The “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” (CSP) signed between Iran and China will have profound domestic, regional, and international implications. The more immediate effect of the partnership will be a further decline in human rights and freedom in Iran.
To be sure, the CSP, described by Iranian officials as “a game-changer,” will be a lifeline for the regime, which is operating under the severe pressure of American sanctions. According to the CSP, China is supposed to invest up to $400 billion in Iran over 25 years. In return, Iran will provide China with regular oil deliveries, allegedly at a considerable discount, and allow China to develop the port of Jask, build industrial cities, and develop tourism in the Makran region. Beijing will also create three free trade zones in Maku, Abadan, and the Persian Gulf island of Kish to boost the local economy, which, according to critics, would erode Iran’s sovereignty.
A troubling aspect of the deal with China is that it obliges Iran to use China’s telecommunication technology, internet platforms, and high-tech digital surveillance systems. This includes biometric facial recognition technology and network cameras, which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses in Xinjiang province, where two million Uighurs have been arbitrarily held captive in so-called “re-education camps.”
The giant Chinese tech corporations Tiandy and Huawei will have monopolistic positions in CSP to develop Iran’s telecommunication network. Tiandy, one of the world’s largest video surveillance companies, recently signed a five-year contract with Sa’iran, an Iranian company owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Tiandy is going to supply the IRGC with biometric surveillance systems, including ethnicity-based facial recognition tools. This technology is among the most abusive surveillance technologies that identify and track citizens and single them out based on their race or behavioral characteristics. Rumors suggest that Tiandy wants to transfer “smart interrogation tables” and “tiger chairs” to the IRGC, a paramilitary organization with a considerable record of human rights violations. In the hands of a repressive regime, these tools, which have been used for torture, along with surveillance technology would pose severe threats to civil liberty, including rights to privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion.
Huawei’s involvement in Iran’s projects would also pose the same type of security risk, and the Iranian regime could use its technology to spy on dissidents. Huawei provided the Chinese security apparatus with technical support, training, surveillance projects, and modular data centers to identify and eliminate political dissidents. Through its “intelligent security innovation lab,” Huawei is providing Xinjiang’s police with technical expertise, support, and digital services to ensure “Xinjiang’s social stability and long-term security,” something that Huawei director described as the “new era of smart policing.”
Such technological support to a repressive regime and human rights violator like Iran would effectively help it suppress dissidents further and tighten its control over the nation. It is precisely for this reason that the CSP enjoys the strong support of Ayatollah Khamenei and his conservative allies. Leaked information indicates that the CSP was developed under the close supervision of the ayatollah and his office, the Beyt-e Rahbari.
This is hardly surprising because Khamenei believes not only that the CSP would enable the regime to resist economic pressure from the US, but that it also gives Tehran intelligent and technological support from China, which is necessary to eliminate political opponents. From Khamenei’s perspective, the CCP’s repressive policies—which essentially turned China into a police state—have successfully eliminated Chinese opposition and counterrevolutionaries, something that Ayatollah Khamenei has long tried in Iran but failed.
This is not an entirely wrong perception. Since the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, in which the CCP killed several hundred civilians, the Communist Party has suppressed dissidents and ended liberal political reforms while the domestic security apparatus expanded dramatically under the name of “Stability Maintenance.” CCP authorities arrest political opponents, keep watching civil activists, and use brutal force to silence dissidents. This is the ideal political model that Ayatollah Khamenei and his hardline faction have long wanted to adopt in Iran to neutralize political opponents permanently.
To this end, the Iranian regime has regularly repressed dissidents, civil and human rights defenders, members of democratic movements, women, gender rights activists, ethnic and religious minorities, as well as ordinary citizens who demand basic rights.
Despite such considerable efforts, the regime has been less lucky than its Chinese counterpart in putting down democratic movements. However, technological support from China may alter the situation. With more sophisticated methods of intimidation, Tehran will probably gain domination over domestic political opponents, diaspora communities, and human rights defenders.
Other aspects of the partnership, such as economic and military, are also worrisome. According to the text of the agreement, China has promised to invest up to $400 billion in Iran. Experts argue that Iran’s economy does not have a $400-billion investment capacity, and China only intends to boost its leverage and entangle Iran in a sovereignty-eroding debt trap. These speculations are not unrealistic, as China’s dealing with other countries shows. Beijing’s massive investments and considerable loans to some financially vulnerable states—including Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kyrgyzstan, Montenegro, Djibouti, and Sudan—entangled them in debt traps.
Equally concerning is the CSP’s promise of an exceptionally high level of military support to Iran, which will have strategic implications for the United States and its regional allies. Because the arms embargo on Iran has already expired, Iran will be able to purchase advanced military weapons and technology from China, which will change the balance of power in the region. China (along with Russia) will also hold joint naval exercises with Iran to oppose US military influence in the region. The three countries have recently held a joint drill dubbed “2022 Marine Security Belt” on January 21 in the Iranian port of Chabahar, which is on the Indian Ocean and faces the strategically important Gulf of Oman.
In sum, China’s strategic partnership with Iran will help Tehran to adopt the Communist Party’s brutal elimination model by using sophisticated Chinese methods of intimidation. The economic aspect of the partnership will erode Iran’s sovereignty, allowing Chinese companies to control the country’s resources. The military aspect of the partnership will also have regional and global implications, posing severe risks to US interests and regional stability.