Solidarity Against the Iran China Strategic Partnership Agreement

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September 22, 2020
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
United Nations
UN Headquarters, S-3800
New York, NY 10017

Re: Strategic Partnership Agreement Being Negotiated Between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China

Dear Mr. Secretary-General,

As the international community convenes to commence the seventy-fifth session of the General Assembly, we write you to register our great dismay at having recently learned of a comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement being negotiated between the governments of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China. Negotiations concerning this Agreement commenced in early 2016, following a visit to Iran by President Xi Jinping, when the two countries undertook to commence a “new chapter” in their bilateral relations.

Iranians have historically proven averse to allowing their country to align too closely with any great power. It should therefore come as no surprise that the recent emergence of scant details of the proposed Agreement has stoked a fierce reaction within Iran. The most common expressions of dismay posted on social media accounts in Iran are that the Islamic Republic is selling off the country to China. Critics have also routinely drawn parallels between this proposed Agreement and the humiliating Turkmenchay treaty pursuant to which Persia ceded vast territories to Russia in 1828.

Indeed, the last time any Iranian Government contemplated entering into a bilateral treaty that affected the sovereign powers of the country was the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919. While that agreement was considered in the immediate aftermath of the immense devastation of the First World War, and was more modest than the comprehensive scope of the current Strategic Partnership Agreement, the intensity of the public outcry that ensued against foreign interference amongst Iranians compelled the then Government of the country to abandon the proposed initiative altogether. 

For over a century, concepts such as the moral imperative to pursue diplomacy, always frankly and in the public view, or the need to pursue international treaties, through open covenants openly arrived at, have been recognized as cherished principles to guide members of the international community in their conduct of international relations. However, it is clear that despite the many implications such an agreement will have for Iranians, the Islamic Republic has steadfastly failed to act in a transparent manner and by proceeding with such an Agreement will suffocate the legitimate aspirations and offend the inalienable rights of Iranians.

We are collectively of the view that Iran’s latest gambit will prove gravely injurious to the welfare and future prosperity of Iranians. Even the limited available information regarding the Strategic Partnership Agreement reveals that the Islamic Republic intends to tether Tehran to Beijing politically, and embed China into the economic and social fabric of Iran. Proceeding with such an Agreement would be tantamount to committing Iran to a straight-jacket that will severely restrain its political and economic sovereignty.

The first segments of the enclosure to this letter examine the underlying reason the Islamic Republic intends to pursue such an arrangement and highlights the extent to which it has been operating in an opaque fashion to withhold information from Iranians. We then proceed to explain how the economic and political morass prevailing in Iran will severely impair the Islamic Republic’s ability to negotiate a balanced agreement, before proceeding to consider the broad ambit and pitfalls contained in the draft Agreement. In the next segments, we demonstrate that even assuming the Islamic Republic negotiates a sensible agreement, the scourges of mismanagement and malfeasance that have characterized the Islamic Republic for the past four decades will lead any prospective agreement to metastasize in a manner that will imperil the territorial integrity of Iran. Finally, we conclude that the Iranian Parliament is incapable of offering Iranians succor and will fail to stand in the way of ratifying any eventual Agreement, irrespective of how manifestly flawed it may be.

For all the reasons cited above, we deem it our responsibility to amplify the voices and demands of Iranians by registering our grave procedural and substantive misgivings with the Strategic Partnership Agreement being negotiated between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China. The fervent longing of Iranians is simple - a desire to live freely on their native soil, under their native sun, and working for the advancement of their country free from the menacing yokes of domestic corruption or foreign exploitation.

Rather than curse the darkness surrounding the opaque details of this craven Agreement, we are profoundly mindful of our responsibility to light a candle so as to illuminate the many dangers that will befall Iran in the event Iran and China proceed with such an Agreement. We sincerely hope that members of the international community will not turn their backs on the legitimate aspirations of Iranians, but instead choose to stand in solidarity with the steadfast yearnings expressed by countless Iranians.      

It would be unconscionable to confuse the hollow interests of the Islamic Republic for the hallowed yearnings and aspirations of aggrieved Iranians, or to conflate the interests of the regime with the future welfare and prospects of its citizenry. As such, a prospective agreement will amount to a Faustian bargain that irrevocably suffocates the yearnings, ensnare the fortunes, and shackles the prosperity of Iranians for generations to come.

In light of the profound chasm that exists between the intentions of the Islamic Republic and the genuine aspirations of Iranians, and the reality that a feeble Iranian Parliament will not adequately scrutinize or ratify an eventual agreement, China should be estopped from invoking the principal of pacta sunt servanda to assert that Iran is bound to a prospective agreement for 25 years. Rather, any unconscionable concessions the Iranian regime heaps on China to secure a Strategic Partnership Agreement, should be treated as the tainted fruit of a poisonous tree.

