Sunday, July 19, 2020

3399. The China-Islamic Republic of Iran Negotiations and the Crisis of Capitalist Civilization

By Kamran Nayeri, July 19, 2020
Ayatollah Khamenei met with President Xi Jinping in Tehran on January 23, 2016 that set the stage for the current negotiations for a 25-year economic and security agreement as part of China's Belt and Road Initiative.

The Beijing and Tehran negotiations
On July 11, The New York Times reported on an “18-page proposed agreement” between China and the Islamic Republic of Iran that may lead to a 25-year economic and security agreement between the world super power and one of the Middle East regional powers both locked in intensifying conflict with the United States. According to the Times, the agreement if finalized would “vastly expand Chinese presence in banking, telecommunications, ports, railways and dozens of other projects” in Iran. In exchange, China “would receive a regular supply of Iranian oil over the next 25 years.” The Times adds that according to an unnamed source, oil shipped to China would be heavily discounted. The envisioned agreement is estimated to be worth $400 billion. 

The recent development is no surprise.  The process was initiated in the 2016 state visit by President Xi to Tehran and reported by both governments (for the Islamic Republic announcement, see, here). Since 2016, China and Iran have been cooperating in a number of areas including in the military field.  In fact, in 2016 a military agreement was singed between the two governments. In 2016, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan said in a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan in Tehran:  “Boosting long-term defense-military ties and cooperation with China is among the chief priorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s defense diplomacy.”

The context for Tehran/Beijing cooperation
The revolution, Islamic Republic, and imperialism
The February 1979 revolution in Iran overthrew a strategic partner of the United States in the Middle East.  Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was restored to the throne in the CIA-MI6 August 1953 coup that overthrew the nationalist government of prime minster Mohammad Mossadegh. Soon after becoming the prime minister, Dr. Mossadegh’s government had initiated the legislation to nationalize the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (AIOC) which became the law on March 17, 1951. The Shah’s regime was key to the U.S. imperialist strategic goals in the Middle East.  The Shah was a member of the anti-communist regional CENTO alliance, an economic and military pact, aimed at the Soviet Union. The Shah was a supporter of the colonial-settler Zionist State and the colonial-settler South African apartheid regime.  He was a major purchaser of American military hardware. 

The capitalist Islamic Republic that came to power in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution consolidated power over a three-year divide and conquer policy while escalating an assault on the democratic and political gains won by the masses through a year long struggle against the Shah’s dictatorship and assault on their grassroots movements (Nayeri and Nassab, 2006). At the same time, imperialism has never given up its regime change plans to reinstall a regime in Tehran subservient to it.

The decline of U.S. imperialism
Another key factor in the past four decades has been the decline of the Western imperialism, in particular, the U.S. imperialism. In the Middle East, this has been demonstrated by the emergence of regional powers like Iran, Turkey, and to lesser degree Saudi Arabia. The Islamic Republic’s influence has become substantial in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Turkey and Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies have tried, although unsuccessfully, to overthrow the Assad regime, and both have developed relations with Russia. Turkey, a member of NATO, has purchased Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. 

Meanwhile, the United States still faces a militarily formidable Russia led by a nationalist regime which has challenged Western imperialism by first annexing Crimea and then entering the war in Syria on the opposite side of the United States.  The U.S. military pulled out of the war as a result and the Assad regime has remained in power. Clearly, emboldened by this experience, Russia is now involved in the civil war in Libya. Therefore, Russia is now a power player in the Middle East while the U.S. has been increasingly sidelined.  

The rise of China
Perhaps the most important change in world politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union and similar regimes in Eastern Europe is the rise of China in the last four decades.  The 1972 President Nixon’s visit to the People's Republic of China was an important strategic and diplomatic overture that resulted in normalization of ties in 1979.  After Deng Xiaoping consolidated his power in 1978, a push to develop China capitalistically got underway using an export-led growth strategy. This allowed China to accelerate the transfer of rural population to urban centers and from traditional agriculture to increasingly modern industry.  The average annual real GDP growth rate in China from 1860 to 1978 is estimated at 5.3% according to the Congressional Research Service.  Since 1978, China has been among the world’s fastest-growing economies, with real annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaging 9.5% through 2018.  China overtook Japan as the world's second-largest economy in 2010, measured in current prices or nominal terms (not accounting for inflation), according to data from the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. It has since remained in that position, second only to the United States (For dynamic charts showing China’s growth see here). 

