Chinese President Xi Jinping and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

Iran has long championed the cause of repressed Muslims worldwide, an often vocal stance that has underpinned the Islamic Republic’s self-proclaimed leadership role in the Muslim world.

But Iran has willfully ignored the ordeal of more than 1.5 million Uighur Muslims now confined by China in controversial “vocational training” camps, a silence that has spoken volumes about Beijing’s growing influence over Tehran.

Iran’s support for persecuted Shiite Muslim groups reaches far and wide, from repressed Shiites in Sunni-governed Bahrain, to the Houthis waging war in Yemen, to the  pro-Iranian Islamic Movement in Nigeria which seeks to establish an Islamic state and whose rebel logo includes a portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of Iran’s Islamic republic.

To be sure, the Uighurs don’t readily fit in those same rebel molds. A Muslim ethnic group living primarily in the autonomous Chinese province of Xinjiang, Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking, most Sunni community of nearly 12 million. They make up an estimated 42% of the population of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

In recent years, migration by Han Chinese to Xinjiang, considered by the Beijing government as an important trade gateway to Asia and Europe, has significantly altered the historically predominantly Muslim region’s demographics and dynamics.

After a series of extremist incidents, Beijing has implemented a full-fledged crackdown on the Uighurs, seen by many as Beijing’s version of a “war on terror.”

According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Beijing has established 380 “re-education camps” in recent years, facilities where Uighurs are indoctrinated in Chinese language, culture and even eating habits to the detriment of their Muslim identities.

Beijing refers to the camps as “vocational training centers” and portrays the facilities as part of a wider development drive in far-flung and historically restive regions. A similar campaign is now underway in Tibet, a Jamestown Foundation think tank report shows.

The United Nations has cited harrowing reports about Uighur detention centers in China. Photo: Twitter
An undated file photo of Uighurs being held at a ‘vocational training’ center in Xinjiang, China. Photo: Twitter

In 2017, Xinjiang’s government ratified legislation prohibiting men from growing beards and women from wearing hijabs, practices that are common among Uighur Muslim men and women.

Australia’s ASPI documented that in recent years as many as 16,000 mosques have been damaged or destroyed in Xinjiang in Beijing’s forced assimilation campaign.

International outcry over the abuses is growing, though not from Iran. The Biden administration has raised the ill-treatment of Uighurs in its initial communications with China, with Biden himself reportedly raising the issue during a phone call with President Xi Jinping.

A group of 22 countries, in which Muslim majority nations were noticeably absent, wrote a joint letter to the UN Human Rights Council in July 2019, demanding that China uphold its human rights obligations vis-à-vis the Uighur Muslims and abandons its campaign of arbitrary detention.

During the Trump administration, the US imposed various sanctions on Chinese officials and entities, including the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, an economic and paramilitary corporation driving the development of China’s northwestern territories.

The irony of the West coming more forcefully to the Uighurs’ defense than Muslim leaders like Iran is not lost on observers.

Since its 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has engaged in a number of scuffles with countries over their mistreatment of Muslim minorities, diplomatic tiffs that have aimed to position Teheran as a guardian of supposed Islamic world unity.

Critics say Iran has paid a price for its decades of ideological maneuverings, including most pointedly by picking a fight with Israel over Palestine, which Iranian authorities still insist should be the Muslim world’s top priority.

Now, critics claim Teheran is looking the other way on the Uighurs, a clear, hard indication that its crucial trade and investment links to China outweigh its claimed guardian mission in the Muslim world.

People protest at a pro-Uighur rally in front of the US Mission to the United Nations. Photo: AFP

“Iran’s silence and non-reaction vis-à-vis the repression of Uighur Muslims is mainly motivated by the desire not to upset China,” said Jacopo Scita, H H Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah doctoral fellow at Durham University and an expert on Iran-China relations.

“Iran and the other Middle Eastern countries that have remained silent about the Uighurs understand that the issue of Islamic extremism is one of Beijing’s main concerns when it comes to internal security.

“The fact that the Trump administration had openly attacked China for the crackdown on its Muslim minorities has further discouraged Iran to take a critical stance on the issue. To put it simply: politics prevails over idealism,” he told Asia Times.

Others note Iran’s muted response is not the first time Tehran has surrendered its self-claimed Muslim world leadership aspiration to maintain critical economic and political partnerships.

For instance, in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ensuing crackdown on the peninsula’s Muslims, Iran failed to protest.

Nor did Tehran raise its voice against Russia’s violent repression of the Muslim Chechnya insurgency in the mid-1990s and later harsh anti-radicalization initiatives driven by President Vladimir Putin.