Conversely, by steadfastly refusing to safeguard the inviolable sovereignty of Iran or the inalienable rights of Iranians, and by acting outside the contours of its own constitution, the Islamic Republic has acted in an egregious manner that represents an affront to fundamental principles of democratic governance. By so doing, the Islamic Republic has effectively forfeited its right to enter a legally enforceable agreement. The only means by which the Islamic Republic may cure the fundamental defect of securing the consent of Iranians to a prospective agreement with China, would be to subject any eventual Agreement to public approval by way of a national referendum. In the absence of agreeing to such a procedure for popular ratification, the Islamic Republic is effectively barred from binding Iranians to a suffocating 25-year Agreement.      

We thank you for considering this letter and wish you continued success in your work. 

cc: H.E. Kelly Craft, Permanent Representative of the United States of America to the United Nations

cc: H.E. Nicolas de Riviere, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations

cc: H.E. Zhang Jun, Permanent Representative of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations

cc: H.E. Vasily Nebenzya, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations

cc: H.E. Barbara Woodward, Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the United Nations

SIGNATORIES:
1.     Professor Shahla Abghari (Women’s Rights Activist)
2.     Professor Mashallah Adjoudani (Historian)
3.     Ms. Mahnaz Afkhami (Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership & former Minister of Women’s Affairs prior to 1979)
4.     Mr. Gholam Reza Afkhami (Director, Foundation for Iranian Studies)
5.     Ms. Nazanin Afshin-Jam (Human Rights Activist)
6.     Ms. Shohreh Aghdashloo (Actress)
7.     Mr. Iradje Ahrabi-fard 
8.     Mr. Shahriar Ahy (Spokesperson of Iran Transition Council)
9.     Mr. Abbas Alaghebandian (Philanthropist, Businessman)
10.   Professor Kazem Alamdari (California State University)
11.   Ms. Nasrin Almasi (Journalist)
12.   Professor Camron Amin (University of Michigan)
13.   Mr. Babak Amini (Musician)
14.   Mr. Abdolreza Ansari (former Governor & Minister of Labour prior to 1979)
15.   Ms. Nazenin Ansari (Managing Editor, Kayhan – London)
16.   Dr. Nina Ansary (Author)
17.   Mr. Morteza Anvari (Director of Program & Strategy, U.S. Army)
18.   Mr. Mehrdad Ariannejad (Community Activist) 
19.   Mr. Faramarz Aslani (Vocalist)
20.   Professor Touraj Atabaki (Emeritus Professor, Leiden University)
21.   Mr. Victoria Azad (former Guttenberg city councilor)
22.   Ms. Khatereh Azarfar (Ericsson)
23.   Mr. Kamal Azari (Businessman)
24.   Mr. Mostafa Azizi (Director)
25.   Professor Shaul Bakhash (Emeritus Professor, George Mason University)
26.   Ms. Rudi Bakhtiar (Broadcaster)
27.   Mr. Ahmad Batebi (Journalist)
28.   Professor Ali Banuazizi (Boston College)
29.   Mr. Mehran Barati (International Relations Analyst)
30.   Mr. Morteza Barjesteh ("Morteza" - Musician)
31. Ms. Hengameh Barzin ("Hengameh" - Vocalist)
32.    Ms. Leili Bazargan (Journalist)
33.   Ms. Nazanin Bonyadi (Actress)
34.   Professor Mehrzad Boroujerdi (Virginia Tech)
35.   Ms. Ladan Boroumand (Boroumand Foundation)
36.   Mr. Jimmy Delshad (former Mayor of Beverly Hills)
37.   Mr. Nader Dormani (Activist, Businessman)
38.   Dariush Eghbali (Vocalist and Founder of Ayeneh Foundation)
39.   Mr. Ali Ehsassi (Member of Canadian Parliament)
40.   Dr. Haleh Esfandiari (Scholar)
41.   Dr. Hamed Esmaeilion (Writer)
42.   Ms. Marjan Fakki 
43.   Mr. Mike Farahani
44.   Ms. Juni Farmanfarmian
45.   Commodore Mohammad Farsi
46.   Dr. Amir Hossein Gandjbakhche (National Health Institute)
47.   Dr. Manouchehr Ganji (former Minister of Education prior to 1979)
48.   Dr. Hadi Ghaemi (Executive Director, Center for Human Rights in Iran)
49.   Mr. Gholamreza Golsorkhi
50.   Mr. Ebrahim “Ebi” Hamedi (Vocalist)
51.   Ms. Mahshid Hamedi Boromand 
52.   Mr. George Haroonian (Council of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles)
53.   Professor Nader Hashemi (University of Denver)
54.   Professor Houchang Hassan-Yari (Emeritus Professor, Royal Military College of Canada)
55   Professor Ata Hoodashtian (Swiss UMEF University)
56.   Professor Ramin Jahanbegloo (O.P. Jindal Global University)
57.   Mr. Iradj Javid
58.   Mr. Maz Jobrani (Comedian & Actor)
59.   Professor Arsalan Kahnemuyipour (University of Toronto)
60.   Ms. Mehrangiz Kar (Lawyer & Human Rights Activist)
61.   Professor Kazem Kardavani (Retired)
62.   Mr. Javad Khadem (Minister 1979)
63.   Mr. Camron Khansarnia (National Union for Democracy in Iran)
64.   Dr. Shahram Kholdi (University of Waterloo)
65.   Mr. Hadi Khorsandi (Satirist)
66.   Ms. Sepideh Khoshnevis 
67.   Mr. Nikahang Kowsar (Environmental Journalist)
68.   Ms. Sharan Labari
69.   Dr. Alidad Mafinezam (President, West Asia Council)
70.   Professor Ali Akbar Mahdi (Emeritus Professor, Ohio Wesleyan University)
71.   Professor Hassan Mansoor (American Graduate School of Paris)
72.   Mr. Bijan Mehr (Iranian National Front News Agency)
73.   Mr. Ali Mirfetros (Writer)
74.   Ms. Shokooh Mirzadeghi (Writer)
75.   Professor Haideh Moghissi (Emerita Professor, York University)
76.   Dr. Majid Mohammadi
77.   Professor Fariborz Mokhtari (Retired)
78.   Dr. Reza Moridi (former Member of Provincial Parliament, Ontario)
79.   Mr. Bijan Mortazavi (Musician)
80.   Shahrokh Moshginghalam (Actor &  Dancer)
81.   Mr. Alireza Nader (Foundation for Defense of Democracies)
82.   Dr. Azar Nafisi (Writer)
83.   Shahin Najafi (Musician)
84.   Professor Ali Nayeri (Institute for Quantum Studies Physicist)
85.   Mr. Esmaeil Nooriala (Spokesperson of Iranian Secular Democracy Movement)
86.   Ms. Partow Nooriala (Writer)
87.   Mr. Omid Nouripour (Member of German Bundestag)
88.   Mr. Alireza Nourizadeh (Journalist)
89.   Mr. Mansour Osanloo (Labour Union Leader) 
90.   Mr. Ramin Parham (Writer)
91.   Mr. Babak Payami (Director)
92.   Mr. Iraj Pezeshkzad (Writer and former Diplomat prior to 1979)
93.   Mr. Ahmad Rafat (Journalist)
94.   Dr. Kevin Rod (Physician)
95.   Professor Jalil Roshandel (East Carolina University)
96.   Ms. Darya Safaie (Member of Belgian Parliament)
97.   Ms. Setareh Saeidi (Director, Harmony String Inc)
98.   Mr. Espandiar Sattari (former deputy Secretary of Education)
99.   Mr. Parviz Sayyad (Actor and Writer)
100. Mr. Shahab Shabahang (Spokesperson, Iranian Lawyers Association)
101. Mr. Mohsen Sazegara (Research Institute on Contemporary Iran)
102. Ms. Shaparak Shajarizadeh (Women’s Rights Activist)
103. Mr. Hassan Shariatmadari (Secretary General, Iran Transition Council)
104. Mr. Arash Sobhani (Musician)
105. Mr. Mohammad Ali Taheri
106. Ms. Haideh Tavackoli (Constitutionalist Party of Iran)
107. Professor Mohammad Tavakoli-Targhi (University of Toronto)
108. Professor Nayereh Tohidi (California State University)
109. Mr. Mojtaba Vahedi (Journalist)
110. Dr. David Yazdan (Neurosurgeon)
111. Mr. Manouchehr Yazdian
112. Professor Farrokh Zandi (York University)
113. Mr. Hassan Zerehi (Journalist)

