The China-Iran alliance by Shah Fahad

The recent reports about the China-Iran deal have hit the headlines across the world. Some might have been flabbergasted by them but for others, especially those watching the developments in the region closely, this was inevitable. Talk about the deal was not new; it surfaced for the first time when the Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Tehran in 2016.

During the visit, both countries agreed to enhance bilateral relations. Although the draft was leaked, we are yet to see the details of the 25-year agreement which is said to be worth $400 billion. However, the rapprochement between the two anti-US states has fueled speculations about a possible regional bloc that may challenge Washington’s hegemony in Asia and beyond.

The antagonism between Iran and the US has a very long history. Since Iran has a very strategically important port, Bandar Abbas, on the Strait of Hormuz that controls around 20 percent of the world's oil supply, the US always has been suspicious about Iranian intentions in the region, asserting that the theocratic state could resort to sabotaging the supply in the congested strait in case of a crisis.

The US government previously chose a confrontation policy with Iran and that resulted in many skirmishes on the Strait of Hormuz, which cost both sides many lives. The White House was furious over the nuclear program of Tehran but active hostility between the two states never allowed either leadership to resolve the matter. President Obama was the first president who adopted a reconciliatory approach, signing the Iran nuclear deal. However, Trump abandoned it, commenting that the deal has nothing to offer to the US.

The US sanctions on Iran made the lives of people miserable and the infrastructure development on Bandar Abbas and the Chabahar port was halted as the investors pulled the money out.

As the companies suffered bankruptcies, the people lost hope in a bright future of the country. India showed its interest to develop the Chabahar port but buckled under US pressure, slowing down the work on various pretexts, which ultimately made Iran realize that a strategic relationship with New Delhi would bring no fruit to them. Hence, Iran decided to kick India out from development projects in Chabahar, accepting the Chinese offer of investment.

The agreement will benefit Iran in the development of a 900km long electric rail from Tehran to Mashad. The Tehran-Qom-Isfahan high-speed rail project will decrease the travel between Tehran and Isfahan, giving access to the Imam Khomeini International Airport. Both governments agreed to enhance mutual trade to $600 billion in a decade besides vowing to work the promotion of the Silk Road economic belt. This deal will significantly increase Chinese influence in the country and will change the calculus.

Beijing will also be benefiting from the deal through discounted oil. By gaining access to the Chabahar port, China will have an alternative port to Gwadar and Strait of Malacca, which is surrounded by American allies. China has been raising artificial islands in the South China Sea and has established military bases to counter the American hegemony. Steve Bannon, a former White House chief strategist, once commented that the US is going to war with China at the South China Sea in the next five to ten years.

While the deal created euphoria in Tehran and Beijing, it seems to have infuriated the Modi administration. Indian parliamentarian Subramanian Swamy tweeted that the change in Iran’s alliance from India to China is the most negative development for New Delhi’s foreign policy. The sensible elements across the border felt the sudden shift in the winds, fearing this could be exploited by China in case of a confrontation. The recent fire of hatred that erupted between two countries in Ladakh does not seem to be extinguishing anytime soon and in such a tense environment, the deal is considered a Chinese strategic victory.

The agreement is also good news for Islamabad. The Modi administration allegedly used Iranian soil for its intelligence handlers and other terrorist activities in Pakistan, which now seems difficult after the military leadership of both sides agreed to work together on border security. Since Bandar Abbas is not a deep seaport, Chabahar can handle heavy traffic; hence its importance cannot be underestimated – but this will not trigger any competition with Gwader.

The Chinese investment in the infrastructure of the Islamic Republic of Iran has raised sirens in Israel, with Mike Pompeo warning that the US will not tolerate Chinese investment in Research and Development projects of Tel Aviv, to which they started to comply. The only way the US can stop Tehran from getting military support under the deal is by triggering snap-back sanctions clauses in the UN Security Council resolution 2231.

Since Iran has officially endorsed the BRI, the deal is expected to bring neighbouring countries closer, which will make the anti-US bloc stronger. However, Pakistan might witness a surge in terrorist activities by non-state actors funded by RAW so as to sabotage peace in the region.

The writer is a Karachi-based freelance journalist.

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