Why is a potential Sino-Iranian cooperation agreement making noise?
Bobby Naderi
The official account of the Iranian Embassy in China on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, March 21, 2020. /Xinhua

The official account of the Iranian Embassy in China on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, March 21, 2020. /Xinhua

Editor's note: Bobby Naderi is a journalist, guest contributor in print, radio and television, documentary filmmaker and member of the Writers Guild of Great Britain. The article reflects the author's opinion, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Iran is reportedly negotiating a 25-year cooperation agreement with China dubbed the Sino-Iranian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The draft of the communique was unveiled in a joint statement and during a visit to Tehran by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2016.

The Iranian government has described the preliminary agreement as a "transparent roadmap and principled guideline for win-win relations between the two countries" under which Chinese yuan would be used in commodity transaction payments.

To its credit, the plan has attracted attention. It's true that the multi-decade vision hasn't been signed yet, but it has already seen heated debates and arguments at state, local government levels and beyond. It remains hard to pin down exactly what advocates and critics know about the details of the agreement, but the benefits it will generate for both sides are immense.

With a sentiment of hope and excitement, advocates say the cooperation agreement is legitimate under international law, and must be finalized and respected. The vision has foresight and honesty, Iran is in economic distress, and stands to win if it integrates into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

They refer to China as a reliable development and business partner, arguing that like the other Eurasian economies, Iran will benefit from the partnership, as it's a financially and economically sound endeavor.

In their words, the agreement captures what can be good about the deep-rooted ties, consists of hundreds of development projects, and serves a clear economic purpose for both sides. It is driven by the economic conditions in Iran, addresses its growing financial and infrastructure needs, and serves the commercial interests of Chinese companies and tech giants.

Ever more often, they value the accord as a necessary capital injection that could help fill Iran's technological development gap as well as provide a new avenue of growth for its transportation system, oil, gas and petrochemical sectors, and ports and industrial zones along the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.

To make a case, they point to Greece's struggling Piraeus Port and how it was taken over by China and transformed into the second-largest port in the Mediterranean region within the context of the BRI.

Further still, the advocates correctly maintain that China is a reliable partner when it comes to international politics. They refer to China as a party to Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that holds seat on the United Nations Security Council. They praise China and Russia for expressing vocal opposition to the U.S. campaign to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran, which is to expire in October under the nuclear deal, along with a push to trigger a return of UN sanctions.

A vendor waits for customers at an old bazaar in port city of Bandar Abbas, Iran, November 28, 2019. /Xinhua

A vendor waits for customers at an old bazaar in port city of Bandar Abbas, Iran, November 28, 2019. /Xinhua

In sharp contrast, however, myths, fallacies and hysteria are here as well. A handful of critics and skeptics falsely propagate that the agreement sacrifices Iranian interests for a foreign government. They claim that under the terms of the agreement, the investment-starved Iran will do the bidding of China to reorder the region by handing over its Persian Gulf islands to Beijing, or that China will send its military forces to Iran and its companies will plunder the country's natural and energy resources.

Another myth has it that China will implement the yet-to-be-finalized roadmap in its own terms. Devoid of evidence, the critics claim that China will force Iran into a debt trap as the plan is another form of colonialism, ignoring differences in history, interest, geography, religion, ethnicity, culture, and more. They say Iran is economically volatile, and as a recipient country, is taking huge geopolitical risks by engaging.

In distinct opposition to the pro-China advocates, the critics warn that the time is near when Tehran is going to have to sit at the negotiating tables with Washington to resolve their issues. Because of U.S. sanctions and amid the global pandemic, they play hardball by concluding that Iran, its nuclear program and its regional relationships are issues of concern for the U.S.

As a consequence, Iran's economic woes are deepening, its currency is dropping in value, and the desperate situation will only get worse if the country doesn't reengage with Western economies.

Overall, a finalization is not yet guaranteed and the jury is still out – and will be out for a long time to come. But for the Iranian people and government, a comprehensive cooperation agreement with China is always welcome news and with great chance to save the economy. Washington is not in the mood to end its sanctions regime, and Tehran refuses to engage in direct talks until sanctions are lifted.

Wishful thinking aside, cash-strapped Iran needs Chinese investment and technology to upgrade its economy and minimize the impact of Washington's "maximum pressure" campaign, just as China, Iran's largest trading partner and oil consumer, needs Iran's oil, natural resources, and untapped market. In this environment, it makes strategic sense for both sides to forge a stronger partnership and geostrategic balancing. They would both benefit economically and financially. 

Taking a long-term perspective, Iran can help China connect to Europe through the BRI for global trading and investment practices, while China can help develop Iran's oil and gas fields, which hold the second-largest natural gas and the fifth largest crude oil reserves in the world.

The Sino-Iranian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership is not an exercise in power projection in the Persian Gulf and certainly not a China-centric vision of any sort. It has no strings attached and quite the opposite promises constructive engagement on terms of mutual respect and shared future. Tellingly though, it's a pragmatic alternative and a proven development model to Western strings-attached cooperation and finance.

With the government and the national-security apparatus actively, visibly and formidably behind it, there are undoubtedly many more reasons why so many Iranians support the agreement. They view the multi-decade vision in a positive light which has remained largely unprotested and praised since it began four years ago.

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, contact us at opinions@cgtn.com.)