ENCLOSURE:

Background Information Enclosed to Letter Sent to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres of September 22, 2020

Index
A.     Why the Islamic Republic Seeks to Finalize an Agreement
B.      The Islamic Republic’s Abject Refusal to Act in a Transparent Manner to Secure the Informed Consent of Iranians 
C.      Distressed Economic & Political Conditions Deny the Islamic Republic the Leverage to Negotiate an Equitable or Balanced Agreement 
D.     The Extraordinary Broad Scope of this Proposed Agreement
E.      Substantive Pitfalls Contained in the Proposed Agreement 
F.      The Islamic Republic has Systematically Squandered the Country’s Resources to Pursue Reckless Geostrategic Objectives  
G.     The Islamic Republic Has Consistently Failed to Safeguard the Welfare of its Citizenry or to Adequately Harness the Economic Resources of the Country 
H.     Neither Constitutional Safeguards nor the Parliament of the Islamic Republic Can Stand in the Way of this Agreement’s Ratification 

A.  Why the Islamic Republic Seeks to Finalize an Agreement:

The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran currently finds itself in the throes of an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy. The regime’s decision to slash fuel subsidies in November 2019, ignited widespread protests which subsided only after the Iranian Government unleashed a brutal crackdown that took the lives of hundreds of Iranians,[1] and resorted to draconian measures that led many more to be arbitrarily arrested, sentenced and imprisoned.[2] Shortly thereafter, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shamelessly downed a Ukrainian commercial airline carrying 176 innocent passengers by firing two missiles at the carrier over the skies of Tehran. The Islamic Republic initially denied accusations of foul play, and belatedly admitted responsibility after three days had lapsed, only after Western nations presented extensive evidence that the regime had shot down the plane.

