Zafar Mehdi, The Cradle, December 28, 2022 — Tehran takes a hard stand as Xi Jinping discovers the Persian Gulf can be a diplomatic minefield.
Speaking at the inaugural ceremony of the first Chinese Consulate-General in Iran’s southern port city of Bandar Abbas on 21 December, Ambassador Chang Hua affirmed China’s support for Iran’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Hua stressed that Beijing sees its relations with the Islamic Republic “from a strategic point of view” and is committed to strengthening its comprehensive partnership with Tehran.
These remarks received significant attention in local media and came amid speculation about the status of Iran-China relations following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia.
Three islands in the Persian Gulf
During the widely-publicized visit, a joint statement by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and China sparked controversy in Iran as it touched on the country’s proverbial red lines.
Among other sensitive issues, the statement appeared to support the UAE’s long-standing demand for the “resolution of the dispute” over the three Persian Gulf islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa, much to the chagrin of Tehran.
The statement also emphasized the need to strengthen cooperation to “ensure the peaceful nature of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program,” called on Iran to “maintain the non-proliferation regime,” and stressed “respect for the principles of good-neighborliness and non-interference in the internal affairs of states.”
The statement was loaded – diplomatically speaking – with language normally attributable to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) attitudes toward Iran, and experts wondered whether Beijing had even read it before signing off.
The GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, has a long-running feud with the Islamic Republic, mostly rooted in geopolitical rivalry, but China’s apparent endorsement of the six-member bloc’s hostile stance towards Iran was not taken lightly in Tehran.
Without missing a beat, Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian countered that the disputed islands are “inseparable parts of the pure land of Iran and belong to this motherland forever,” in a 10 December retort.
He also emphasized that the Islamic Republic will not allow any country to disrespect its territorial integrity, in a tweet posted in Chinese and clearly directed at Beijing.
Mohammad Jamshidi, the deputy chief of staff for political affairs at the Iranian president’s office, was more blunt in his reaction the same day, minus the usual diplomatic niceties.
“A reminder to colleagues in Beijing. While Saudi along with the US backed ISIS/Al-Qaeda in Syria and brutalized Yemen, Iran fought terrorist groups to restore regional stability and security and to prevent the spread of insecurity toward both the east and the west,” he wrote on Twitter.
China’s envoy summoned
Hours after Amir-Abdollahian’s strongly-worded tweet, the Chinese ambassador in Tehran was summoned by the foreign ministry to convey “strong dissatisfaction” over the controversial content of the GCC-China joint statement.
Nasser Kanaani, the foreign ministry spokesman, in a statement at the time, said the three islands formed an “integral part” of the Iranian territory and “have never and will never be subject to negotiations” with any country, including the UAE.
Ambassador Chang Hua, for his part, insisted that the main goal of the Chinese President’s visit to Saudi Arabia was to “help peace and stability in the region” while emphasizing his country’s respect for Iran’s territorial integrity.
The dispute over the three Persian Gulf islands between Iran and the UAE dates back to 1971 when the Emiratis gained independence from the British, eight years before the Islamic revolution unfolded in neighboring Iran.
While Tehran asserts that the islands, which are located near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, are an “inseparable part” of its territory, Abu Dhabi claims equal ownership of them.
Official sources informed The Cradle that the meeting between the Chinese ambassador and the Iranian foreign ministry was “very calm” and conducted in a “friendly manner,” in which Chang was “apprised about the history of three Persian Gulf islands and UAE’s baseless claims on them” and told in a “very diplomatic manner” that China “should not fall” for the GCC narrative.
Beijing’s envoy was further informed that Iran has repeatedly expressed its willingness for bilateral talks with the UAE “to remove any misunderstandings” regarding the claim on the islands.
Iranian diplomats also “took strong exception” to other parts of the China-GCC statement that referred to Iran’s nuclear program and alleged destabilizing activities, and pointed to the destructive impact of the Saudi-led coalition’s war on Yemen.
Yaqoub Rezazadeh, a senior lawmaker and member of the parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, told The Cradle that Iran values its close and historic relationship with China but “does not expect” it to be “influenced by some reactionary Arab governments.”
“The Iranian parliament took quick note of the China-GCC statement and asked the government to voice its protest against the statement through diplomatic channels,” the lawmaker said.
“We have been informed that the Chinese officials offered an apology and stressed Iran’s sovereignty over the three islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa.”