In contrast, the advanced industrial economies of the West have experienced a slowdown in their rate of growth since the world recession of 1973-75, with single digit, often less than 4%, growth rates (see, here, for data). 

While the rise of China is the most spectacular example, since the 1960s there has been a small set of newly industrializing countries that include South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey among others.  However, the rise of China stands apart from all of them because of the sheer size of the Chinese economy and its mastery not only of the older technologies but also new technologies. Today, China has a middle class of 300 million, just 30 million fewer than the entire population of the United States, making for a huge internal market.  China has become the workshop of the world. In 2018, China had the most billionaire of any country except the United States: 373 billionaire counting only the mainland.  Currently, China produces 20% of the world manufacturing output much of it for export (West and Lansang, 2018) while the U.S. share has fallen to 18%.  

The economic rise of China is being matched by its military rise.  In 2016, Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, boasted to the wall Street bankers in a private fund raising meeting at Goldman Sachs that she told the Chinese that the Pacific Ocean is the territory of the United States because it was “liberated” by the U.S. Navy during World War II. Today, the the U.S. Navy recongnizes that the Chinese navy is the dominant power in the South China Sea. 

Clearly, the Chinese capitalist ruling class is acting entirely in line with their desire to supersede the United States as the dominant world power. Part of their strategy to do this is the Belt and Road Initiative. The Council on Foreign Relation describes it as follows: 

“China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), sometimes referred to as the New Silk Road, is one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever conceived. Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, the vast collection of development and investment initiatives would stretch from East Asia to Europe, significantly expanding China’s economic and political influence.” (January 2020)

There are already 67 countries that participate in the Chinese BRI. Council on Foreign Relations has a BRI tracker that provides data on imports from China, direct investment from China, and external debt to China by the participating countries. 

The Islamic Republic is already participating in BRI. The agreement being negotiated by Beijing and Tehran is part of BRI. After the Trump administration pulled out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the P5+1 (for a critical assessment, see, Nayeri 2015) and imposed even more inhumane sanctions against Iran while threatening military attack, the Islamic Republic reluctantly decided to turn to China for badly need economic and financial relations. Economic and financial sanctions are acts of war in that they aim to choke of a nation’s economy causing mass unemployment and hyperinflation hoping for a civil unrest to prepare the political grounds for coups and military interventions to topple governments who refuse to bow to the U.S. dictates. That is what tthe U.S. and Britain did with the nationalist government of Mohammad Mossadegh.  It has been part of their plan to overthrow the Islamic Republic. If anyone has any doubt about the intentions of U.S. policy and its destructive impact on ordinary working people it is sufficient to look what it has been done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Syria.  

It is now possible to discuss the debate among Iranian political groups about the current negotiations between Beijing and Tehran.

The State Department calls it “The second Turkmenchay”  
The New York Times described the accelerated negotiations over the agreement as “a major blow to the Trump administration’s aggressive policy toward Iran since abandoning the nuclear deal reached in 2015 by President Barack Obama and the leaders of six other nations after two years of grueling negotiations.”  It also pointed out with some justification that the Trump's policy towards Iran has pushed the Islamic Republic into "the arms of China." 

Still, not all currents within the Islamic Republic support any large-scale agreement with China.  Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former conservative lawmaker Ali Motahari are among its critics.  The debate within the Islamic Republic began earlier. On July 21, 2018, Jomhuri Eslami [Islamic Republic], a prominent conservative newspapers in Iran, published a masthead editorial entitled “The Correct Interpretation of the Politics of ‘Neither East nor West’” to oppose any strategic agreement with China in an anti-communist vein (The article was later removed from the newspapers’ website but is cited here). The slogan cited was coined by ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 Iranian revolution to politically prepare an assault on the Iranian socialist groups which was consummated by 1983.   

Reza Pahlavi, the elder son of the Mohammad Rez Shah Pahlavi whose regime was overthrown by the massive February 1979 revolution issued a call of his own: “The regime ruling our country has signed [sic] a shameful, 25-year treaty with China that plunders our natural resources and places foreign soldiers on our soil.”  The U.S. State Department translation of his message referred to the planned agreement as a "second Turkmenchay" adding that Tehran is afraid to share the details of the pact because "no part of it is beneficial to the Iranian people.” Signed on behalf of  the weak and corrupt Fath Ali Shah Qajar on February 10, 1828 in Torkamanchay in Iran, that treaty ceded to Tsarist Russia control of several areas in the South Caucasus: the Erivan Khanate, the Nakhchivan Khanate, and the remainder of the Talysh Khanate.

