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Zarif throws full weight behind contentious Iran-China deal

Iran’s foreign minister went to lengths to reject criticism and justify a long-term deal with China, which many Iranians fear is a package of concessions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi (C), sign an agreement in the capital Tehran, on March 27, 2021.

Iran’s top diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif, dismissed criticism against a 25-year partnership agreement that the Islamic Republic signed with the Chinese government in Tehran on March 27. Addressing a packed Clubhouse meeting, Zarif said the deal with China was merely a nonbinding road map toward a setup for future bilateral ties.

Iranian officials have been applying multiple titles in reference to the signed document, details of which remain undisclosed to the Iranian public. The secrecy has only fueled concerns and triggered unending speculation that the Iranian government is offering too much in exchange for too little.

“The document imposes no obligation on either side,” Zarif stressed in a separate post on his Instagram page. He also addressed deep concerns that under the deal, Iran will cede some form of control of some of its southern regions, including the touristic and energy-rich island of Kish. “There is no area or even a single spot to be handed over to the [Chinese side],” he declared.

Unconfirmed details of the draft document were leaked last year, sparking furious reactions from many Iranians and catching officials off guard as to how to bring the public on board. Last year’s draft offered little beyond a series of general agenda points. And days after the formal signing ceremony in Tehran, the Iranian top diplomat’s speech fed the public mind with no new content.

The initial proposal for the partnership pact was raised with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Tehran in early 2016, when he sat down with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. With Western onerous sanctions squeezing the Iranian economy in the past decade, Khamenei has openly advocated a doctrine of “look east” into which Iranian officials say the partnership agreement with China fits.

While the Iranian Foreign Ministry is by law in charge of handling the China deal, Khamenei has also appointed his own man with a pivotal role: Ali Larijani, a veteran centrist politician and Iran’s longest-serving parliament speaker, who is also currently a senior adviser to Khamenei.

The Iranian supreme leader’s choice appeared as an assurance to Beijing that the Iranian approach toward the deal is nonpartisan and could not be overruled by changing administrations in Tehran. Kamal Kharrazi, a former foreign minister and a Khamenei aide himself, has confirmed that the Chinese side “demanded that someone representative of the Nezam be involved as well.” Nezam is the umbrella term Iranian officials use to refer to the Islamic Republic in its entirety under Khamenei’s leadership.

Zarif’s speech in championing the contentious China deal was also his first address on the Clubhouse platform, which is growing with increasing popularity among Iranians. To some of his supporters and veteran Reformists, the Clubhouse event symbolized “pluralism” and “active dialogue” that welcomes differing views.

However, foreign-based Iranian opposition activists and exiled journalists were effectively silenced during the entire meeting as the Zarif moderators banned them from raising any questions.

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