In the month that followed, voter turnout for the parliamentary elections held in February saw abysmally low levels of popular participation, marking it as the lowest voter turnout in the country’s history of parliamentary elections. Shortly thereafter, the Government proved reckless in navigating the country through the global coronavirus epidemic, permitting the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to feast on the windfalls of a financial bonanza by authorizing it to commandeer numerous flights ferreting passengers between Iran and China. Consequently, Iran is currently mired in the deadliest outbreak of COVID 19 throughout the Middle East region.

Chronic mismanagement also extends to the Iranian Government’s stewardship of the economy. For three consecutive years the country has experienced an economic contraction. Deteriorating commodity prices, coupled with feral economic practices and corruption, have ravaged the Iranian economy. Oil production which in recent years had exceeded 2 million barrels, has now declined to a trifling 400,000 barrels per day. While the country’s gross domestic product is expected to fall by 6 percent this year, inflation is projected to surpass 34 percent.[3] Consequently, the Iranian currency has been in a free fall throughout the summer, with the value of the Rial plunging approximately 50% in the last six months alone. In addition, Iran is currently estimated to be running an 80 percent budget deficit, and a trade deficit of $6.5 billion. Against such a dire fiscal and economic backdrop, many government employees, including coal workers, workers at state-owned oil and petrochemical facilities, and railroad employees, are protesting unpaid back wages and benefits. 

With Iran currently teetering on the edge of a financial precipice, and aware of widespread popular discontent, the Iranian Government is presenting its pivot to the east as a talisman to deflect the public’s attention from its rampant failures. We fully appreciate Iran’s reckless gambit for the fanciful aberration that it is, and categorically condemn its sinister attempts to showcase this flawed Agreement as a boon to the country’s future prosperity.  

While the Iranian Government has attempted to camouflage its true rationale for pursuing such an agreement, which is none other than to perpetuate its political and economic grasp on the country, such an agreement will be fraught with existential dangers for Iran.

B. The Islamic Republic’s Abject Refusal to Act in a Transparent Manner to Secure the Informed Consent of Iranians:

The only hint as to the extent to which Tehran and Beijing have been diligently forging ahead and are on the verge of completing negotiations, only emerged last month. It is abundantly clear that the Iranian Government has systematically sidelined Iranians and adamantly refuses to seek their informed consent before binding their country’s fortunes to an unconscionable Agreement with grave implications for the inviolable sovereignty and territorial independence of Iran.

As such, we take great exception to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s patently false claim before Iran’s Parliament on July 5, 2020 that “there is nothing to hide about the deal. Every stage has been transparent, and once it is finalized, the details will be made public.” It is self evident that the Iranian Government has failed to adhere to the most elemental standards of transparency, by refusing to undertake any semblance of public consultations with the country’s economic sectors, stakeholders, or civil society organizations, and has jealously guarded pertinent details that would permit Iranians to undertake a sober evaluation of the Agreement.

The only detailed information made available to Iranians consists of an 18 page draft Framework Agreement, leaked by an anonymous source to the media, the day following Javad Zarif’s disingenuous declaration before Parliament.[4] The draft Framework Agreement confirms the extraordinary breadth and depth of commitments to be contained in an eventual Agreement. Yet the Islamic Republic has neglected to act in good faith to secure the consent of Iranians.

Ironically, while the Islamic Republic has availed itself of every opportunity to parade its officials before the state media to vouch that the Koran justifies Iran’s contemplated alliance with China, the regime fails to recognize the more sacrosanct rite of passage of securing the informed consent of Iranians. Any country beholden to democratic norms would subject the fate of such a critical agreement to public approval by way of a referendum or an election, or at a minimum to parliamentary scrutiny and ratification. For reasons provided below, we are certain that the Islamic Republic lacks the bona fides to afford Iranians due process.  

C.  Distressed Economic and Political Conditions in Iran Deny the Islamic Republic the Leverage to Negotiate an Equitable or Balanced Agreement:

The crux of the challenge, and the underlying dynamic that poses the greatest threat to Iran’s national interest, is that Tehran and Beijing are each animated by diametrically opposed and disparate impulses: while Iran is overwhelmingly interested in binding the two countries together to reap the political windfalls of an eventual arrangement, China primarily seeks to advance its economic interests and will exact upon Iran rapacious concessions as a condition for its consent to such a mariage de convenance. 