It is a laughable irony that Reza Pahlavi whose claim to being a royal prince is due to the CIA August 1953 coup d’état, and the U.S. government now claim to be concerned about Iranian sovereignty in their objection to the Islamic Republic-China negotiations for a trade and security pact! 

The response by the Iranian opposition groups
Some Iranian opposition groups have lined up against and in favor of the agreement between the Islamic Republic and Chin before a finalized draft agreement is reached and  available for public scrutiny. Those who oppose it would be opposed to anything that would prolong the rule of the Islamic Republic as they favor the overthrow the clerical regime by any means necessary, including the U.S. military takeover of Iran. 

This otherwise politically heterogenous current extends from the pro-imperialist Reza Pahlavi and the Mujahedin-e Khalq (abbreviated MEK, PMOI or MKO) and its front organization National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) who are subservient to Washington to well-meaning individuals who are fed up by decades of clerical capitalist rule in Iran.  The latter by and large have missed a central lesson the February 1979 revolution: It is not sufficient to overthrow a hated regime.  It is also necessary to have an alternative government of the people, for the people, and by the people ready to take power.  Otherwise, these currents and well-meaning individuals would become pawns in the regime change policies of the U.S. imperialism. 

Still, blind to lessons of history some of these non-affiliated mostly middle class immigrants already are spreading the U.S. State Department slander campaign that any agreement between the Islamic Republic and China is the second Turkmenchay!

Meanwhile, those who crying out “second Turkmenchay” have been very quiet in the face of the U.S. sanctions and the recent Israeli-U.S. attack at Iran’s nuclear program facilities at Natanz and Parchin, and elsewhere.  

Proponents of agreement
Of course, there are currents in the opposition who favor the potential agreement.

Those who favor it have their own reasons as well.  Some are hopeful that the agreement will improve the economic conditions of the Iranians who have been the principal victims of the brutal sanctions imposed Washington, especially during the Trump administration.  

But there are others who theorize their support for the agreement. For example, Goudarz Eghtedari, an Iranian academic who is part of the Chap Party [Left Party, formerly, Fedaian (Majority)], in a July 15 interview argued that “in my view transition to democracy and rule of the people cannot be achieved by war and forced overthrow but can be attained only through reformism and gradual change which can be introduced only through economic growth and the increase in the size and standing of the middle classes.”  Thus, the economic and security agreement with China can be beneficial and must be supported. The Tudeh Party that was the pro-Soviet Union current in the Iranian politics for half a century also leans in the same direction although since it was reconstitutedin it has become sharply critical of the Islamic Republic.  In the 1979 revolution, the Tudeh Party and Fedaian (Majority) politically supported the Islamic Republic until they were crushed and their leaders arrested, jailed, and some executed in 1983. Those days, following Moscow, they advocated for the so-called “non-capitalist way to development” that was realy a "theoretical" justification for pro-Moscow parties in the periphery of capitalist world economy to accommodate to nationalist bourgeois leaderships from Nasser in Egypt in the 1950 to Khomeini in Iran to get them establish closer ties with Soviet Union which was seen as the center of the “socialist camp” and the “really existing socialism.” 

An Ecocentric Socialist response
Thus, the entire “debate” about the ongoing negotiations between the Islamic Republic and China unflods within the capitalist framework just like the regimes in power in these countries are themselves part of the capitalist developmental discourse. In fact, the “economic development” and “industrialization” discourse has been central to the socialist movement worldwide. Where they differed from the bourgeois discourse has been an emphasis on "independent" economic development. In light of the post-World War II anticolonial revolutions, the desire for economic development and indstrialization were understandable.  But today, the discourse of economi development and industrialization is badly outdated given that 250 years of capitalist development and industrialization has lead to the possibility of imminent collapse of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization, and perhaps extinction of humanity.  To be sure, much of humanity still lives in conditions of proverty.  But the proper (eco)socialist discourse is human development, not economic development and industrialization. No one in the Iranian debate from the Islamic Republic to its pro-imperialist opponents, to its “democratic,” liberal, and socialist critics consider the existential crises humanity facing: The catastrophic climate change, the Sixth Extinction, the Covid-19 pandemic (and others to follow), and nuclear holocaust.  

