A cursory look at the map would show that Iran, like Pakistan, can join China’s Border and Roads Initiative (B&RI) by both land and sea, giving the latter command over a staggering geostrategic space. By land, Tehran could link Beijing with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s emerging caliphate, giving it control over the bulk of the world’s jihadi groups that dwell along the route from Xinjiang through Afghanistan-Pakistan to the Syrian and Iraqi mercenaries who often shelter in Turkey.
Turkey could offer Beijing access to the Mediterranean Sea and the nations of North Africa, Central Europe and Europe that comprise its littoral, thus providing a large market for its exports. More importantly, Ankara offers an opening to the Atlantic Ocean via the Strait of Gibraltar. This could bring China closer to the United States than so far envisaged by the State Department or the Pentagon.
Iran’s Chabahar port, adjacent to Pakistan’s Gwadar port, lays along the Makran coastline that has traditionally belonged to Balochistan; it was partitioned off to Persia by the British. Access to Gwadar and Chabahar – without the potentially inhibiting presence of India – would give Beijing a commanding position in the Arabian Sea and Strait of Hormuz, and a potential shortcut to its military base in Djibouti.
Iran is therefore an important bulwark against China acquiring full spectrum dominance of the Eurasian landmass and major oceans and seas of the world. Clearly, US President Donald Trump must urgently reconsider his hostility to Iran, in the interests of larger global stability. Iran’s alleged nuclear quest is no more threatening than the nuclear arsenals of Pakistan or North Korea (both mentored by and closely allied to China), and nothing can be gained by pushing Tehran into Beijing’s embrace.
It must be understood that when President Hassan Rouhani stated, on a number of occasions, that Pakistan’s Gwadar Port and Iran’s Chabahar Port could function as “sister ports”, he was hinting to the international community that the two ports could have a common customer or de facto owner. Beijing already possesses control of Gwadar Port on a 43-year lease (till 2059). Islamabad was always uncomfortable with India building Chabahar Port, fearing that it might undermine Gwadar port as Baloch insurgents increased attacks on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. The possibility that China also disliked Indian presence smack in between its military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa and proposed base in Jiwani peninsular abutting Gwadar, needs serious consideration.
The sudden abduction of retired naval commander Kulbhushan Jadhav, who was engaged in a small trading activity in Chabahar, by a jihadi group in April 2017, may be viewed in this light. Jadhav was handed over to Pakistan and accused of being an Indian spy trying to foment terrorist activities inside Pakistan. Islamabad’s subsequent behaviour: denying India consular access while trying Commander Jadhav in a secret military court and sentencing him to death, and stubbornly denying proper consular access even after directions from the International Court of Justice, are eerily similar to Chinese obduracy when faced with international opprobrium in Hong Kong, the Uyghur issue, Coronavirus, etc.
Washington’s ill-timed hostility to Tehran, freezing its funds in Western banks and starving it of vital funds with its oil embargo, enabled Beijing to step into the vacuum and mitigate Iran’s diplomatic isolation and economic difficulties by buying its oil. It seems almost certain that Beijing’s deft diplomacy was behind India’s abrupt expulsion from the Chabahar-Zahedan railway line that was to be extended to Zaranj in Afghanistan.
While Beijing is keen to build the railway line, the Iranian mullahs with their famed patience have not committed themselves, leaving the door open for India to return. Possibly they suspect a Beijing hand in the abduction of the commander, as a test case for grooming the Pakistani military in inter-operability with Beijing. If so, the Iranians will not appreciate such activity on their soil.
If this surmise is true, Washington would do well to investigate whether the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections originate from ‘friends’ in institutions that have been lavishly funded by China over the years. As the United States has already uncovered citizens in prestigious institutions working covertly for China, this is highly plausible.
At present, there is talk of a $400 billion deal between China and Iran. Columnist Adnan Aamir (China-Iran deal overshadows Pakistan Belt and Road project, Nikkei Asian Review, July 21, 2020) states that according to an unverified 18-page document with details of the proposed 25-year Iran-China agreement, President Xi Jinping originally proposed the deal during a visit to Iran in January 2016. The document moots $280 billion Chinese investment in Iran’s oil and gas industry and the remaining $120 billion in production and transportation infrastructure, 5G infrastructure, banking, telecommunications, ports, railways and several other sectors. Beijing will receive crude oil and gas at discounted prices for the next 25 years.
Washington needs to understand the gravity of the situation and build bridges with Iran. The outreach to North Korea was always a non-starter, but Iran can be quite promising. As a start, America should release Iranian funds frozen in Western banks.
Chintan, India Foundation Blog, 25 July 2020