More than two months after the death of 22-year-old Iranian woman Jina Mahsa Amini in police custody, people in Iran continue to protest. The West has denounced the repression of peaceful protests, but major countries, including Russia and India, have not commented on the violence in Iran. China, too, regards what is happening in Iran as that country’s “internal affair” in accordance with its traditional “non-interference” policy. Most recently at an informal session of the UN Security Council on November 2, at which China and Russia described the crackdown on the protests by the Iranian armed forces as a domestic issue.
China and Iran lead in death penalty executions
Iranians critical of the regime therefore view the Chinese government as a key ally of the Tehran leadership and have negative attitudes towards Beijing for this reason. Mehran Barati, a consultant in the Iran Transition Council founded in 2019 by opposition Iranian exiles, told DW: “In its international relations, China has always focused on leading the countries. The opinion of the people was secondary. That This was also the case during the Shah’s reign.”
Tehran seeks support from China
In recent years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has sought to strengthen ties with China to ease the pressure from Western sanctions. The cleric and leader Ali Khamenei therefore strongly promotes the policy of “looking east” as the course of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy. In this context, Iran’s then Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his Chinese colleague Wang Yi signed a 25-year cooperation agreement in Tehran in March 2021.
The then President Hassan Rouhani spoke of “strategic cooperation” with China. His successor, Ebrahim Raisi, also sees strengthening and expanding cooperation with China as a priority for Iranian foreign policy.
At the time, however, the signing of the cooperation document met with much criticism from public opinion, social media and experts, who saw it as going against Iran’s national interests. Word of “Iran’s sell-out to China” was doing the rounds.
The protests in Iran now dominate the political agenda. French President Macron even spoke of a “revolution”. In any case, many observers are of the opinion that Iran will never return to the days before the current protests and that the world community must adjust to a new Iran. How will China continue its cooperation with the Islamic Republic under the current circumstances?
In principle, China is interested in good relations with Iran, says Mehran Barati: “China would like to take over all political positions in the Middle East that the USA has left in the long term via economic agreements. That corresponds to the Beijing Silk Road strategy.”
Conversely, China is Iran’s most important trading partner. The bilateral trade volume in the first seven months of 2022 was US$9.66 billion, of which about half were Iranian exports, almost a quarter more than in the same period last year.
Relations have also developed in the military sphere. Iran’s army chief Mohammad Bagheri announced at a meeting with the Chinese defense minister in Tehran at the end of April 2022 that the two countries had held joint exercises in the Gulf of Oman.
“Don’t bet on losers”
Political expert Mehran Barati told DW that China has no interest in a democratic system in Iran, but in a stable system: “You could give the Chinese the following advice: With the fragile system of the Islamic Republic, you cannot secure any Conclude economic and security agreements. But with a strong and democratic system in Iran, you can conclude contracts that are socially acceptable and secure in the long term; it’s not worth holding on to losers.”
And what about Beijing’s concerns that a political success of the protest movement in Iran could endanger the one-party rule of the CCP? Amin Riahi, Berlin-based leader of the Iran Prison Atlas project, which is dedicated to documenting political prisoners in Iran, says such concerns are unfounded: “Cultural similarities are a necessary condition for a revolution to spread to other countries. These similarities doesn’t exist between Iran and China.”