In an in-depth interview with the Al-Alam News channel, Iran’s former ambassador to China, Mehdi Safari, revealed his thoughts and important details about the comprehensive 25-year historic agreement currently being finalised between Iran and China.
Below is the full English transcript of the interview.
Source: Al-Alam News
Date: July 19, 2020
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What is the nature of the policy pursued by Tehran with regards to the East, and is it related to the current situation in Iran?
Look. To answer your question, I would say, after the success of the Islamic Revolution, the motto of the (foreign) policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran was “Neither East, nor West”. However, the Islamic Republic had and still has diplomatic relations with all states except Israel and America, which we consider to be our enemies; or if we felt that a side is showing hostile behavior (towards Iran).
You used the slogan “Neither East, nor West”. The part “Neither East” existed when the Soviet Union was still a part of the global system and had its own policies, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation changed its policies. You also saw how our relations with our neighboring countries in the north have developed and become stronger.
First of all, China is neither western nor eastern, as it is located in east Asia. Well, this applies to Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and India. All of these countries are located in East Asia. We had and will always foster diplomatic relations with the aforementioned countries. Therefore, our policy did not change. All the relationships that existed between us and these countries were mutual and equal. But why did this desire for a relationship with China rise to the surface and why did this relationship become strategic? I would like to give you a clarification. To start with, this relationship is needed by both China and us. After the Americans began to besiege China from the east… If you go back in memory, you would remember the issue of the three islands that were the subject of a dispute between China and Japan. Americans wanted to create a disputed area. Then, after the South China Sea issue (the disputed islands), another issue came up with Vietnam and the Philippines regarding Chinese oil reserves. The Chinese also felt that Obama had revived their closed base in northern Australia. They also felt that if they do not find another path across the sea, they might encounter problems that they don’t have the time to deal with, especially with their current trade situation, and the energy-related crisis in general.
Well, China brought up Mr. XI Jinping’s idea about the west, the west of the country, and revived the principle of “One Belt, One Road”, i.e. the Silk Road. In other words, it is turning towards the East. China could have started (its project) from three routes: (1) through Russia to northern Europe, (2) through the Islamic Republic of Iran towards the central and southern European states, or (3) crossing the ocean to head to the continent of Africa.
China launched this project (for many reasons). (First,) in the past, this country used to import only one million barrels of oil in the past. Six years ago, it imported five million barrels. While today, it imports 11, 500, 000 barrels of oil, 5, 500, 000 barrels of which passes through the Persian Gulf. Well, now let us see. Which country has 2, 200 kilometers of maritime borders? The Islamic Republic of Iran. Which country has oil and gas here (in this region)? The Islamic Republic of Iran also. This is the main factor that enables us (Iran) to become China ‘s strategic partner. From the Chinese perspective, energy security is more important than the provision of energy. If energy provision is important, energy security is even more important. Well, who can provide all of these (services)? In this region, we are the ones who can do that.
Second, China is the world’s top trader, to say the least. I personally believe that China enjoys the world’s number one economy. The reason (for this success) is that Americans, who say “we are number one”, print $600 billion or $700 billion four or five times a year and inject them in the market. Now, China wants to guarantee the security of its trading operations in our region, in the Indian Ocean and in the Gulf of Oman. It sees that the Islamic Republic of Iran is the only country fighting terrorism (ISIS) and drug trafficking. So what have these factors succeeded to achieve? It made our country a strategic partner of China.
Did this policy come after you (Iranians) lost hope in the West? And how is it consistent with the policy of “Neither East, nor West”?
First of all, our relationship with China did not begin recently. We have enjoyed strong relations and ties with this country for many years. However, it is a well-known fact that today’s China is significantly different from the China of 10 or 20 years ago. Today’s China is completely different in terms of technology, trade, its construction of power stations, etc. So we can see that China can fulfill our needs. Instead of turning towards Europe and America that are imposing limitations and restrictions on us, we can now get our needs (from China). And when I say now, this does not mean just today. This project was launched 15 or 20 years ago. Take a close look. The Chinese have been working hard and actively in Iran for 20 years. Check the number of dams, power stations, steel plants, mines and petrochemicals (built in Iran by China). Therefore, this relationship did not begin yesterday nor today.