In fact, the current rivarly between the U.S. and its allies with China and with Russia, can lead to the Third World War and nuclear holocaust. If this sounds outlandish, let's remember that World War I and World War II were the result of rivarly between Britain who was the hegemonic industrial capitalist power and the rising industrial capitalist Germany and United States whose economies surpassed that of Britian by 1913. It took World War I and World War II for a new world capitalist hegmon, the United States, to emerge to shape the world in its own image. 

For the brevity sake, let me conclude by citing some scientifically-based predications about the impact of runaway climate crisis and leave aside the other central existential crises.  Let's remember that the Iranian economy has depended on oil exports for decades and that to stop climate change we must keep all oil and gas in the ground (This is really something that had to be done decades ago!)

As The New York Times reported in an October 26, 2015: 
“By the end of this century, areas of the Persian Gulf could be hit by waves of heat and humidity so severe that simply being outside for several hours could threaten human life, according to a study published Monday. Because of humanity’s contribution to climate change, the authors wrote, some population centers in the Middle East 'are likely to experience temperature levels that are intolerable to humans.'”
Elfatih Eltahir of MIT and Jeremy Pal of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles who modeled climate change in the Persian Gulf region found that by 2100, five cities—Doha in Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Dharhran in Saudi Arabia and Bandar Abbas in Iran—would have heat waves that will reach the wet-bulb threshold, the temperatured measured when termameter is wrapped in a wet cloth (100% humidity).
"'Our results suggest that the … threshold will be breached along much of the Persian Gulf on average once every 10 to 20 years or so at the end of the century,' Pal said during a telephone press conference held with Eltahir on October 20."
Areas that don’t experience high humidity would still be at risk from high heat. In Jeddah and Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for instance, heat waves could bring temperatures exceeding 131 degrees, the researchers calculated.  (Smithsonian Magazine, October 26, 2015)

Moreover, runaway climate change will threaten much of live on Earth. David Wallace-Wells whose essay “The Uninhabitable Earth” in the New York Magazine July 10, 2017 issue was read within a week by over two million, recounts the various ways runaway climate change will make the planet uninhabitable.  Let me just list them:
  • Heat death
  • The end of food
  • Climate plagues
  • Unbreathable air
  • Perpetual war
  • Permanent economic collapse
  • Poisoned oceans
Three years after Wallace-Wells wrote this, the world is in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic caused in part by climate change (for a discussion of the pandemic as the crisis of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization, see, Nayeri, 2020).  To these we must add regional crisis. For Iran, these include fresh water crisis as aquifers are becoming emptied out for short term commercial gains.  Forests in Iran are being set on fire by “developers,” also for short term commercial gains. Still, the capitalist production and consumption model of a good life permeates the Iranian middle class who Goudarz Eghtedari views as the champions of a future (capitalist) democratic society.  Let us remember that the ecological crises we have noted are not due to the clerical character of the Islamic Republic, although who gets the short term material benefits is certainly its decision. These are problems all shared across the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization. 

For those who care about lessons from history, it must be abundantly clear that the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization, including its Soviet Union-type model and the current Chinese model (see, Smith, 2020), not to mention the U.S. and the West model of the past 250 years that have pushed humanity to the edge of extinction.  Therefore, to save the world we must transcended it in the direction of a much smaller Ecocentric Socialist society where the culture of being (human development) will replace the culture of having (capitalist production and consumption which breeds consumerism and wealth and power worship).  

This is the Herculean task humanity and each one of us face.  The global struggle for hegemony among the major world and regional capitalist powers is simply a facade of the crisis of anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization.  So is the current negotiations between Tehran and Beijing. 

Nayeri, Kamran. “Heads They Win, Tails We Lose: On Iran Nuclear Agreement.” Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. August 2, 2015
-------------------. "The Coronavirus Pandemic as the Crisis of Civilization." Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. March 19, 2020. 
Nayeri, Kamran and Alireza Nassab. “The Rise and Fall of the 1979 Iranian Revolution: Its Lessons for Today,” III Conferencia Internacional La Obra de Carlos Marx y Los desafíos del Siglo XXI (The Third Conference on the Work of Karl Marx and the Challenges of the 21st Century), Havana, Cuba, in May 2006. 
Smith, Richard. China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse. 2020.
Swartz, John. “Deadly Heat Is Forecast in Persian Gulf by 2100.” The New York Times, October 26, 2015.  

Acknowledgement:  I would like to thank R. Hassanpour and Mohammad Safavi for conversations about some of the issues raised in this essay. They both shared with me views expressed by the Iranian opposition that proved helpful to me. They are not responsible for my views or any errors of commission or omission in the essay. 

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