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Iran

Why China could double down on its support for Iran despite US calls for action over ‘freedom’ protests

Chinese firms are forging ahead with investment in the Middle East country, a key part of Beijing’s massive belt and road trade push

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 January, 2018, 7:22am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 January, 2018, 12:16pm

China is expected to uphold its strong support for Iran amid US calls for emergency United Nations sessions to pressure Tehran over nationwide protests.

As the protests entered a second week, US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called on the international community to speak out about demonstrations, which have claimed more than 20 lives.

“The people of Iran are crying out for freedom,” Haley said on Tuesday. “All freedom-loving people must stand with their cause.”

She said the United States would seek to convene emergency sessions of the UN Security Council and the Geneva-based UN Commission on Human Rights in the next few days.

According to Iranian state media, more than 450 people have been arrested in what are considered the biggest protests since demonstrations in 2009.

China pumps billions into Iranian economy as Western firms hold off

But the unrest was unlikely to deter the country’s biggest foreign investor, China, and could see it moving even closer to Iran, diplomatic observers said.

Iran is a key player in China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, a massive plan to link China to Africa and Europe through trade and infrastructure.

Manochehr Dorraj, professor of international affairs at Texas Christian University, said China was likely to continue its decades of investment in Iran.

“Iran is the major hub to ensure the success of China’s belt and road,” Dorraj said. “China has been investing in Iran for 40 years, reversing that would pull the plug out of Iranians’ life support.”

One sign of this continued investment is state-owned China Railway Construction Corporation’s announcement on Wednesday that it had sealed a 3.5 billion yuan (US$538 million) railway deal with Iran.

And before new US sanctions against Iran in October, Chinese state-owned investment firm CITIC extended a US$10 billion credit line to Iranian banks to finance water, energy and transport projects. China Development Bank followed that with another US$15 billion loan.

Iran protests: US pushes for emergency UN meeting and sanctions as deadly unrest spreads

China National Petroleum Corporation is also reportedly considering taking over French company Total’s stake in a project to develop Iran’s South Pars gas field if Total leaves Iran to comply with sanctions.

“[US President Donald] Trump wants to see a regime change in Iran, not China. It is likely that [China] would have to double down on their [backing of] the Iranian government, and that the country prospers enough to respond to the economic frustration,” Dorraj said.

Yin Gang, a Middle East specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China would not be affected by anything the US decided to push at the UN. China and Russia would also not agree to penalties for the Iranian government, he said.

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“The US is likely to engage in moral condemnation at the United Nations … and that will not have any binding legal implications for China,” Yin said. “China has made it clear that it is an internal affair for Iran.”

Pan Guang, vice-president of the Chinese Association of Middle East Studies, was also optimistic about China’s investment in Iran.

“Compared to the rest of the Middle East, Iran is already a very stable area,” Pan said. “All the projects China has invested in in Iran have progressed.

“Iran is definitely not China’s biggest worry in terms of investing in the Middle East.”