Perhaps China’s political view of the West and America has changed during the past five or six years. Now, it is turning more towards us, to its west – as I’ve mentioned before. The need of the two parties (for this relationship) became bilateral and mutual, which led to setting up a cooperation project that would last for 25 years. Therefore, I can say that this matter (the cooperation) is not related to recent developments. China has been importing our oil for years. We have also been exchanging economic cooperation, finance, and projects in various fields. Why is this subject being discussed now? Regarding our view of the West or East, if we take a look at the comprehensive partnership project with China, we will find that it paves the way for relations with most European states – with Austria, Germany, France, Romania, the former Yugoslavia, or even Sweden – in addition to our neighboring states. I honestly do not know the reason for this great sensitivity over our cooperation with China. Go and take a look at our cooperation and agreements with Austria and Germany. All of these (cooperation) offers were raised in the various specialized joint committees. Therefore, these steps are not new. The motto of the (foreign) policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, “Neither East, nor West”, hasn’t changed. Our view of the former Soviet Union or the West is still the same. However, when the Soviet Union changed its policies and came to the negotiating table, we came to a balanced agreement and started dealing with the Union.
Does China’s historic anti-colonial policy play a role in Tehran’s decision to turn to the East?
Of course. If you noticed, China never had any conflicts with us, nor did it wage any wars against us. There were no border skirmishes or disputes between us. China is a very rich country in terms of culture, and as you mentioned, it is not opportunistic. These factors were important in (our choice) to deal with China. On the other hand, this country (China) had some needs that led it to turn towards our country. Therefore, these needs from both sides were complementary, which led to the crystallization of this comprehensive partnership.
Do you feel like you were obliged to turn to China, or is this plan a part of Iran’s foreign policy in general?
No, I personally think that this is a real strategy that we have been following for almost 20 years. Today, the cooperation project has reached a state of maturity. This project was brought up six years ago during the visit of Mr. Xi Jinping to Iran, but there was a delay from our end. Now I say that this project shouldn’t be delayed any further. We have to begin this project sooner rather than later.
At the time, we were in the midst of talks with the West, and this was, in my opinion, the reason for the delay in the comprehensive partnership project with China. We had this strategy before us 20 or 25 years ago, and we have been engaging in all kinds of cooperation with China. However, the conditions China is living under led it to conclude and sign such an agreement with us. Of course, as I’ve mentioned earlier, when it (China) was turning to the West (for cooperation), it did not sign (any agreements) with us. It rather signed (agreements) with Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Oman, Russia, and other countries, because of the reasons I explained earlier. However, the circumstances surrounding China have changed, due to its trade, economic and political differences with America and the West in general.
Can you tell us more about this agreement (with China)?
This comprehensive partnership includes an energy component. This energy component is divided into two subsections: (1) oil and gas, and (2) the construction of power stations and the use of renewable energy. In the energy component, China pledged to buy our oil for 25 years. And (in return) what do we guarantee for 25 years? To sell our oil to them. China also showed its intention to invest in and provide the necessary financing for our refineries and petrochemical plants, and we too would like this (financing) idea to be put into effect, especially on our coastlines which we use for exportation. With regards to energy and the construction of power plants, there is a willingness by both sides to build power stations in various regions jointly (in terms of financing) as it is considered a part of Iran’s infrastructure.
There is also a section regarding investment in renewable energy. Here, I would like to give an example with regards to solar (power) systems, or solar energy plants. As you know this has two implications. On the one hand, the situation of us here in the Islamic Republic of Iran is more favorable than China in this field. On the other hand, China is one of the highly developed countries and it occupies first place in renewable energies. Every year, it generates about 20 GW of these energies per day around the country. Moreover, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a very suitable place for such projects, (especially keeping in mind) the deserts (we have) and how such projects help (us) fight the problem of desertification in the country.
We would like for the Chinese to come and build solar cell (plants) in Iran, and to develop our power stations. Secondly, regarding electrical energy, you know that the Chinese also rank first in the world in (building) private and public vehicles such as buses. Therefore, we are thinking about starting joint work in this sector in Iran
There is also the subject of transportation, which includes roads and railways. Well if China actually wants to turn to the East and revive the Silk Road, then all the aforementioned is included in the project. China must prepare and start making high-speed trains for the transportation and transit of various goods through the Islamic Republic of Iran to the West, and from the North to the South and vice versa. In other words, (we are referring to) the transit of goods from Chabahar to Mashhad, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, and vice versa; and from Mashhad to Tabriz, Europe, and other states neighboring Iran. Therefore, transportation offers both parties an incentive to cooperate.
With regards to tourism, China has 250 million tourists (that travel) annually, while we have two million tourists. If every year, three million Chinese citizens came (to Iran) with their rich culture, and wandered in the country, we will witness an increase in job opportunities in the field of tourism and handicrafts. You must know that the Chinese love our handicrafts. If it happened that our handicrafts found their way into the Chinese market, i.e. one billion and four hundred million people, imagine if each one of them bought only a vase! When Coca-Cola went to China, and it should not have been allowed to go there, one of the company’s managers said “if each one of them (Chinese people) drank only one can, this would mean one billion and four hundred million cans!” Our handicrafts and carpets are extremely popular in China. We are looking to create job opportunities. If the Chinese were present in the tourism sector and worked to strengthen our infrastructure, we would succeed in attracting Chinese tourists. Once that is done, you would see the significant outcomes of this project.