As such our fundamental concerns with respect to the prudence of the Islamic Republic negotiating such an Agreement are three-fold. First, the Iranian Government has consistently failed to negotiate international agreements that uphold the country’s vital interests. Second, in this specific instance, with the Iranian economy in unprecedented shambles, the regime sorely lacks the requisite leverage to withstand the stringent concessions that will be demanded by China. Third, once an agreement is concluded, the Islamic Republic will continue to administer itself in a characteristically irresponsible fiscal fashion and fall prey to the perils of a financial default, to the grave detriment of the welfare of Iranians and the independence of their country.

While Foreign Minister Zarif has been trumpeting that “we have the self confidence to negotiate a 25-year strategic partnership with China”, few fail to recognize this self-serving aggrandizement as anything but rhetorical claptrap. A binding 25-year Agreement runs inimical to the best interests of any developing country seeking to establish an orderly and equitable foundation for the development of its bilateral relations with a considerably more advanced behemoth of an economic power.

The imbalance between the economic fortunes of Iran and China, characterized as it is by a profoundly skewed asymmetry, will undoubtedly reverberate in China’s favour and irreparably compromise Iran’s capacity to negotiate a fair, balanced or equitable Agreement. To the contrary, the profound economic imbalance between Iran and China, exacerbated further by the precarious political and economic conditions prevailing in the former, will force Tehran to fall into the rut of buckling under the inevitable weight of Beijing’s demands. Consequently, Iran can be expected to succumb to selling its commodities at heavily discounted rates and to capitulate by granting China an exclusive right of first refusal to bid on any and all public infrastructure projects.

D. The Extraordinary Broad Scope of this Proposed Agreement:

Although the Iranian Government has shrouded the specific provisions of the emerging Agreement in secrecy, we are alarmed by the wholesale nature and the range of topics memorialized in the draft Agreement. Although over the years, Beijing has proclaimed itself to be a comprehensive strategic partner to more than 30 countries, its partnership with Iran appears to represent the most ambitious such arrangement.

Admittedly, the draft Framework Agreement is cased in ceremonial language and amounts to a statement of intent, but it reveals a lengthy plethora of projects being considered. It enumerates the establishment of three free-trade zones in Iran: Maku; Alvand; and Qeshm, an island in the Persian Gulf. It also specifically mentions the development by China of a port at Jask in the Sea of Oman.   

In addition, approximately 100 prospective projects are cited in the draft Framework Agreement, comprised of undertakings to construct transportation corridors, develop ports, modernize 5G and telecommunication networks to establishing bilateral financial ties in the banking, insurance agriculture and energy sectors, and forging closer links in the realms of academia and tourism. The Agreement also acknowledges the need to strengthen judicial cooperation and mutual legal assistance between the two countries.

The Islamic Republic clearly intends to commit Iran to an Agreement that transcends well beyond an economic partnership and seeks to fundamentally realign Iran’s security orientation by instituting close military ties with China. While the regime has sought to highlight its “look East” approach for several years, the Framework Agreement reveals that Iran’s intended pivot will tilt overwhelmingly towards China. The Framework Agreement envisages Tehran and Beijing deepening military cooperation through joint training and exercises, undertaking joint research and weapons development, and enhancing intelligence sharing for the ostensible purposes of fighting terrorism, combating drug and human trafficking, as well as interdicting other cross-border crimes.   Therefore, it would be sheer folly to assume that the Agreement solely solidifies the economic and social bonds between the two countries.

Despite identifying a lengthy catalogue of issues for consideration, the Framework also contains glaring omissions. The most disconcerting oversights consist of the alarming absence of any type of dispute settlement mechanism, and the reckless neglect to contemplate the inclusion of a termination clause. The inclusion of such safeguards would temper Chinese conduct and ensure that it can be restrained from riding roughshod over Iran’s interests.     

E.  Substantive Pitfalls Contained in the Proposed Agreement:

The draft Framework Agreement reveals an extraordinarily broad set of commitments, with far reaching implications for the territorial integrity of Iran, the political and economic sovereignty of the country, and the civil liberties of Iranians. Mindful as we are of the many pitfalls the negotiation of such an Agreement could portend for Iran, we limit our comments below to the most egregious aspects of the Agreement.

The Agreement clearly highlights the extent to which the Islamic Republic is willing to shackle itself to an arrangement that will illegitimately and callously discard Iran’s economic sovereignty. Several provisions suggest Iran is assuming the eerie role of a client state and is agreeing to a bespoke commercial relationship. One such provision states that Iran should pay attention to Chinese concerns regarding its “return on investments” (bazgasht sarmay-e gozari) in the Iranian oil sector. In the same vein, another provision proceeds to explain that China fully expects Iran to utilize revenues derived from its sales of oil in an “optimal fashion” (estefadeye behineh).

