as a new drive along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
While there was no explicit mention of it, underlying all these initiatives is the de-dollarization of trade – in the framework of the SCO but also the multipolar BRICS group of states. Iran is set to become one of the new members of BRICS+, a giant step to be decided in their upcoming summit in South Africa next August.
There are estimates in Tehran that Iran-China annual trade may reach over $70 billion in the mid-term, which will amount to triple the current figures.
When it comes to infrastructure building, Iran is a key BRI partner. The geostrategy of course is hard to match: a 2,250 km coastline encompassing the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, Sea of Oman and the Caspian Sea – and huge land borders with Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Every think tank in China sees how Iran is irreplaceable, not only in terms of BRI land corridors, but also the Maritime Silk Road.
Chabahar Port may be a prime Iran-India affair, as part of the International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) – thus directly linked to the Indian vision of a Silk Road, extending to Central Asia.
But Chinese port developers do have other ideas, focused on alternative ports along the Persian Gulf and in the Caspian Sea. That will boost shipping connections to Central Asia (Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan), Russia and the Caucasus (Azerbaijan).
And that makes perfect sense when one combines port terminal development with the modernization of Iran’s railways – all the way to high-speed rail.
An even more revolutionary development would be China coordinating the BRI connection of an Iranian corridor with the already in progress 3,200 km-long China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Gwadar port in the Indian Ocean.
That seemed perfectly plausible when Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was still in power, before being ousted by a lawfare coup. The key of the whole enterprise is to build badly needed infrastructure in Balochistan, on both sides of the border. On the Pakistani side, that would go a long way to smash CIA-fed “insurgents” of the Balochistan Liberation Army kind, get rid of unemployment, and put trade in charge of economic development.
Afghanistan of course enters the equation – in the form of a China-Afghan-Iran corridor linked to CPEC. Since September 2021, Beijing has explained to the Taliban, in detail, how they may profit from an infrastructure corridor – complete with railway, highway and pipeline – from Xinjiang, across the Wakhan corridor in eastern Afghanistan, through the Hindu Kush, all the way to Iran.
The core of multipolarity
Iran is perfectly positioned for a Chinese-propelled boom in high-speed cargo rail, connecting Iran to most of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan).
That means, in practice, cool connectivity with a major logistics cluster: the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) of Khorgos, only 330 km from Almaty on the Kazakh-China border, and only four hours from Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital.
If China pulls that off, it would be a sort of BRI Holy Grail, interconnecting China and Iran via Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Nothing less than several corridors in one.
All that is about to happen as the Islamic Revolution in Iran celebrates its 44th year.
What is already happening now, geopolitically, and fully recognized by China, might be defined as the full rejection of an absurdity: the collective west treating Iran as a pariah or at best a subjugated neo-colony.
With the diverse strands of the Resistance embedded in the Islamic Revolution finally consolidated, it looks like history is finally propelling Iran as one of the key poles of the most complex process at work in the 21st century: Eurasia integration.
So 44 years after the Islamic Revolution, Iran enjoys strategic partnerships with the three top BRICS: China, Russia and India.
Likely to become one of the first new members of BRICS+, Iran is the first West Asian state to become a full member of the SCO, and is clinching a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
Iran is a major strategic partner of both BRI, led by China, and the INSTC, alongside Russia and India.
With the JCPOA all but dead, and all western “promises” lying in the dust, Tehran is consolidating its pivot back to the East at breakneck speed.
What Raisi and Xi sealed in Beijing heralds Chinese pre-eminence all across West Asia – keenly perceived in Beijing as a natural consequence of recognizing and honoring Iran’s regional centrality.
Iran’s “Look East” strategy could not be more compatible with BRI – as an array of BRI projects will accelerate Iran’s economic development and consolidate its inescapable role when it comes to trade corridors and as an energy provider.
During the 1980s Tehran was ruled by a “Neither East nor West” strategy – faithful to the tenets of the Islamic Revolution. That has now evolved, pragmatically, into “Look East.” Tehran did try to “Look West” in good faith, but what the US government did with the JCPOA – from its murder to “maximum pressure” to its aborted resuscitation – was quite a historical lesson.
What Raisi and Xi have just demonstrated in Beijing is the Sovereign way forward. The three leaders of Eurasia integration – China, Russia and Iran – are fast on their way to consolidate the core of multipolarity.