What Does China’s Iranian Consulate Mean for America?
What Does China’s Iranian Consulate Mean for America?
Beijing and Tehran both praised the opening of China's consulate in Iran as a step towards further cementing bilateral ties.
By Ahmad Hashemi
January 19, 2023
On December 21, China officially opened its first consulate general in Bandar Abbas, Iran’s most important southern sea transportation hub. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Iran both praised the move as a step towards further cementing bilateral ties. The Chinese ambassador to Iran hailed the move as a landmark moment in China-Iran relations, while Iran’s former ambassador to China said that he anticipated Beijing to play a leading role in developing Iran’s southern coastal regions.
Why Does the Consulate Matter?
To better understand the importance of this development, one must grasp the bigger picture, starting with the signing of a semi-secretive twenty-five-year strategic cooperation document.
This consulate opening comes after the signing of an agreement known as the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Iran and China” in March 2021, following an initial agreement during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Tehran in January 2016.
Though the details of this document have not been made public, according to some reports, the agreement includes special concessions given to China by Iran, including selling Iranian oil, gas, and petrochemical products at a guaranteed discounted price; the leasing of certain Iranian islands to China; and approving the establishment of a Chinese military base to secure Beijing’s facilities in Iran’s restive southern provinces.
To some Iran experts, with the signing of the twenty-five-year deal, Tehran has become a de facto Chinese colony and is even vulnerable to a demographic change and a massive influx of Chinese nationals. Other pundits contend that China’s endgame is to build an espionage hub in Iran under the agreement.
Could China’s Military Suppress the Uprising in Iran?
While both counties are determined to expand bilateral ties, the Iranian government faces an unprecedented domestic challenge as the nationwide protests enter their fourth month. The clerical regime has failed to subdue its youth, who seek structural transformation—i.e., regime change—and Tehran may need to ask for external support to quell opposition.
There is a precedent for seeking help from foreign fighters and non-Iranian militia groups. Indeed, Shia citizens from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen have been turned into groupings formed by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Consider the following examples. In early November 2022, it was reported that Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi and Kata’ib Hezbollah forces arrived in Iran, probably to help suppress protesters. In March 2019, a senior Iranian official stated that Tehran could use Shia militias from other parts of the Middle East to crack down on popular uprisings in Iran. Amid the protests during the 2009 presidential Iranian election, also known as the Green Movement, Tehran reportedly brought foreign agents to persecute Iranian protesters.
Nevertheless, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China is a much harder sell. Iran is aware that deploying the non-Muslim, officially atheist PLA in the streets of Iran could backfire spectacularly. China, too, is quite reluctant to deploy its security forces abroad, let alone in the never-ending conflicts in the Middle East. Yet, as the world’s leading executioners and human rights violators, Iran and China can share their expertise, and the CCP may assist the clerical establishment in Iran by providing it with anti-riot equipment and know-how on detecting and tracking Iranian protesters.
What Brings Communist China and Islamist Iran Together?
Despite initial appearances, both the clerical regime in Iran and the Chinese Communist Party have values that bind them together.
The regimes in Iran and China loathe human rights and see Western democracy as a non-indigenous, invading, and harmful foreign concept. The Chinese development model promises countries like Iran and Arab Gulf states prosperity and economic progress, devoid of headaches such as political opening and human rights. This is why the CCP’s friends and foes alike are inclined to imitate the Chinese governance model in the Middle East and some other parts of the developing world. If anything, Iran’s “Look to the East” foreign policy orientation and Saudi Arabia’s recent “Pivot to Asia” approach show that China’s rise to prominence has made its alternative, authoritarian development model more fashionable among other developing countries, especially as democracy is in decline globally.
Both the Iranian regime and the CCP despise Uncle Sam. Iran and China, along with Russia, seek to weaken what is known as the “U.S.-led rules-based world order” under the disguise of advocating for a multipolar world. The China-led multipolar world promises such revisionist countries like Iran an opportunity to play a larger role by diminishing America’s sole superpower status.
Both Tehran and Beijing have pursued a policy of demographic reengineering. By replacing Turkic Uighur Muslims with Han Chinese settlers, the CCP plans to gain further political control over the whole Xinjiang region and create a population that is sympathetic to Beijing. Using the same playbook, the clerical regime in Iran seeks to subdue non-Persian ethnic groups by turning them into minorities in their own ethnic heartland via demographic reengineering. In a leaked letter, former Iranian vice president Sayed Mohammad-Ali Abtahi suggests the forced migration of indigenous Ahwazi Arabs out of Ahwaz (Khuzestan) province and their replacement with non-indigenous but loyal settlers, particularly ethnic Persians.
Is the Consulate a Security Threat to America?