The Framework Agreement also casts Iran as a trojan horse for China throughout the region. The Agreement repeatedly references joint initiatives to be pursued in third parties. Among others, the draft Framework agreement acknowledges the need for cooperation among the two countries with respect to supplying natural gas from Iran to Pakistan; electricity generation and transmission to Iraq and other neighbouring countries; reconstruction efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria; and the utilization of Iranian ports to enhance trade with Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Such commitments highlight the risk that Iran could be relegated to an intermediate spoke to facilitate China’s role as the central hub for commercial links spanning the region. While enhanced economic engagement between Iran and other countries in the region cannot be deemed a negative development per se, the Islamic Republic’s manifest propensity to insert China into all its transnational commercial ties undermines attempts at diversification and further exacerbates Iran’s perilous over-dependence on China.           

The concessions to be proffered by the Islamic Republic, coupled with its congenital disdain for fiscal probity, will pave the way for China to gain a permanent foothold in Iran. In other words, even assuming the Islamic Republic negotiations a reasonable Agreement, feral economics prevailing in Iran will have dangerous long-term implications for the country’s sovereignty. Iran is among the bottom 20% of countries in terms of corruption, relegated to the rank of 146th out of 180 examined countries.[5] Apart from providing China a carte blanche by relinquishing its operational management and administrative oversight of the three free trade zones referenced above, the draft Framework Agreement states that Iran will look to China to develop a prospective port on Jask. Bereft of any accountability mechanisms, malfeasance permeates every aspect of the fiscal and economic affairs of Iran, with the tottering machinery of the state overrun by graft and embezzlement.

As Iranians take stock of their Government’s fiscal mismanagement and their country’s tattered state of economic affairs, they are mindful of the cautionary experience of other countries that have fallen into China’s financial embrace. Among others, one may cite Sri Lanka’s deep seaport of Hambantota, which was eventually leased to China for 99 years after the country’s government failed to repay Chinese loans, and Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, which was recently leased to the Chinese government through 2059 after Islamabad failed to service $10 billion in debt.

Iranians have every reason to be particularly apprehensive about the fate of Qeshm island and Jask. Located along the Persian Gulf, control of either strategic chokepoint would greatly enhance China’s power projection capabilities over a waterway through which much of the world’s oil and gas transits. In particular, Jask could eventually assume the same role in the Persian Gulf that the Chinese military base in Djibouti has assumed in the Gulf of Aden. Such a development would permit China’s rapidly growing navy to significantly expand its reach by adding to its maritime string of pearls.

The draft Framework Agreement also indicates Iran will utilize China’s fifth generation telecommunications technology and internet platforms. More specifically, the Agreement specifies that the network will offer the new Chinese Global Positioning System, and that China will assist Iranian authorities assume greater control over what circulates within its cyberspace, and with the latest software relating to search engines, social media platforms and messaging applications. Consequently, we are certain that Iran will undoubtedly seize such an opportunity to further throttle the internet by erecting a firewall to deny Iranians cyber access to the outside world.

Iran ranks near the bottom 10% of countries with respect to the absence of political freedoms and civil liberties.[6] Ushering in cozier technical ties between the Islamic Republic and China is bound to have further deleterious effects. As Iranians chafe under the heavy burden of censorship and are reminded daily of the dire consequences that accompany any expressions of their discontent, such a development will further suffocate their fundamental rights. Moreover, since the intellectual vista to which Iranians often look is the west, and a predominant number of the seven million Iranians that have fled Iran since the revolution have settled in Europe and North America, severing online ties between Iran and the rest of the world will prove painfully disruptive.

F.  The Islamic Republic has Systematically Squandered the Country’s Resources to Pursue Reckless Geostrategic Objectives:

The fundamental predicament is that far too consistently the Islamic Republic has confused Iran for a cause, rather than a country. Since its inception, the regime has pursued unorthodox objectives and eschewed commonly accepted norms and practices, thereby entrenching Iran as a pariah in foreign relations and a rogue actor in international financial affairs.[7]

Given its disrepute as an outcast, the Islamic Republic has failed since its inception to establish genuinely amicable relations with any country on the basis of reciprocity. Instead, the Islamic Republic has consistently oscillated between the grind of succumbing to commercial transactions undertaken on egregiously disadvantageous terms for Iran, or the rut of pursuing reckless geostrategic objectives, with severely detrimental economic consequences, by extravagantly showering select countries with financial largesse.     

An examination of the economic underpinnings of the relationship between Iran and Syria during the past several decades reveals the extent to which the former has been willing to squander the country’s wealth in pursuit of geostrategic objectives. Throughout the lengthy eight-year Iran-Iraq war, Syria sided with non-Arab Iran against Iraq. In return for Syria’s support during the war, the Iranian Government provided Syria with millions of free and discounted barrels of oil throughout the 1980s. Even more egregious have been the resources the Iranian Government has lavished on Syria since the outbreak of civil war in that country. By the most conservatives estimates, Iran has spent a minimum of $30 billion dollars supporting the Assad regime over the past decade alone, assistance which has included sending combat troops to support the Syrian Government and delivering highly subsidized oil to that country.[8] The same dynamics characterize Iran’s extensive relations with a number of proxy paramilitary groups sprinkled throughout the Middle East, as exemplified in Gaza, Lebanon and Iraq.

