Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a press conference after meeting in Tehran in 2016. Since then, China and Iran have firmed up their relationship. Photo: AFP / HO / Iranian Presidency

Iran was overtaken with merriment and relief when the long-awaited nuclear deal was inked in July 2015 by the Islamic Republic and six world powers, spelling a happy ending to a diplomatic impasse that had been an unnerving fixture of media headlines and an unvarying talking point of world leaders for nearly two decades.

Iran was extricated from the bludgeoning sanctions that had maimed its economy and turned it into a hermit kingdom, and the international community obtained robust assurances that Tehran’s nuclear program would not deviate toward weaponization. A genuine diplomatic breakthrough was clinched, and then-US president Barack Obama lauded it as “the strongest non-proliferation agreement ever negotiated.”

The heyday of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), however, did not last long, as in May 2018, President Donald Trump mandated the US withdrawal from the deal, wrong-footing both Iran and the other signatories that, even in their most cynical calculations, had not envisaged the unraveling of the scrupulously drafted 159-page agreement in such an abysmal fashion.

What ensued was a US campaign of “maximum pressure” comprising a mélange of backbreaking sanctions and diplomatic isolation molded to bring Iran back to the negotiating table for a new, broader deal.

Whether the Trump administration earnestly sought a fresh round of engagement with Iran or merely fancied countermanding the JCPOA because it had Obama’s signature on it is a mystery, as nobody is inside Donald Trump’s head, and even his close acolytes find it difficult to comprehend his worldview.

But evidently, jettisoning the Iran deal by the United States, while it has five other signatories plus the European Union as a broker that all say they are committed to conserving it, has put the landmark accord on life support, and by extension, the Islamic Republic’s economy in a chokehold.

Iran is desperate for a way out. Laya Joneydi, Iran’s vice-president for legal affairs, estimates that Trump’s dumping of the JCPOA has cost the country US$110 billion.

On the surface, the Islamic Republic hasn’t kowtowed to the pressure, saying no to new talks with the Trump administration, but it is witness to a compounding social crisis and its people languishing under hyperinflation, declining purchasing power and poverty, erupting in street protests from time to time to demand the truncation of this cycle of misery.

Facing the resignation of allies and partners abandoning it one by one, Iran is now in dire need of clients for its oil piled up in refineries to burnish its crumbling petroleum-dependent economy, investors that can overhaul its derelict infrastructure, and reliable friends to shield it from the barrage of pressure by the United States.

Signs are emerging that Tehran has identified that savior as China, and is maneuvering on concluding a 25-year strategic partnership deal with Beijing to ensure it can carve out some escape from the labyrinth of isolation it is entangled in.

Notwithstanding the oil Iran manages to smuggle to other nations, China is nominally the only country that is defying the US secondary sanctions and purchasing limited amounts of crude from Iran. Chinese customs data indicate that between January and July, China shipped in nearly 77,000 barrels per day of oil from Iran, even though that figure is a whopping retrenchment from the 552,000bpd it imported from Iran in 2016, one year after the JCPOA was signed.

The strategic partnership agreement, about which few details have been disclosed by Iran, involves preferential cooperation in political, cultural, judiciary, security and defense areas over a 25-year period, as reported by the Iranian government. Yet the most imperative facet of the cooperation is an economic and infrastructural synergy. China is expected to invest up to $280 billion in Iran’s energy and petrochemical sectors and another $120 billion in the country’s transportation and manufacturing fields.

In return for the lavish spending promised, China will be entitled to generous benefits. Chinese companies, for instance, will be given first refusal to bid on new or half-finished oil and gas development projects.

According to some unconfirmed accounts, 5,000 Chinese security personnel will be stationed across Iran to protect the Chinese facilities and projects. Moreover, China will be accorded a 32% discount on crude-oil purchases from Iran with two-year payment intervals.

These premiums have prodded some critics of the enigmatic deal to postulate that Iran is succumbing to a “colonial” pact resembling the Treaty of Turkmenchay signed between Iran and the Russian Empire in 1828, by which Iran ceded vast swaths of its northern territories to Russia. That treaty resonates with Iranians today as an emblem of government inefficiency and acquiescence to foreign powers.

Observers note that if Iran is countenancing economic and political hardships resulting from the US sanctions only to give the impression of a country not coerced by Western “imperialism,” then the 25-year agreement with China will impose on Iran what it is obviously laboring to eschew: “imperialism,” in this case coming from China.

Citing allegations that Iran will be handing over some of its southern islands in the Persian Gulf to China as part of the agreement, as well as monopoly over its energy resources, they argue that such a treaty will in practice morph Iran into a Chinese colony.

China, like Russia, the other superpower Iran usually pins its hopes on in days of despair, can be a potent economic partner for trade and cooperation on energy and infrastructural initiatives.

However, its track record of leaving Iran in the lurch at critical junctures, including voting in favor of six UN Security Council resolutions between 2006 and 2010 punishing the Islamic Republic with harsh economic sanctions, and departing from Iran’s automobile manufacturing and petrochemical enterprises after Trump ditched the JCPOA, raises the question: Can it also be a “strategic” anchor for Tehran when push comes to shove and pressure on Iran is in full swing?

Even right now, as Iran is in a cash crunch and is bending over backward to unfreeze some of its monetary assets held in foreign banks, China has not exhausted its options to liquidate its hefty $20 billion debt to Iran, mostly stuck in its Bank of Kunlun, which is said to be the only Chinese financial institution working with Iran, given that it does not have any connections with the United States.

As things stand, the road to normalization of Iran’s trade and diplomatic relations with the world remains bumpy, and it does not seem sensible to expect the pulverizing sanctions will be lifted any time soon. Perhaps in these trying times, China is Iran’s last bet for survival as it scrambles to keep a corruption-ridden, sanctions-stricken economy afloat and at the same time refuse to surrender its ideological mantra of resisting the United States.

That said, it is certainly naive to assume China will allow its lucrative trade with the United States, amounting to $332 billion in 2020, to be minimally threatened or its loyal weapons buyers such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, proven to be more rational global actors than Iran in the Middle East, to be dismayed if it chooses to cozy up to Iran and appease a pariah state that still finds it difficult to chart the course of its national interest – something that Beijing has usually prioritized over ideology.

This simply means Iran has a tough job convincing China that initiating a 25-year strategic partnership is a win-win undertaking.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.