An eleventh hour agreement reached in the Iranian nuclear negotiations has opened a door to relations between Iran and the West. The sanctions that Iran has been subject to for the past nine years due to the nuclear issue will be lifted, and well over $100 billion dollars in frozen funds are set to be released. European enterprises that have been waiting for this moment will flock to Tehran to scuffle over this long forbidden piece of fruit, and one can be sure that U.S. transnational firms will not be far behind.
Although Iran has outlasted the sanctions, a dearth of hard currency has left its economy emaciated and hungrily eyeing Western capital and technology. Iran is a traditional market for the West, and Western industrial standards and technology command high respect among many Iranian businesses and technocrats. There is little doubt that the hundred-plus Chinese enterprises and export companies that have invested in and operate in Iran will face stiff competition in the days to come.
Faced with another historic opportunity, will Iran put China in its rear view mirror and steer the Islamic Republic in the direction of the United States and the West? The answer to that question in the minds of most analysts, including those in the West, will likely be no.
The Islamic administration that currently holds power in Iran came to that position 36 years ago with the toppling of the U.S.-leaning Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and adopting the motto “neither East nor West,” sought to build an independent regional power that would uphold the honor of the Persian people. For this, Iran stood in opposition to the United States and paid a heavy price in sanctions from the West. Even in the recently concluded talks, one could see that behind the smiles of Iran’s representatives lay a determination to protect the honor and interests of their people.
It is only a matter of time before the Iranian economy is integrated into the globalized system, and while an influx of Western influence will follow the flow of capital and technology into Iran, the sitting Iranian administration’s policy to maintain its independence and autonomy in foreign affairs, free from the constraints of reliance upon any power, will not change. Politically, it is in this resolve that China and Iran share the most.
Although the two nations’ societies and values are entirely separate, they have each chosen a path of development and model of political authority that they believe to be suitable for the conditions within their respective countries. China’s socialist system and Iran’s Islamic republic are not fully embraced by Western mainstream society, but China and Iran respect and do not interfere with the decisions of the other. Thus, the political foundation of China’s relationship with Iran is entirely secure.
The end of the nuclear talks will quickly warm relations between Europe and Iran, but there is still a long way to go in the improvement and normalization of U.S.-Iran relations, which at least in the short term will not reach the same levels as the United States’ relationships with Cuba, Myanmar or Vietnam.
After 36 years of enmity, grudges and a growing mountain of problems, the nuclear issue is only the tip of the iceberg. Iran fears that the United States is still plotting to overthrow its Islamic government, while the United States harbors suspicions that Iran will look to put a feather in its cap and then edge its benefactors out of the Middle East. The Vienna agreement has limited Iran’s capability to manufacture nuclear weapons, but the United States still wishes to restrict Iran’s capacity to produce missile delivery vehicles. Much to the chagrin of the United States, Iran continues to support Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian organization Hamas, while similar support for Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria and Houthi forces in Yemen has long been a bone of contention between the United States and Iran. Clearly, what Iran desires is first and foremost to rid itself of sanctions, not necessarily the normalization of relations with the United States.
Iran sits at the confluence of the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf, two regions rich in petroleum and gas, and is both a passageway for Central Asian nations to access the Indian Ocean and a bridge connecting East and West Asia. The first order of business in developing Iran’s economy will be to build infrastructure and industrialize the manufacturing sector, the two areas that just so happen to be China’s strong suit. In receiving the West, therefore, the doorway to Iran will be swung open even wider for China.
The author is a former Chinese ambassador to Iran.