The same tendency to subordinate economic objectives to geostrategic considerations underpins the Islamic Republic’s eager embrace of a strategic partnership with China. It would be naïve to assume that this latest gambit will not prove as reckless as the Islamic Republic’s previous catastrophic failures.

G. The Islamic Republic Has Consistently Failed to Safeguard the Welfare of its Citizenry or to Adequately Harness the Economic Resources of the Country:

For over four decades the Iranian Government has proven an abject failure in tending to the welfare of its people or in harnessing the economic potential of the country. Bereft of the rule of law, and by refusing to allow the Islamic Republic to adopt internationally recognized accounting protocols, an unfettered clerical regime and its military satrapies have consistently proven adverse in economic interest to Iranians. While Iran is richly endowed with natural resources and represents an upper-middle income country, the Islamic Republic has systematically failed to foster inclusive economic growth and has instead allowed the population to suffer a steady decline in both economic opportunities and living standards.

In the absence of any institutional counterweights or administrative checks and balances, the Islamic Republic has allowed Iran to morph into a country rife with corruption and riddled with graft. Clientelism is nestled throughout the country’s political and administrative machinery, as favoritism hollows out the economic foundations of the country. Furthermore, state control of the commanding heights of the economy – the oil and gas sectors and large industries – has reinforced crony capitalism and institutional kleptocracy.

Consequently, the Islamic Republic’s unscrupulous apparatchiks and a bevy of unaccountable institutions with close patronage ties to the regime (ie, The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp; Basij; Mostazafan Foundation; Imam Khomeini Relief Committee) are smothered with lucrative contracts and deals, thereby disgorging a floundering private sector and inflicting grinding hardship on the general public. For years Iranians have tuned into broadcasts of show trials which chronicle how public and private figures have feasted on government revenues by siphoning billions from public coffers. Yet Iranians appreciate full well that the regime is merely engaged in a public relations spectacle, rather than a genuine effort to reign in rampant corruption.   

The most tragic aspect of the economic morass created by the Islamic Republic, and the neglect the regime has consistently exhibited in harnessing the country’s indigenous resources, is the steady flight of human capital from Iran. Today, Iran represents the county that suffers the greatest brain drain in the world, with upwards of 150,000 of the country’s best-educated individuals opting to permanently leave the country in any given year. Whereas prior to 1979 more than 90% of Iranian students studying abroad would return to the country, less than 10% are willing to do so today.[9]

One may draw on numerous other anecdotes to demonstrate the Islamic Republic’s abject failure to safeguard the resources of the country. One noteworthy example of the Islamic Republic’s administrative neglect is its acquiescence to the illegal export of thousands of tons of fertile Iranian soil to various Persian Gulf countries. Another example would be the damage inflicted on the marine ecosystem of the Persian Gulf and the accompanying depletion of the areas fishing stocks, while the regime turns a blind eye to repeated visits to its territorial waters by Chinese industrial fishing trawlers.      

A failure to act in the best national interest of the country can also be seen in the Iranian Government’s approach to the South Pars energy project in the Persian Gulf, the world’s largest natural gas field. The field was discovered in 1990, with ownership shared between Iran and Qatar. While the global demand for natural gas and liquified natural gas (“LNG”) has soared, the tiny state of Qatar has successfully utilized the latest technologies to emerge as the largest global exporter of liquified natural gas. Iran, on the other hand, has failed to establish any LNG plants. By most estimates, Iran’s irresponsible approach has allowed Qatar to extract 2.5 times more natural gas from the field than Iran.[10]    

The same dynamic of failing to safeguard the natural resources of Iran is evident with respect to oilfields that straddle the Iran-Iraq border. On the western side sits the Iraqi Majnoon oilfield, and on the eastern side the Iranian Yaran and Azadegan fields, which together comprise a shared formation. While war ravaged Iraq has steadily increased its output from the joint fields, the Islamic Republic has been unable to do likewise, relying as it does on Russian and Chinese companies for the development of the fields. The imbalance has resulted in a production ratio of 3.2 to 1 in Iraq’s favour vis-a-vis Iran.[11]

It would therefore be exceedingly fanciful to believe that in the aftermath of an Agreement concluded between Iran and China the Islamic Republic would feel compelled to turn a new page to chart a responsible economic course of action.

H. Neither Constitutional Safeguards nor the Parliament of the Islamic Republic Can Stand in the Way of this Agreement’s Ratification:

Our grave concerns that the Iranian Government is wholly incapable of safeguarding the national interest of the Iranian people is rooted in the flagrant neglect the regime has repeatedly displayed in its previous international negotiations.

