January 25, 2021

Iran, a potential bulwark against BRI

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US’ burning bridges with Iran can pave the way for Chinese dominance over Eurasian landmass and major seas of the world

Keywords: China | Pakistan | Turkey | Gwadar | Chabahar | Sister Ports | Washington | Tehran | Kulbhushan Jadhav | Chabahar-Zahedan Railway Line | China-Iran deal

A cursory look at the map would show that Iran, like Pakistan, can join China’s Border and Roads Initiative (BRI) 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.

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’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’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.

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 peninsula 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.

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.

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 Iranians 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.

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.

6 comments

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  • Reading Sandhya Jain’s Article under comment almost sounds like watching a Hollywood Movie with this theme of China – Iran -Pakistan – Nepal – Bangladesh so well articulated by the author.

    If indeed China plays out as pictured by the author, which paints a new world map order being planned by China, then a time is not far when China and not America or Russia will be the new world power.

    That would not only leave America holding its hands, even India would become very vulnerable to subjugation in international politics as well as its territorial security. As an ancient civilization like China, India must also cultivate our own Chanakyas to beat the Chinese thoughts and threats against India.

    It’s always such an intellectual plessure to read the new dimensions of international politics that Sandhya Jain excels in.

  • Only India and Modi could act as a bridge between Iran and US as of now, more then this, its really very very important to settle the long running disputes, 8f India, Iran, US can work together, it can be a dangerous alliance

  • I fully agree with this analysis by the author. Iran, with or without the Mullah-rule, is a
    virulently independence-minded nation and it would be a gross mistake by New Delhi
    to push it into China’s lap. If the present trend continues, then when conflict breaks open
    between India and China, Iran will remain neutral. That is simply because of its own
    economic survival. Indian presence in Iran should be larger.
    America’s relations with Iran is highly distorted and to a large extent it is Washington is at fault. In order to maintain its Arab friends ( a highly skewed view of region) and appease the Israeli hawks ( with pressure from inside of the United States), Washington has adopted this dangerous policy which isolated Iran — a most valuable nation in the region.

  • I had on an earlier occasion commented that Ms Sandhya Jain should have been in our MoEF. Vision is a trait attributed to leaders and in that sense we certainly never had any leaders in this country post 1947. Look at China which got ‘freedom’ only one year after us. The economic and military prowess the country had acquired over the years is certainly enviable. Talking condescendingly of communism, absence of human rights and bonded laborers will not do. For all the human rights and freedom of speech that we boast of, the condition of the majority in this country can only be considered worse than those bonded laborers.

  • Iran is historically linked to China since antiquity and has no reason to stay away from a new Silk Route if it finds benefit as a bridge between West and Central Asia. Existential enemies of Ira are the Anglo-saxon countries that tried to dominate it (and did for some decades), Israel which won’t tolerate any powerful state in the region and potentially Russia whic also harboured expansionist ambitions in Iran in the past. China is seen as a partner remote enough not to threaten Iran’s sovereignty.

Sandhya Jain

Sandhya Jain

Sandhya Jain is a political analyst, independent researcher, and author of multiple books. She is also editor of the platform Vijayvaani

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