What does China want from this agreement?
I have already told you about China’s interests, and the conditions the US put China under. The transit of China’s goods, and having access to raw materials, whether from Iran or from the south, in addition to the provision of energy and the maintenance of energy security, are both very important for China. Any disruption that might occur along the trade route, or any difficulty that might arise in the process of obtaining raw materials, can cause the country great problems.
I have told you that we were very late to sign this agreement. Because of this delay, China has gone its own way, and has concluded agreements and treaties with other countries. China reached Europe via Russia, Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Georgia and Azerbaijan. We took too long to establish this partnership. During my last interview I said frankly, we should have signed this joint cooperation agreement six years ago. China had many interests (in working with Iran). We were the ones who took too long (to sign). As for them (Chinese), they secured their interests through (agreements with) other countries.
Is there any indication that Iran will grant China any concessions?
We fought our neighboring country (Iraq) for eight years (to gain back) two inches of land. So do you believe we would give away our islands (to China)? Where was this news written? Who said that? It is these agents of the West who are creating such an atmosphere after they saw that they have failed to achieve their goals of undermining (the achievements) of the Islamic Republic. China came to invest in power stations, and the manufacture of cars and spare parts in these areas. Chabahar Port was mentioned (in the agreement) but for what? In order to transport goods. Kish and Qeshm Islands were mentioned as places for investment in power stations and construction. The news (about giving away our islands) are totally false and beyond belief.
There are mixed opinions about this agreement with China. What do you have to say about that?
Those who are against (this agreement) fell under the influence of (rumors that circulated) on cyberspace, and began to raise these false issues. They think that they can (break this agreement). If you have noticed, the US Secretary of State is against this agreement. (He said) “If this agreement is to be signed, we should not lift the sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran”. This (opposition) indicates that we (Iranians) are on the right track. He (Pompeo) said “for this reason (i.e. lifting the sanctions), we (Iranian) shouldn’t do that (i.e. cooperate with China).” He also says that we and Russia have worked together to kill people in Syria, while (in fact) they (Americans) were supporting ISIS. You (Americans) are claiming that Russia is a bad country, and it kills people. If so, then how do you team up with Russia at the United Nations to maintain sanctions and ensure they are not lifted? That is why it is clear that the West is behind this atmosphere (of opposition to the agreement). Western regimes are creating this atmosphere.
This also applies to reactionary states in the region. How do these reactionary states cooperate with China in the area of investment and give it their oil, but when it comes to the Islamic Republic they say that China should not work with us because (by doing that) it would be supporting terrorism, while we all know that (it is) these (very) states that support ISIS and terrorism in the region?! Therefore, in my opinion, this cooperation is beneficial to both sides. (Certain) foreign states know that such cooperation would help us overcome this impasse.
Will we witness such an agreement with other states?
Let me tell you something. I told other states that a text similar to the text (of this agreement) was presented in most joint committees (between us and these states). It would be interesting for you to know that there are some subjects (that were included in our agreement with China), but we avoided discussing with European states. However, we have signed similar agreements with most European and Asian states.
I hope that we sign the agreement (with China) and launch this project as soon as possible, which is in the interest of both countries. If we start this work (which covers the fields of) tourism, energy, environment, agriculture, health, pharmacy, road construction, and financing, then I promise you we will create more than three million jobs. If about one or three million Iranians got involved with handicrafts, their work will bring prosperity to tourism and handicrafts in our country. We are looking to create jobs. If we get the necessary finance, we will create enough jobs to push our economic wheel forward and begin exporting.
Which states will oppose this agreement and how are Iran and China planning to face the upcoming obstacles – if there were any?
I think that the countries who are against the agreement, and I mean America, Israel and the Arab states, have started to create a hostile environment (regarding this agreement) in cyberspace. I think, for the benefit of our country, we should ignore them. In order to address this issue, we must run these projects as soon as possible so that the Iranian people can witness the results, then these issues will be automatically resolved. Of course, in addition to this atmosphere (of opposition), the West may exert pressure on China to go back on this agreement, and this is an important point. Therefore, we have to further our interests, and implement this agreement in the areas that I’ve mentioned to you. This agreement, especially in (the section regarding) infrastructure projects, can be very beneficial to the Islamic Republic of Iran and to our dear (Iranian) people. Don’t forget my words. I don’t know if I’ve already mentioned this or not. Imam Khomeini (may God bless him and grant him peace), once said: “If Westerners praise you, know that you have made a mistake; and if they disparage you, know that you are on the right path, and continue what you have started.