Iran’s ‘Look East’ partners in a quandary

M.K. Bhadrakumar July 31, 2015 9:58 AM (UTC+8)
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At a meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at Beijing last week, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Ebrahim Rahimpour underscored that Tehran regarded China as its “most important strategic partner”.

China-Iran ties

While drawing attention to Iran’s independent foreign policies, Rahimpour also tweaked Iran’s ‘Look East’ policies, which date back to the previous presidency of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

Iran’s ‘Look East’ emphasized regional ties with all Asian countries. But China now outstrips other Asian partnerships in priority – Russia and India, in particular.

How did this happen? Didn’t China too come under US pressure – like Russia or India – to curb the relations with Iran? Yes, indeed.

China also caved in to the US pressure to stop its transfer of military technology to Iran – Washington going to the extent of threatening to supply arms to Taiwan in retaliation and Obama receiving the Dalai Lama in the White House. The US kept reminding China that Russia had already accepted the rules of the game drawn up in Washington, and Beijing had no choice but to follow suit lest it faced isolation within the UN Security Council.

But the amazing part is that trade figures tell a different story. If in 2009 the bilateral trade stood at $28 billion, by 2012 it had increased to $36 billion, galloping to $40 billion in 2013 and to $47.5 billion as of end of 2014.

In sum, while scrupulously observing the UN sanctions against Iran and avoiding any frontal confrontation with the US’ unilateral sanctions against Iran, China defied the US’ campaign to ‘isolate’ Iran.

Beijing took a pragmatic decision to exploit all available loopholes in the sanctions regime against Iran and push ahead the relationship with Tehran as optimally as it could.

Thus, a solid foundation exists today for China to switch to full-scale cooperation with Iran. China’s Silk Road strategies will phenomenally transform the partnership. China has committed to make investments in Iran to the tune of $52 billion within the ambit of the ‘Belt and Road’. Iran is set to play a pivotal role in China’s energy security, supplying gas and oil through routes that bypass the Straits of Hormuz and the Malacca Straits.

Historians will acknowledge the behind-the-scenes role China played in nudging the US and its European allies to realize that the policy of isolating Iran cannot succeed and would even be counter-productive and could seriously damage regional security while, on the other hand, an integrated approach of engaging Iran in a flexible way, combining demonstrative steps to offer economic incentives would produce better results.

In comparison, where did Russia and India go wrong?

First, while all three Asian giants succumbed to the US pressure and complied with the sanctions regime against Iran, China never accepted the sanctions as a limiting factor in the development of economic relations with Iran. It explored every avenue to sidestep the sanctions.

Russia and India, on the other hand, rested their oars and sought to play the ‘Iran card’ in their respective relationships with the US. In fact, Russia went back on previous commitments made to Iran regarding the S-300 missile system in an excessive zeal to please the US, while India was clever by half, hoping to extract concessions from the US during the negotiations over the 2008 nuclear deal while at the same time pinning Iran down to barter trade. (India today keeps $8.8 billion in ‘blocked funds’.)

Second, China kept up a steady momentum of exchanges with Iran, while Russia and India atrophied their contacts. Russia’s real contribution might have been that it held its hands from undermining the talks between Iran and the US. As for India, it was patently indifferent. The reactions in Russia and India to the nuclear deal have been more or less the same – sad or pessimistic, fraught with angst.

Russia could get hurt by the fall in oil prices, while India is anxious that Iran is an ambitious regional power that is bound to project its power in the Indian Ocean. Russia has reason to be uneasy that the Iranian elites in power today may seek close integration with the West. India worries about a likely surge in Iran’s relations with China and Pakistan.

Fundamentally, Russia and India faltered by viewing their relations with Iran through the prism of their relations with the US. On the contrary, China never took its eyes off the ‘Iran project’”.

Iran cannot but feel disappointed that Moscow has dragged its feet by taking a legalistic position regarding Tehran’s request for membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

commentary carried by the official Iranian news agency noted last week that Russia exploited Iran’s weakness to conclude bilateral deals with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, which effectively decreased its share of the Caspian Sea to less than 10 percent. However, “conditions have changed” and from now on, “we [Iran] can play the Russian card. Gone are the times the Russians could play the Iran card”.

On its part, India’s hype in investing in Iran’s infrastructure and developing the Chabahar Port to gain an access route to Afghanistan and Central Asia has dissipated lately. Tehran is yet to receive a high-level delegation from Russia or India. Do not be surprised if President Xi Jinping were to travel to Iran in the near future on a historic visit to inaugurate a new vista of seamless Sino-Iranian partnership.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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