SINOGRAPH China makes a choice in Iran
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - A movie recently released in China, The Empire of Silver by
Guo Taiming, describes the cunningness, betrayals, fights, tribulations and
passions accompanying Chinese traders' earnings and fortunes along the Silk
Road. Their monumental mansions, still standing in modern Shanxi around the
city of Pingyao, are a testament to the wealth they managed to accumulate.
Pingyao itself, now a nearly god-forsaken town a few kilometers away from the
sands of the desert, is being celebrated in China as the former capital of
Chinese finance. It is the place where the hallmarks of contemporary monetary
flow, such as checks and banknotes, were first invented and used.
The history of Pingyao proves how China felt and still feels about
the stability of the Silk Road. Now most of China's trade moves from the coast
and not, as it did until about 150 years ago, across the continental route
stretching through Central Asia and Iran.
These lands were not just distant pieces in a game of geopolitical dominos or
uncertain suppliers of fuel and raw materials. They were part of the bloodline
that China could not control militarily - unlike the modern American sea lanes
- but that were crucial for a good part of the Chinese economy. Thus, Chinese
diplomacy and silver helped to stabilize the areas, no matter what. The flow of
goods was ultimately what was important for Pingyao, not the particular
political settlement in, say, Iran.
That history resonates in the Chinese thinking about political upheavals in
Iran in today.
Immediately after the results of the recent Iranian elections were announced,
Chinese experts smelled foul play. In a modern country, with electronic devices
and spotless organization, it could take days to have the final results.
In Iran, with a largely primitive organization and little or no electronic
network, the top leaders announced the victory of incumbent president Mahmud
Ahmadinejad just two hours after the polls closed. Moreover, random
investigations and inquiries suggested that Ahmadinejad was actually third in
the polls, after Mir Hussein Mousavi, a native of the East Azarbaijan province,
and even after the other reform candidate, Mehdi Karroubi. According to the
official results, Mousavi was beaten even in his home villages, among strongly
clannish Azars, and some areas had 140% voter turnout.
These are the reasons why at the beginning of last week, Chinese papers heaped
criticism and derision on Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, his political patron and Iran's top leader, for their alleged victory
with an astounding 71% of the total vote. The papers got a free hand on that
because even China's top decision-makers thought Ahmadinejad had gone too far.
Yet, within a few days, it was also clear that the official results would not
be turned down. Khamenei ordered a recount of some of the vote, which confirmed
the original numbers. Pro-Mousavi demonstrators could take to the streets and
could also hope to storm Tehran, home of about one-sixth of Iran's population,
but they could not hope to topple Ahmadinejad without a violent confrontation.
The president controls the army and, most importantly, the vast network of the
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which has vested interests in preserving
Iran's status quo.
And after all, now as in the times of The Empire of Silver, the status
quo is also Beijing's political mantra.
China is extremely concerned about the political stability along its borders
because it is the one thing that could undermine the domestic stability
necessary to carry on its reform and modernization program. Chaos in Iran then
looks particularly dangerous. Iraq is in chaos; Afghanistan needs more
soldiers, ie, more military activities; the Taliban are wresting political
power in Pakistan; and the Kashmir region, between Pakistan and India, is still
a powder keg.
If Iran spirals into a new revolution or a civil war, neighboring Pakistan
could soon follow, and in either case, political calm could be restored only at
the price of violent crackdowns, condoned in Pakistan (where the government is
pro-Western) and opposed in Iran (with anti-Western leaders). India would be
hardly spared its share of troubles, with its large and restive Muslim
minority. Its financial center in Mumbai, next to Pakistan and with large
Muslim shantytowns, could again be attacked by terrorists. China would be in a
state of alarm. Its Muslim region of Xinjiang, with an uneasy, pro-independence
Uighur minority (a Turkic-speaking people), could be inspired to spark anew
In any event, the whole region could soon be in flames. Oil prices could then
spike again, as chaos in Iran threatens the security of the Gulf and the
The Iraqi war could soon pale in comparison to the nightmare starting in Iran.
Furthermore, inspired by Iran, North Korea could also try its hand at stirring
chaos, perhaps winning new and dangerous benefits from the six-party talks,
with governments too worried about Iran to have time to be fussy about
concessions to Pyongyang.
Against this background, China, in a June 18 editorial in the official
English-language China Daily, wished for peace to soon be restored in Tehran
and encouraged the US to not be tempted to push a new "color" revolution in
China has a further political calculus. If Ahmadinejad, already domestically
weak, were to emerge from elections that everybody knows he lost and to come to
the fore to speak about Iran's nuclear program, he may be very vulnerable and
thus willing to accommodate foreign requests. Conversely, if someone else,
perhaps Mousavi, surfaces out of the ongoing demonstrations, he will have
strong popular support and thus might be unwilling to make concessions on
something considered a matter of national security and pride: Iran's nuclear
Beijing makes political calculations on the basis of an ongoing, growing
political and economic relationship, providing leverage with the incumbent
president. In America, cut off from Iran for 30 years, there is no political
relationship to speak of, and thus there is no leverage, either. It is easy for
China to think of doing business with the existing man, Ahmadinejad, and for
America, trusting no one, it is easy to bet on Mousavi, the new man - he could
hardly be worse than the present one for Washington.
Furthermore, the United States may think that as long as protests go on in
Tehran, the Israeli pressure for a troublesome air strike against Iranian
nuclear facilities can be put off.
Strategically, the world, already in the middle of a grave economic crisis, can
hardly spare the time and energy to cope with the expansion of the present
geopolitical crisis, which already stretches from Iraq to Pakistan. This is in
favor of China's interest for the status quo.
Tactically, however, China's hopes for a quick, peaceful solution could be
dashed. Despite all calculations, historical processes and protests have a way
of developing independent of cold political scheming. Certainly, when the
popular mood is hot, as in Iran now, it is easier to fan the flames of
discontent than to try dousing them.
This could bring trouble to China, but few others would be spared.