Political consequences of closer relations with China
It is no coincidence that the biggest advocates of a geopolitical orientation of Iran towards China represent the most authoritarian and monopolistic capitalist wing of the power apparatus, headed by Khamenei himself. They see China as something of a life-saver, providing the regime with economic life insurance for years, if not decades. At the same time, China would actively oppose "American imperialism" politically and diplomatically on the side of the Islamic Republic.
Nevertheless, and this is also acknowledged by the Iranians, the Chinese – past and present – have always lagged miles behind Iran's great expectations. After all, for China, as for Russia or India, it is relations with the USA that are decisive, not those with Tehran. Thus, in the past, both Beijing and Moscow have proved opportunistic actors, rather than partners on Tehran's side.
During the nuclear dispute, both Russia and China, despite their rhetorical rejections, repeatedly agreed to sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council. Only recently, the chairman of the Iranian-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry announced that almost no banking transactions had been conducted with Russia and China. This had not only been due to the U.S. sanctions, but also to Iran's inclusion, on account of its inadequate legislation, on the Financial Action Task Force's (FATF) blacklist against money laundering and the financing of terrorism.
Potential impact on democracy and human rights
If Tehran were indeed to turn away decisively from the West and orient itself towards Asia, for which the prevailing scepticism at home would first have to be overcome, the political culture of official Iran would change. On the other hand, as the Iranian political scientist Hamidreza Azizi rightly points out, "in view of the predominant western-oriented political culture in Iranian society, long-term partnerships with non-democratic powers could deepen the rift between the Iranian state and its people." After all, when it comes to repression - offline or online - China is an important market and also a source of inspiration for Iranian autocrats.
As indicated above, it is questionable – not least because of the U.S. factor – how close Iranian-Chinese cooperation, let alone a corresponding axis or strategic partnership, will be. In its rejection of democratic and human rights standards, China, like Russia, is no doubt a desirable partner for the Iranian leadership, especially since it is unlikely to use human rights issues to exert pressure on Tehran.
Conversely, however, one should not make the mistake of thinking that democracy and human rights in foreign policy are paid anything more than lip service by the West (be it the USA or Europe). This is something we have observed for decades in the [Near and] Middle East. In essence, therefore, we have both Western and Eastern great powers, all of whom, in different ways, prefer authoritarian stability to democratisation in the region, because this could be accompanied by instability to the detriment of their own interests. The only difference lies in the democratic constitution of the Western countries, which can, in theory, always demand a foreign policy based on the same values.
Large swathes of the Iranian population remain unconvinced, either that closing ranks with Russia and China would not be detrimental to them, or that the West actually pursues noble values in its foreign policy.
For many Iranians, given their desperate plight, this is extremely sobering, not to say disillusioning. Rather than having to choose between the West or the East, an Iranian foreign policy that serves the national interest and the country's economic and political development would need to maintain good relations "in all directions" – with both West and East. But for this to happen, the enmity with the USA, so central to the regime's ideology, would have to be significantly tempered, thus ensuring the great American shadow ceases to loom over Iran's Asian ambitions.
© Qantara.de 2020
Ali Fathollah-Nejad is senior lecturer in Middle East and Comparative Politics at the University of Tübingen. He is the author of the recently published The Politics of Culture in Times of Rapprochement: European Cultural and Academic Exchange with Iran (2015–16) and of the forthcoming Iran in an Emerging New World Order: From Ahmadinejad to Rouhani. Twitter: @AFathollahNejad