Interestingly, two days after the Chinese envoy was summoned, China’s deputy premier Hu Chunhua landed in the Iranian capital and held meetings with President Ebrahim Raisi and his first deputy Mohammad Mokhber.
Although some analysts saw the visit as a “damage control exercise” by Beijing, officials in Tehran said it was pre-scheduled. The timing, just after the GCC-China statement controversy, was “purely coincidental,” one official told The Cradle.
Hu reiterated that Beijing is fully committed to further developing its strategic partnership with Tehran and “supports the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and national dignity,” as cited by state-run Xinhua.
Raisi and Mokhber, while pledging to advance bilateral cooperation with the “worthy partner” China amid changing geopolitical dynamics, also highlighted the “sensitivity” of the issue related to Iran’s territorial integrity.
Ali Ahmadi, a fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy and a keen observer of Iran-China relations, said it is “hard to tell” what implications the recent developments could have on relations between the two sides.
“The Iranian government has clearly communicated its irritation to Beijing but has held off on more public denunciations of the Chinese specifically,” Ahmadi told The Cradle, pointing to the guarded protest by Tehran.
“Since China’s policy in the region has always been based on neutrality in regional geopolitics, and this seems to undermine that, it’s not really clear what this means for the future of Chinese policy in the region which is what everyone is trying to figure out,” he added.
Hard talk from Tehran
Although Iranian authorities exercised strategic restraint in their criticism of China’s dalliance with GCC countries, they certainly made sure the message went across in unequivocal terms — “friends must behave like friends.”
Speaking at the Tehran Dialogue Forum in the Iranian capital on 19 December which brought together representatives from 36 countries, Iran’s foreign minister said Tehran’s cooperation with Beijing is independent of the latter’s relations with other regional countries.
In such an “atmosphere of cooperation,” Amir-Abdollahian asserted, the statement issued by the GCC countries with China earlier this month was “not expected,” so Tehran subsequently communicated its “discontent and protest through diplomatic channels.”
The top Iranian diplomat reaffirmed his country’s commitment to enhance strategic ties with all-weather-ally China but added a caveat that any amount of disrespect to Iran’s territorial integrity will not be tolerated.
Amir-Abdollahian further said that Beijing had “corrected the mistake” in official meetings with Iranian officials, most notably the deputy Chinese premier’s meeting with President Raisi in Tehran as well as meetings in Beijing between Chinese officials and the Iranian ambassador.
Addressing the Forum, Kamal Kharrazi, a top advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni, described China’s position on Iran’s territorial integrity as a “mistake” and compared it to taking a similar position on Taiwan.
While in a Twitter post on the same day, Iran’s ambassador to Beijing, Mohammad Keshavarzzadeh confirmed he had submitted a protest note during a meeting with high-level Chinese authorities in Beijing, drawing their attention to the sensitivity of the issue.
The issue, however, did not remain confined to the diplomatic channels as domestic political figures – from both Iran’s Principlist and reformist political camps also spoke out.
Mojtaba Zolnouri, a senior lawmaker and former chairman of the parliament’s foreign affairs commission, issued a “stern warning” to the Chinese side “not to put themselves on the path designed by the Israel-Arab axis and to return to the right path,” as reported by ISNA.
Ali Motahhari, a former deputy speaker of parliament and a senior reformist figure, opined that the “best response” to China’s joint statement with GCC will be “to improve relations with the west,” as cited by Donya e Eghtesad.
“The foreign ministry took an appropriate action by summoning the Chinese ambassador and warned him, but we should learn a lesson that this policy of turning to the east and abandoning the west is not the right policy,” he said, echoing many other west-leaning reformists.
Iran-China strategic pact
Despite the tensions, Iran and China have finalized 16 memorandums of understanding under the framework of a 25-year strategic comprehensive agreement and trade between the two countries is expected to reach over $30 billion by the end of the year.
According to Chinese customs data, the value of Iran’s non-oil exports to China reached $5.37 billion in the first nine months of 2022, an increase of 11 percent. The two countries also traded commodities worth $12.32 billion in the same period, a rise of 18 percent.
While these developments have raised hope for the success of the long-term strategic agreement signed in March 2021 between the two countries, the implementation of the agreement has been slow so far.
The main obstacle has been US sanctions, which have deterred many Chinese businesses, including state-owned enterprises, from flouting the sanctions and risking being cut off from the US market.
However, Iranian officials have stated that US sanctions cannot impact the deal, which is intended to help the two countries expand bilateral cooperation by circumventing Washington’s sanctions regime. It is yet to be seen whether the deal will live up to its hype.