Iran looking to Beijing to break out of US shackles

March 29

(The Rediff Special)

Few in India have noted Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan�s four-day visit to Teheran in the third week of February. The official explanation for the visit was that he was participating in the inaugural function of Iran�s first metro railway built with Chinese rolling stock by a French company. But it also indicated a subtle shift in Iranian foreign policy to free themselves of the US-sponsored policy of containment of Iran.

The US policy hurt Iran�s effort to reconstruct its war-torn economy. Foreign investments were not forthcoming. According to some estimates, foreign direct investments in Iran in the past five years have amounted to less than $ 2 billion. In addition, runaway inflation is creating its own problems in terms of employment and standards of living.

At another level, though President Mohammed Khattami�s moderates received a big mandate in the just-concluded election, they were in no position to push through their reform programme as vigorously as they wanted to. The conservatives with their clout in the armed forces still call the shots in Iranian polity.

In these circumstances, President Khattami�s initiative for reviving dormant ties with Beijing has three major implications. The Iranian quest for missile and nuclear technology, to neutralise the Pakistani advantage on this count, can come only from Beijing. Other than Beijing, no nuclear-weapon power is willing to transfer this technology, India included. The Iranians tried with Pakistan and found it unwilling to give up its unique position in the Islamic world with its �Islamic bomb�.

The Chinese have perfected techniques of clandestine nuclear and missile technology transfers, in spite of watchful American eyes. The strained Sino-US relations for the past two years are making the Iranian leadership think they can exploit this new development to their advantage. Any success by Khattami on this count will swing the Iranian armed forces in his favour and silence the conservatives.

At another level, Iran perceives that due to the paucity of economic development the Central Asian republics are turning into a volatile region. Resource-starved Iran is unable to play any major role in the development of the Central Asian economies. Apparently Teheran thinks China, short of sources of energy, will be glad to forge a new relationship.

According to one commentator, since the time Beijing acquired the Uzen oil fields in southwestern Kazakhstan in 1997, it has been thinking of building a 1,000km oil pipeline across Turkmenistan and Iran to the Persian Gulf from where oil could be shipped to China. Iran is anxious to firm up such a project because it would give Central Asian oil a new exit route through Iran.

Simultaneously, the Iranians are looking forward to Chinese oil companies building a new $ 400 million, 400 km long Iranian oil pipeline that would carry Central Asian oil from Neka, Iran�s main oil terminal on the Caspian Sea, to Teheran. That would expand Iran�s oil swap system with the Central Asians � Iran would consume Central Asian oil and allow the Central Asian states to lift an equivalent amount from Iranian ports in the Persian Gulf region.

It is against this backdrop that Iran is canvassing for a new policy on oil and gas pipelines. Accordingly to Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, �Pipelines should be depoliticised and demilitarised.� In his view, extra regional powers should not be allowed to dominate the Central Asian region.

Yet, at another level, both Iran and China share common security concerns about Afghanistan. In southern Afghanistan, the Taleban are providing sanctuary to a number of groups opposing Iran�s Islamic revolutionary regime. Though Iran is making discreet overtures to wean away the Taleban leadership from these groups; it has had limited success. Teheran feels strongly that at Pakistan�s insistence, the Taleban are acting against its interests.

Similarly, in northern Afghanistan, Islamic radicals from the Commonwealth of Independent States, like Tahir Yuldashe of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Zelimkhan Yanderbayev of Chechnya, are creating problems. Now it is well documented that radical elements from China�s Xinjiang Autonomous Region freely move around in Taleban-controlled Afghanistan and Pakistan. All these people receive their funds through the narcotics trade and smuggling of consumer goods.

Therefore, the Pakistan-created Taleban in Afghanistan have become a problem for both Iran and China. The Iranian leadership is looking for co-operation with China on this count at different levels. They expect that joint Sino-Iranian pressure on Pakistan to curb these Taleban activities will be more effective than both doing it independently. Iranians also feel that in China they have a reliable partner to provide the much-needed security to the Central Asian republics against any Pakistani onslaught through the Taleban.

What is missing in all the public pronouncements is the level of Sino-Iranian military co-operation. Sino-Iranian military co-operation was at its peak when Teheran was engaged in a war with Baghdad in the 1980s and in the post-war period, when Iran was reorganising its armed forces in the 1990s.

In fact, at the beginning of the 1990s, under a memorandum of understanding, China provided Iran with $ 3 billion worth of military hardware. But a second deal for Teheran to buy $ 4.5 billion worth of Chinese military hardware, due to be signed in December 1996, was postponed indefinitely at the last minute. Even the annual joint meetings between the two countries�s defence ministers were suspended from August 1996.

