The China factor in Iran: China-Pakistan strategic nexus should not be overlooked

Biden would do well to recall Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear program and China recently replicating Wuhan’s P-4 virology research laboratory in Pakistan, writes Lt Gen P. C. Katoch (Retd) for South Asia Monitor

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Iran-China

Ebrahim Raisi’s election as the next President of Iran was more than expected. Raisi insisted in his first press conference that Iran’s strategy of supporting regional militias and the development of its missile program are non-negotiable. This is a clear signal to the US of the difficult path ahead amid talks at Vienna on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known commonly as the Iran nuclear deal.

Iran’s Shahab-3 missile has a range of 1,000 km and its medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) version with a range of 2,000 km can reach Israel. Iran’s two-stage, solid fuel-propelled missile ‘Sajjil-2’ with a range of about 2000 km has been tested, but export control restrictions have prevented Iran from domestic production of solid-fueled motors. It is assumed that Iran’s space launch vehicle ‘Safir’ that launches Iranian satellites can be used as a testbed for long-range ballistic missile technologies; to develop intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs).  

Even if Raisi had not mentioned supporting regional militias it would be naïve to expect him or any other Iranian in his position not to continue to do so, given the dynamics of the Middle East.

This is especially so after Iran’s Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike early last year and the nation’s leading nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was fatally shot in a remotely carried out road ambush with an autonomous satellite-operated gun in late 2020. Iran has blamed Israel for Fakhrizadeh’s murder.

On top of this, the US has been using proxy forces over the past decades. The anti-US sentiment was more than visible in Iran during Soleimani’s funeral and fiery speeches on the occasion of his first death anniversary, where Raisi was a prominent speaker.

US airstrikes on Iran-backed militias

On June 27, US airstrikes targeted operational and weapons storage facilities of Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria; two locations in Syria and one in Iraq were hit, as per the US military. Its statement did not mention any casualties suffered by the militias but Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran vowed revenge stating four members of the Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada faction were killed in the attack on the Syria-Iraq border.

On June 28, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh stated, "Certainly what the United States is doing is disrupting security in the region, and one of the victims of this disruption will be the United States."

The latest US airstrikes are possibly linked to the recent brief flare-up in the Israel-Hamas conflict in the Gaza strip after the May 20 ceasefire (that had halted 11-day fighting) and Iranian support to militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah. Raisi’s press conference too would have ruffled feathers.

In addition, America’s internal politics could have a bearing on this. Former US President Donald Trump has been portraying the incumbent Joe Biden as a ‘soft’ president, and went a step further during his ‘Save America Rally’ in Washington DC to call him a ‘thief”, vowing “we will take back America soon”.

Trump, who lost his re-election bid late last year, has virtually switched into election mode for the next presidential election and announced plans to hold two more rallies. More such Trump rallies are likely in the coming months and years.

Iran's nuclear program

Raisi had outlined his foreign policy goals in his press conference saying his priority is to improve ties with Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors while endorsing talks in Vienna aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal.

But the issue of vital concern is Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has said it will not hand over recordings from its nuclear sites to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as the temporary agreement with IAEA has since expired. Moreover, Iran has decided to turn off the IAEA cameras if the US fails to remove all sanctions, as per the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee.  

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has responded to this by saying that failure to extend the monitoring agreement would be a “serious concern” for the ongoing negotiations in Vienna.
It remains to be seen whether both the US and Iran are simply posturing to guide the JCPOA to a mutually acceptable solution or there is more to it.

China factor   

At face value, Iran has made its position clear through Raisi’s first press conference. In all probability Iran will continue to insist first the US must lift all sanctions before any fruitful negotiations can proceed further. Israel is against the US joining the JCPOA without more safeguards against Iran’s missile and nuclear capabilities. Moreover, Israel is determined to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent it from going nuclear.

President Biden recently assured visiting Israeli President Reuven Rivlin that he would not tolerate a nuclear Iran. But Biden would do well to recall Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear program and China recently replicating Wuhan’s P-4 virology research laboratory in Pakistan. With 2000 Chinese living in Tehran and 70 Chinese companies relocated there, Iran’s first nuclear test could well be facilitated by China.

On June 29, Iran-backed militias fired multiple rockets at US troops in northeast Syria near the al-Omar oil field. US troops responded with artillery fire. This may lead to more airstrikes by the US. If such developments escalate, the chances of revival of the JCPOA appear remote, with Tehran possibly leaning closer on Beijing.  

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views are personal.)  

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