Tehran and Beijing signed a 25-year bilateral agreement over the weekend, becoming a subject of both celebration and condemnation.
The comprehensive strategic partnership is designed to be a ‘roadmap’ for trade, economic and transportation cooperation as outlined by Saeed Khatibzadeh, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman. Iran’s Chinese counterparts shared the same view, reiterating it is a non-binding document.
The contents of the documents have not been published, which in itself has drawn some domestic criticism.
In response to why it has not been made visible to the public, Reza Zabib, who heads East Asia division at Iran's Foreign Ministry, has said “there is a legal requirement to publish agreements, however, the publication of non-binding documents is not common”.
Several analysts and experts in Sino-Iran relations have stated that although the deal symbolises a strategic partnership, it is not a breakthrough in the relations between the two countries.
“From a historical point of view, China and Iran have been economic and political partners for decades: The deal signed yesterday hardly represents a breakthrough in this pattern” Jacopo Scita, a doctoral fellow specialising in Iran and China at Durham University, tells TRT World.
Despite these observations, and the document not being publicly published, the televised signing of the deal has triggered an array of reactions on social media, news outlets, and the streets of Iran.
Pro-agreement cheers in the face of US sanctions
On Twitter, Iranian officials among other supporters of the deal, hailed Iran’s signing to be a part of their “look to the East” foreign policy in defiance against US sanctions.
Ali Shamkhani, a top Iranian security official described the roadmap to be a part of Iran’s “active resistance policy”, and that “the world isn’t just the West”.
Iran’s Parliament Speaker, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, has also spoken out, celebrating the signing as a significant step for the development of political-economic power. Proponents of the agreement both inside and outside of Iran, have echoed similar remarks.
TRT World asked Lucille Greer, an expert on China and the Middle East at the Wilson Center, on whether United States sanctions pushed both countries to the signing.
“US sanctions campaign hasn't really forced Iran to go to China, but it has made Iran and China, sort of, unwilling partners” , observes Greer.
Whilst both China and Iran face US sanctions, Greer clarifies “it also needs to be said that China is extremely sensitive to US secondary sanctions, and in addition to that it values its relationship with the United States far more than it values its relationship with Iran”.
“It's not going to jeopardise that relationship by trying to openly flout sanctions on Iran”, Greer adds.
Greer explains to TRT World “since the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, and the reposition of secondary sanctions, there's been a pretty marked decline in the amount of oil that China has imported from Iran”.
“One thing that they've been doing to try and get around American sanctions is they mid-ship exchanges out to sea, and they rewrap the oil so that it looks like it's Malaysian oil and not Iranian oil,” Greer continues.
Scita comments that “in the medium-term, the agreement may answer Iran’s need for a partner in strategic sectors such as high-tech, cybersecurity, and defence industries. In the short-term, though, it will give Teheran a breath of political oxygen, although it will probably increase Beijing’s leverage to push Iran back to the nuclear negotiation table”.
The anti-agreement crowds re-emerge
Last July, when the draft of the agreement first leaked, it sparked a public outcry in Iran.
“It came to the point that the Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had to come out and say no we’re not selling Kish islands or selling to China, or all that kind of stuff” Greer recalls.
Almost a year later, Iranians remain divided on the deal as the speculation that Iran has given away too many concessions continues to circulate.
On social media, the hashtag "the 5-year cooperation document" in Farsi has been trending since Saturday.
Through the hashtag, some are sharing their discontent and describing the deal as a sell-out.
Footage released yesterday has shown dozens of people in Iran protesting outside the parliament in Tehran against the deal, with chants of “Iran is not for sale” being heard.
Criticisms have involved allegations that Iranian islands will be handed over to Beijing, a claim that a ‘Fact Sheet’ circulated by the Iranian foreign ministry has debunked.
Greer tells TRT World why the deal has sparked domestic criticism “Iran due to its colonial experience is very wary of foreign powers that come in and do economic agreements with them, and that's just part of the Iranian colonial experience”
“And then we also see in other parts of the world playing out many other countries have partnerships with China too but they're not satisfied, for example, not enough locals are being employed, there are talks about debt diplomacy and debt entrapment. I think that the public in Iran are probably well aware of this happening in other parts of the world and they're concerned that this will come to their door,” Greer continues.
Some Iranians have, however, gone to the extent of comparing the agreement to the historic Golestan and Turkmenchay treaties.
Scita describes the comparison as being “fairly exaggerated”.
“Other countries in the region have signed Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships with China (e.g. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt), while all the others have increased and strengthened their relationship with Beijing in the last decade,” Scita tells TRT World.
Iran’s efforts to achieve a strengthened relationship with China, the second-largest economy in the world, as per Scita, is “not so much different to what hundreds of countries have done so far”.