Article 152 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic denotes that the Iranian Government must safeguard “the preservation of the all inclusive independence of the country and its territorial integrity”, while Article 153 states “[a]ny form of agreement that would result in foreign domination over the natural and economic resources, army or culture of the country, as well as other aspects of national life is forbidden”. Yet as is typical with authoritarian countries, the Iranian constitution has been honoured more in its breach than in its observance. Moreover, it is important to highlight the cardinal constitutional rule of the Islamic Republic whereby all democratic procedures and contemplated rights are subservient to the Supreme Leader and subordinate to the opaque twelve member Guardian Council.

It would therefore strain the boundaries of credulity to expect Iran’s feeble Parliament to properly scrutinize this agreement. While several members of the Iranian Majles have had the temerity to voice their misgivings regarding the draft Agreement, such criticisms have proven spasmodic and short-lived. Ultimately, it would be naïve to assume that any more than a handful of the 290 generally feckless Members of Parliament will run afoul of exigencies determined by the Guardian Council or risk the wrath of the Supreme Leader.

The overwhelming members of the Majles are prone to abdicate their moral responsibilities and prove complicit in any sinister machinations orchestrated by the highest echelons of the regime. It is to be recalled, for example, that when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was tabled in the Iranian Parliament, the Supreme Leader demanded that the process be fast-tracked, purportedly leaving Parliament mere hours to approve the complex and lengthy 159-page document and its five appendices.   

Ample evidence of the cavalier attitude of Iran’s Parliament, and confirmation of the inherent docility of its deputies, can be clearly evidenced by reviewing its practice with regards to the last significant international agreement entered into by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The leaders of the five Caspian littoral states met in Kazakhstan on August 12, 2018 to sign the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea. Pursuant to that agreement, Iran ceded its territorial rights by significantly reducing its jurisdiction over the Caspian Sea. Yet a year later the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, nonchalantly informed parliamentarians that the international legal regime governing the Caspian Sea was a fait accompli and had already been “finalized.” The Iranian Parliament was never permitted to debate the finer points of this Convention or to even assume a symbolic role in ratifying the international agreement.

A review of the factual matrix surrounding the Caspian Sea Convention further confirms not only the extent to which the Iranian Government has proven flagrantly inept in its treaty negotiations, but also highlights Parliament’s impotence to act even when the country’s most vital interests are at stake. When the countries that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union first undertook legal negotiations with Iran for control of the mineral and exploration rights in the Caspian Sea in 1996, the four countries were surprised to learn that Iran would not persist in demanding sovereignty over 50 percent of the Caspian Sea. Iran had obtained such rights pursuant to international treaties previously agreed to between the Iranian and Soviet governments in 1921 and 1940. Yet rather than attempt to safeguard such treaty rights, the Iranian government unilaterally ceded 30 percent of its rights to the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Consequently, while at the conclusion of the 1996 negotiations, Iran’s interests in the Caspian Sea declined from 50 to 20 percent, in subsequent negotiations two decades later that culminated in the adoption of the Caspian Sea Convention in 2018, Iran’s interests were even further reduced from 20 percent to a meagre 11 percent.

[1] “Iran: Details Released of 304 Deaths During Protests Six Months After Security Forces Killing Spree (Amnesty International: May 20, 2020). Other reputable sources have reported casualties from those protests to have been as high as 1500, see for example, “Special Report: Iran’s Leader Ordered Crackdown on unrest – ‘Do Whatever it takes to End it’” (Reuters: December 23, 2019).
[2] “Iran: Bloody Crackdown on Dissent: Arbitrary Arrests, Use of Legal Force Against Protests (Human Rights Watch: January 14, 2020).
[3]International Monetary Fund Country Study: Islamic Republic of Iran (April 2020) available online at:   https://www.imf.org/en/Countries/IRN
[4] See Farsi version of “Virayesh Nahaiy-e Barnamey-e Hamkareehay-e Jame (25 Sale) Iran va Cheen” (Khordad 1399). 
[5] See the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators and Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.
[6] See Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report (2018).
[7] Basel AML Index (2107) ranked Iran as the top country in terms of the risk of money-laundering.
[8] “Iran’s Credit Line to Syria: A Well That Never Runs Dry” (Atlantic Council: February 10, 2020). Similarly, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, an Iranian Member of Parliament and former Chairman of Parliament’s National Security & Foreign Policy Commission estimated in an interview conducted with media group Etemad Online in March 2018, that Iran had spent an estimated $20-30 billion in the first seven years following the Syrian civil war.
[9] Stanford Iran 2040 Project Working Paper No.9, “Migration and Brain Drain from Iran” (April 2020) page 3.
[10] Dalga Khatinoglu, “Qatar Starts Production Expansion in Joint Field While Iran Waits” (Radio Farda: April 16, 2020)
[11] Ian Simm, “Iraq and Iran Move Further Apart: Baghdad’s Pivot Away from its Neighbour is increasingly Extending to their Shared Resources” (Petroleum Economist: July 24, 2020)