Iran Is a Battleground in the US-China Cold War
They say that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.
If history is any sort of guide, then we must look no further than the former Soviet Union to recognize a pattern which is crystallizing in regard to China’s relationship to Iran, and the growing indicators that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is seeking to take the Islamic Republic of Iran on as a satellite state.
At the end of World War II, the Soviet Red Army had occupied most of Eastern Europe, which it had liberated from Nazi Germany. In order to maintain the balance of power against the West, the USSR had to secure the liberated areas and turn them into satellite states. This was achieved through a combination of guerilla war, military engagement, coups, and anti-imperialist proxies.
The Soviet regime did everything in its power to control as much territory as possible by installing communist proxy regimes, from East Asia to Eastern Europe. Fast forward to 2021, and there is ample evidence to prove that the CCP is now doing the same.
Similar to the USSR, China is not limiting its ambitions to its own region. Following the Soviet model, China has gobbled up Tibet and East Turkestan, turned North Korea into its own backyard, and secured allies like the Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan. China has also officially adopted the Belt and Road Initiative as one of the strategic tenets of its long-term foreign policy; through this, China intends to expand its sphere of influence using economic investment in many developing countries, particularly in infrastructure projects. Countries with weak economies and corrupt regimes have the potential to turn into Chinese satellites through predatory lending and investment.
The major difference between the CCP and the USSR is that, unlike the Soviets, the Chinese are economically prosperous. That prosperity allows them to spread their influence primarily through soft power. Although the Soviets maintained an isolated economy and limited trade with the West, China’s growth is fueled by globalization and international trade, driven by a cheap labor force and lax environmental regulations.
Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iran has maintained a close alliance with China. However, rising tensions between China and the United States have made the alliance stronger than ever. Like the CCP, the Islamic Republic of Iran is an authoritarian regime with an anti-American ideology.
Tightened US sanctions and plummeting oil exports have made the Iranian regime desperate to find alternative sources of income to maintain the status quo, feed loyal supporters, pay for proxy wars, and fund the oppression of dissidents. Enter China to the rescue.
Both the CCP and the Islamic Republic realize the possibilities here. In the summer of 2020, China and Iran quietly drafted a sweeping economic and security partnership. The deal cleared the way for billions of dollars of Chinese investments in Iran’s economy, particularly in the energy sector. The partnership also expanded Chinese presence in the banking, telecommunications, ports, railways, and other sectors of Iran’s economy. In return, China will receive a heavily discounted supply of Iranian oil over the next 25 years.
The partnership also targets deepening military cooperation, potentially giving China a foothold in a region long considered America’s sphere of influence. The deal seeks joint military training and exercises, joint research, joint weapons development, and intelligence sharing. This is in addition to granting Chinese companies exclusive access to Iran’s natural resources, such as fishing rights on Iran’s coastline. Fish trawling by Chinese vessels has caused widespread protests in Iran in recent years.
The Islamic Republic’s expressed eagerness to turn Iran into a Chinese client has hurt the regime’s legitimacy among the Iranian people. The old tactic of blaming everything on the Great Satan (America) no longer works. The people of Iran have had enough of the mullahs’ corruption and incompetence, and are not buying the anti-American propaganda.
However, economic pressure is not enough to bring the regime to its knees. Even worse, the Biden administration seeks to renew ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran by possibly reentering the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal). The United States needs a coherent policy to help the people of Iran in their struggle against the Islamic Republic before Iran becomes a Chinese client state.
Dr. Shervan Fashandi is a banking expert and political analyst based in New York.He serves on the board of directors for Iranian Americans for Liberty, a policy advocacy group focused on international policy towards Iran.