Media reports at the end of Tang�s visit say Iran is trying to reduce its dependence on oil and wants to export more non-oil goods to China. Sino-Iranian trade, which reached $ 1.2 billion in 1998, is expected to touch $ 2 billion in 1999. Tang and the Iranian officials discussed military ties. But revival of nuclear co-operation, which was decided in 1993, but ended in December 1999, was not specifically discussed. Some of these issues are likely to come up during President Khattami�s visit to Beijing in the next few months.

All these developments clearly indicate that the Iranians are trying to evolve a new strategic relationship with China.


The writer is a senior research associate at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi.

The Indian agency Radiff Special has released an analysis of the development of relations between Iran and China. The authors pointed out that stronger connections to Beijing are in Teheran�s interests, for both the conservatives and reformists, headed by President Hatami, because of the following reasons.

Firstly, such improved relations would be against the US policy of sanctions on Iran. Secondly, it is an opportunity for Iran to obtain nuclear and missile technology. Thirdly, such a move would be in strengthen Iran�s hand against its non-Shiite rival, Pakistan, which possesses nuclear weapons and furthermore supports the Taliban. The latter are a clear threat to Iran�s security, particularly when we recall the repression of the Shiite population in Afghanistan. Iran and China are moving closer together against the background of worsening relations between Washington and Beijing, caused by presidential elections in Taiwan and the U.S.A. During the presidential elections in Taiwan, China threatened to use force, if necessary, in order to reunite the island with the continent. At the same time, all of the candidates for the American presidency, except Al Gore, have said that they aim to � seriously clarify � Beijing�s claims on Taipei.

On the other hand, we should not forget about Russia, which has been busy rebuilding its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, after Vladimir Putin came to power. Moscow�s progress in this field has caused great anxiety in Teheran. On February 17, 2000 the IRI Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that: �Iran prefers a multi-polar situation in the Caspian region.� (THE GLOBE, 22.02.2000).

At the same time the US policy has clearly failed in Central Asia.

It is under these conditions that Iran is strengthening its positions as a regional power. Agreements signed with the China National Petrol Corporation for the construction of a Neka-Teheran pipeline, as well as a new transport corridor between India and Russia via Iran (see the article on this page) are testament to this. Clearly, any such developments are of great consequence to Kazakhstan. Interestingly, the article was written by a member of the Indian Institute of Defense Researches and Analysis, whose director is the former Indian Ambassador to Kazakhstan.

�Akela group�

New route to boost Indo-Russian trade

By Vladimir Radyuhin

MOSCOW, MARCH 25 (Hindi)

A Russian shipping company has opened a new shorter and cheaper transport link with India through Iran that is expected to give a boost to Indo-Russian trade.

Goods from Cochin and Mumbai are first shipped to Bandar Abbas in Iran, where they are put on rails and carried to Anzali, an Iranian port on the Caspian Sea. From there, the goods are carried by sea to Astrakhan in Russia.

A pilot shipment of 22 containers with tea and tobacco from India has recently arrived to the Russian port of Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea and the first Russian containers have been dispatched to India.

The Russian operator of the new transport link, the Vagna Shipping Company, says the sea-and-land route cuts delivery time from India to Russia by 10 to 15 days and saves 20 to 30 per cent in shipping costs, compared to the current sea route all the way round Europe to St. Petersburg in Russia or Kotka in Finland, which takes about 45 days.

Mr. Mikhail Gorskov, who is in charge of Vagna�s foreign operations, told The Hindu that his company was capable of handling 300 to 400 40-ft containers per month on the new route.

This volume accounts for less than 10 per cent of the current container traffic between India and Russia, but the company plans to expand the throughput capacity of the freight corridor.

The Indian Ambassador to Russia, Mr. S. K. Lambah, paid a visit to Astrakhan this month to acquaint himself with the new transport link.

An expert level delegation from India will visit Russia next month for further discussions on the alternative trading route.

Mr. Gorskov of Vagna Shipping said another advantage of the new route is that it is operated by carriers from the three countries involved - Russia, Iran and India.

�It is not right when even goods shipped to Russia against Indian Rupee debt to the Soviet Union are handled by Western shipping companies,� Mr. Gorskov said.

�In this way they pocket 20 cent of the Rupee debt funds.� On the new route, cargo traffic between India and Bandar Abbas in Iran is handled by the Iran-O-Hind, an Indo-Iranian joint shipping line.

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