Since 2012, when Xi consolidated control over the party, the CCP has become increasingly assertive in its global military and geopolitical dominance. Not surprisingly, Xi has changed the CCP’s traditional foreign policy approach, ending “peaceful ascendance” and seeking superpower status and the eventual replacement of America. “Wolf warrior” diplomacy and the recent reassignment of the combative Zhao Lijian as China’s chief diplomat, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), debt trap diplomacy, and accelerating plans to take over Taiwan are some of the changes in China’s foreign policy approach that either began or gained momentum under Xi’s reign.
In tandem with its efforts to rapidly achieve global primacy, the CCP established its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017, deployed its first flotilla to the Gulf, and reached strategic partnerships with Algeria, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran. Xi’s China has, for the first time, also staged multiple naval drills with Russia and Iran. Now, China is reportedly planning to open a military base on the northern shores of the Gulf. While the southern coast of the Arabian Gulf is a U.S.-friendly neighborhood, the northern part (Iran) is a hotbed of anti-Americanism and geopolitical revisionism.
A strong Chinese diplomatic, economic, security, and military presence in the northern part of this crucial waterway is not a welcome development for the United States for a variety of reasons:
The fight for global primacy is intensifying
China’s traditional foreign policy—known as the “peaceful rise” to great power status—was replaced by a more assertive one under Xi Jinping. Despite its COVID-19 hiccup, Xi’s China continues to not-so-peacefully rise to become a global economic and military powerhouse, and its ascent to global prominence poses a security challenge to America’s supremacy amid the intensified New Cold War between the two superpowers. Skeptics don’t rule out a scenario where China’s security goals change, prompting it to engage in systemic conflict with the United States across the world. In that case, the energy-rich Gulf region is going to be a key U.S.-CCP battlefield in the war for global supremacy. The opening of a Chinese consulate in the northern part of the Arabian Gulf can be interpreted as a step in that direction.
Great power competition and dominating two strategic straits
If China decides to engage in systemic conflict with the United States, dominating transportation hubs, strategic canals, waterways, and straits would be key. Strangulating America in the strategic straits of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab would become essential and is one of China’s long-term objectives in its competition with the United States. America may have a sizable military presence in the Arabian Gulf region that secures the Strait of Hormuz for now, but as a counterbalancing act, Iran can help China establish its security, intelligence, and military foothold in the Gulf.
As for the Bab al-Mandab Strait, home to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, China already has a military base near the southern part of the strait in Djibouti, and its expansion to the northern part of this strategic waterway would bolster Beijing’s geopolitical posture. Iran’s proxy force, the Houthi militias, who are the de facto rulers of Yemen, can help China expand its influence on the northern part of the strait. The new consulate in southern Iran will facilitate China’s efforts to achieve this goal.
The China-Iran-Russia Triangle
Iran, Russia, and China are increasingly united on the cause of anti-Americanism. They have formed an unofficial “Triangle Alliance” in Asia that, according to the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee spokesman, heralds the “end of the inequitable hegemony of the United States and the West.”
The military aspect of this triangle alliance stands out. Iran, China, and Russia have held at least three joint naval exercises in recent years. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, military cooperation between Tehran and Moscow has been growing on such a scale that, according to U.S. national security council spokesman John Kirby, Iran has become Russia's top military backer.
In addition, China’s AI and other military technology capabilities are rapidly developing. Beijing provides Iran with UAVs, whereas Iran sells its Shahed-136 kamikaze drones to Russia. These game-changing weapons are radically altering the military landscape in Ukraine. Conversely, Russia is set to supply Iran with dozens of its Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, giving Iran much-needed air superiority capabilities.
China’s Bandar Abbas consulate would undoubtedly serve as a conduit to consolidate this new triangle alliance.
Coordinating the Belt and Road Initiative
The success of the BRI gives the Xi administration a strategic tool in great power competition. China intends to improve Iran’s transportation infrastructure by building roads, bridges, ports, factories, and industrial towns, in accordance with the twenty-five-year strategic agreement. When completed, these infrastructural projects in Iran’s southern free trade zones in Jask and Chabahar would be integrated into China’s trillion-dollar BRI to export its goods to the Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and European markets. Needless to say, opening a consulate at Iran’s transportation hub would expedite this integration.
The Reconquista of Taiwan.
If the forceful unification of Ukraine is inevitable for Russian president Vladimir Putin’s realization of his imperial Novorossiya (New Russia) project, for Xi, the reunification with Taiwan is necessary to fulfill the “One China” objective.
As the world’s largest energy importer, China seeks to ensure an uninterrupted flow of hydrocarbon resources from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states. By signing comprehensive economic and security agreements with Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Gulf’s major players, the CCP has taken steps to ensure a smooth flow of oil in the event that the West punishes it for attacking Taiwan.
The opening of a CCP consulate in Iran can serve, among other things, as a platform to ease the energy and economic consequences of this strategic decision.
Ahmad Hashemi is an independent foreign policy analyst with a focus on Iran, and Middle East affairs. Follow him on Twitter @MrAhmadHashemi.