Like China now, Russia has historically provided support to Iran during times of economic duress and political isolation, including at the United Nations.

“In Iranian government’s political calculations, its bilateral ties with both governments in Moscow and Beijing looms large for its economic, political and military security and it does not want to take any political actions that would jeopardize this important relationship,” said Manochehr Dorraj, professor of political science at Texas Christian University.

“In addition, Uighur Muslims are primarily Sunnis, and the appeal of the Shia state of Iran in their ranks is much more limited as compared to Turkey,” Dorraj added.

China and Iran have recently broached a 25-year strategic partnership deal, which if implemented would give China a potential future monopoly over Iran’s energy projects. As part of the scheme, China has vowed to invest as much as US$400 billion in the Islamic Republic’s infrastructure, transportation and housing.

An Iranian seaman holding up Iranian and Chinese national flags during a ceremony at Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman during Iran-Russia-China joint naval drills in 2019. Photo: Iranian Army Office / AFP

China hasn’t always been Iran’s ally. Between 2006 and 2010, China voted in favor of all UN Security Council resolutions outlawing Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, slapping harsh sanctions against Tehran.

Those included resolution 1747, which stipulated an arms embargo, and resolution 1929, which banned Iran’s ballistic missiles program and blacklisted the influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

That history has raised certain questions about the sincerity behind China’s current charm offensive with Iran.

“The so-called Iran-China deal is no major deal at all, and future ties will likely remain limited and contingent on improved relations with the United States,” said Bill Figueroa, a researcher on Iran-China relations at the University of Pennsylvania.

“China will not rescue Iran, and I think Iran is aware of that, and largely is interested in the China card as a negotiation tactic and as a way to tout a strong ally at a time of increasing diplomatic isolation,” he said.

Since Trump walked away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal and vowed to torpedo Iran’s oil exports, China has defied the US sanctions by importing Iran’s crude.

Analysts suggest China’s oil imports, which by all measures have served as an economic lifeline for the OPEC member to ensure its oil-dependent, sanctions-hit economy doesn’t fully collapse, does not mean that China will go to greater lengths to save Iran from its predicament.

“While China remains Iran’s top oil importer, imports have not increased at the exponential levels predicted, and are not likely to fundamentally threaten the current international balance of power in the Middle East,” said Figueroa.

“China tends to choose stable relations with geostrategic advantages over volatile ones that are likely to spark conflict and is not above playing both sides of an issue. For all its propaganda, China, like Iran, is more interested in its immediate geopolitical goals than a revolutionary ideology,” he added.

Other experts say the quality of Tehran-Beijing relations will to a large extent depend on how Beijing-Washington ties evolve under the new Biden administration. If the US mounts pressure on China, then Beijing would have incentive to ramp up ties with the Islamic Republic.

“Beijing need not, nor has it, opted for an either-or approach to meeting the Iranian challenge. Were the US-China rivalry to continue to intensify and the bilateral relationship to continue spiraling downward, Beijing’s calculus could change. Then, there might be a stronger impulse to defy and confront the US on Iran policy,” said John Calabrese, director of the Middle East-Asia Project at the Middle East Institute and an assistant professor at American University.

“However, even then, Beijing must weigh a decisive tilt in Iran’s favor against other considerations, including maintaining good relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, avoiding being seen as an enabler of malign behavior and possibly squandering political capital and economic resources on a regime that has not managed the economy particularly well even in better times,” he said.

With those tilted bilateral dynamics, Iran is not likely any time soon to challenge China into moderating its treatment of the Uighurs.

Police watch as Uighur Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque after morning prayers in the old town of Kashgar in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Photo: AFP/Johannes Eisele
Police watch as Uighur Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque after morning prayers in the old town of Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Photo: AFP/Johannes Eisele

“The Beijing government sees its Uighur policy as central to its long-term stability and under no circumstances will it back away from that policy because of external pressure,” said Kurk Dorsey, chair of the Department of History at the University of New Hampshire.

“In fact, such pressure almost never forces a powerful country to back down, but rather such pressure is about making a statement to the world that the pressuring countries value some ideological or moral position more than they value the benefits of normal relations.

“So, if powerful Islamic states could overcome their differences, which seems unlikely, they could punish China over the Uighurs, but they would probably take more economic damage than China would,” he told Asia Times.

Ali Motahari, a former Iranian parliamentarian, is one of few high-profile public figures to question the Iranian government’s silence on the Uighurs.

He lamented in tweets in August 2020 that Iran, because of its financial dependence on China, has been left with no option but to keep silent on the “complete eradication of Islamic culture” in Xinjiang.