The foreign ministers of Iran and China discussed plans to facilitate trips by the business people of the two countries under the shadow of the coronavirus outbreak.

In the last several days, Iranian media have highlighted the possibility of a 25 year Memorandum of agreement with China that would see Iran benefit from China’s robust & strong economy and help increase the partnership between the two countries.

Iran and China already have warm relations, and China is likely keen to knit Iran into its various economic plans, such as the Belt & Road Initiative. Iran has been ready for participation in these initiatives and sought to turn to Turkey, Russia, India and China due to US Sanctions.

News of this agreement has been raised before. In early June, Al-Manar and Tehran Times both reported it in English and pointed to it as part of the initiative of President Hassan Rouhani’s current government.

This “Road Map” for the next 25 years of China ties was mentioned by government spokesman Ali Rabiei on June 23. Full details of the plan were supposed to be published at some point. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi was supposed to present more details.

The “25-year agreement” was raised by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a political visit to Gilan province when he alleged there was a secret agreement. He argued against recognising this contract. Radio Farda indicates that since June 27 there have been more rumours.

A pro-government conservative website in Farsi has mentioned that Iran is seeking this 25 year deal, and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has been tasked by Rouhani with working it out.

Ahmadinejad has tried to make it appear as if something is being hidden from the public. Meanwhile, the deal was described as a pact between the “Lion and the Dragon” by another newspaper. Apparently, Iran is the lion in this relationship.

What is really going on? Tasnim news has put the Iran-China ties headline on its homepage. It argues that Iran and China have been in discussions for many years about closely working together. It also notes a trip by Zarif last year and a tweet he wrote in August 2019 where he mentioned a “25 year road map.”

Tasnim’s point is that this is not a “secret” agreement the way the former president presented it, but rather a well-known track of diplomacy. The question the article raises is how much investment is on the table. It notes that figures between $120 billion and $400b. have been mentioned, with one article noting a $260b. investment in Iran’s oil and gas sector.

Tasnim’s article hints at a larger nationalist concern in Iran. During the Cold War, Iran sought a third way between the West and the Soviet Union. This was “neither east nor west.” But the article notes that Iran has sought to shift toward an “eastern strategy.” This does not mean “exploitation” as in the earlier eras of Western colonialism, but mutual interests.

The point the article makes is that Iran does not want to be subjugated economically by China. Ahmadinejad is well known as a champion of the working class and a personally modest man who was not known for a lavish lifestyle, perhaps in contrast to some of those in the current Iranian leadership accused of corruption, or those like Zarif who seem to enjoy being abroad more than being in Iran.

Tasnim accuses Rouhani of kissing up to the West and now apparently weakening Iran in its relationships with the East.

In contrast, Iran’s Fars News seems to favour the agreement and notes that Iran and China have increased relations and cultural exchanges in recent years. This second report notes that Iran and China have not reached a strategic level of partnership and compares Iran-China relations with China-Pakistan relations.

The article notes that Iran-China relations will anger the US, and it appears to think this is a good idea. This is also important for Iran in the UN Security Council. Iran wants China’s support to end an arms embargo.

The overall details about this plan appear to be more about internal politics than just about China. It hinges on issues of national importance and what level of new ties Iran and China may create.

Author: Seth J. Frantzma