China, with a $ 400 billion deal with Iran, could deepen its influence in the Middle East

China agreed to invest $ 400 billion in Iran over 25 years in exchange for a steady supply of oil to boost its growing economy under a comprehensive economic and security agreement signed on Saturday.

The deal could deepen China’s influence in the Middle East and undermine American efforts to keep Iran isolated. But it was not immediately clear how much of the deal can be implemented while the United States’ dispute with Iran over its nuclear program remains unresolved.

President Biden has offered to resume negotiations with Iran on the 2015 nuclear deal that his predecessor, President Trump, repealed three years after it was signed. US officials say both countries can take synchronized steps to get Iran to abide by the terms of the deal as the United States gradually lifts sanctions.

Iran has refused to do so, and China has backed it, demanding that the United States act first to revive the deal it broke by lifting the unilateral sanctions that have stifled the Iranian economy. China was one of the five world powers that, along with the United States, signed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

The two countries’ Foreign Ministers, Javad Zarif and Wang Yi, signed the agreement during a ceremony at the Foreign Ministry in Tehran on Saturday, according to Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency. That culminated a two-day visit by Mr. Wang that reflected China’s growing ambition to play a greater role in a region that has been a strategic concern of the United States for decades.

“For the region to emerge from chaos and enjoy stability, it must free itself from the shadows of great-power geopolitical rivalry, remain impervious to external pressure and interference, and explore development paths appropriate to its regional realities,” he said. a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, said on Friday. “You must build a security architecture that accommodates the legitimate concerns of all parties.”

Iran did not make the details of the deal public before signing. But experts said it was largely unchanged from an 18-page draft obtained last year by The New York Times.

That draft detailed $ 400 billion of Chinese investments to be made in dozens of fields, including banking, telecommunications, ports, railways, healthcare and information technology, over the next 25 years. In return, China would receive a regular supply of Iranian oil and, according to an Iranian official and an oil trader, at deep discounts.

The draft also called for deepening military cooperation, including joint training and exercises, joint weapons research and development, and intelligence sharing.

Iranian officials touted the deal with Beijing, first proposed by China’s leader Xi Jinping during a 2016 visit, as a breakthrough. But he has received criticism within Iran that the government may be giving China too much.

Hesamoddin Ashena, one of President Hassan Rouhani’s top advisers, called the deal “an example of successful diplomacy” on Twitter, saying it was a sign of Iran’s power “to engage in coalitions, not to remain isolated.” He called it “an important decree for long-term cooperation after long negotiations and joint work.”

A spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Saeed Khatibzadeh, called the document a “complete roadmap” of relations for the next quarter century.

Wang has already visited Iran’s archrival Saudi Arabia, as well as Turkey, and is scheduled to go to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman in the coming days. He said the region is at a crossroads and offered China’s help to resolve persistent disputes, including over Iran’s nuclear program.

China is even willing to host direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians, implying that US dominance in the region has hampered peace and development.

In Iran, opinions about China’s growing influence have been mixed.

After Xi first proposed the strategic deal during his visit in 2016, negotiations to complete it moved slowly, at first. Iran had just struck a deal with the United States and other nations to ease economic sanctions in exchange for severe restrictions on its nuclear research activities, and European companies began flocking to Iran with investments and offers from joint partnerships to develop. oil and gas fields.

Those opportunities evaporated after Trump withdrew the United States from the deal and imposed new sanctions that Europeans feared could entangle them, forcing Iran to look east.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, ordered the resumption of talks with China and appointed a trusted Conservative politician and former Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, as special envoy.

Critics have complained that the negotiations lacked transparency and called the deal a sale of Iran’s resources, likening it to the unilateral deals China has made with countries like Sri Lanka.

Supporters of the deal said Iran had to be pragmatic and acknowledge China’s growing economic prominence.

“For too long in our strategic alliances, we have put all of our eggs in the West’s basket, and it didn’t pay off,” said Ali Shariati, an economic analyst who until recently was a member of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce. “Now, if we change the policy and look to the East, it won’t be so bad.”

It remains to be seen how many of the ambitious projects detailed in the agreement will materialize. If the nuclear deal collapses completely, Chinese companies could also face secondary sanctions from Washington, an issue that has infuriated China in the past.

The US prosecution of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei includes allegations that the company was stealthily trading with Iran in violation of those sanctions.

Ms. Hua, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, stressed that both countries must take steps to resolve the nuclear dispute.

“The urgent task is for the United States to take substantive steps to lift its unilateral sanctions on Iran and long-arm jurisdiction over third parties,” he said, “and for Iran to resume reciprocal fulfillment of its nuclear commitments in an effort to achieve an early harvest. “.

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