A ray of hope from China
The sheer scale of the planned cooperation and its current timing give some indication of Tehran's motives. The high-profile dissemination of this news by the Iranian government – but not by the Chinese – indicates one thing in particular. The Rouhani government, which is under immense pressure, wants to signal to the Iranians that their economic situation – severely affected by domestic political factors, U.S. sanctions and the pandemic – could recover with the help of China; in other words, at the end of a long dark tunnel, the long-awaited ray of hope is to come from the East.
Due to the immense foreign and domestic political pressure the Islamic Republic is under, many Iranians fear a sell-out of their country to China. In return, the regime in Tehran would secure its survival for the foreseeable future, thanks to China's economic, political-diplomatic and security policy support.
Iran is thus negotiating from a position of weakness, which has certainly not escaped China's attention. In addition to ongoing significantly cheaper oil exports to China, Iranian concessions are feared in the following areas, to name but a few: de facto Chinese control over important seaports in the Gulf of Oman, establishment of a Chinese military base in the strategically important Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, and privileged access for China to Iranian free trade zones.
Essentially, however, the Iranian-Chinese alliance is suffering from cognitive dissonance between the two camps. While the relevance of Beijing for Tehran can hardly be overestimated, Iran is only one of several close partners in the region (above all Riyadh and Abu Dhabi) for China. Moreover, the expansion and deepening of relations with Tehran represents something of a minefield for Beijing, a risk to China's far more crucial relations with the United States, Iran's arch-enemy.
Betrayal of the independence leitmotif?
In Iran, such Chinese interests are met with widespread rejection, especially since they run counter to the country's self-image dating from the 1979 revolution, that of always maintaining its independence from the great powers, be they Western or Eastern.
Furthermore, the image of China in Iran, which has traditionally aligned itself towards the West, is pretty negative. Since Europe withdrew from the Iranian market under U.S. pressure, China has become omnipresent, damaging domestic industry and Iranian development goals with its cheap products, regarded as inferior in quality to those of the West. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Iran's technocrats are highly sceptical of China. The Chinese connection relating to the spread of coronavirus in Iran may be seen to have done the rest.