Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani has once again relished the thought of
"looking to the East" and dreaming about a long-term "strategic
relationship" between Tehran and Beijing.
“Looking to the East” and dreaming of a closer relationship with China and Russia have always been a favorite refrain for Iran's officials, especially when they find themselves facing outside pressures.
Immediately after meeting the head of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China, Song Tao, in Tehran on July 30, Larijani asserted, "Consultations between Iran, China, and cooperation of certain friendly countries can help counter the US animosity and neutralize its consequences," adding, "However, success of this plan is contingent upon practical steps."
Furthermore, Larijani underscored that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has always insisted on the necessity of establishing closer ties with Beijing.
Larijani, who had earlier in February visited China and had talks with President Xi Jinping, claimed, "During our meeting, Mr. Xi insisted on drawing up a long-term 25-year plan for consolidating relations between the two countries."
Nonetheless, without any reference to the long-term plan mentioned by Larijani, Song in his visit to Tehran merely reiterated, "Iran and China have chosen their path by knowing their situation and have made many achievements. Iran and China’s experiences show that developing countries do not need to copy the Western model and can be successful by [their own] domestic development model."
Larijani's comments echoed President Hassan Rouhani’s remarks after his meeting with China’s President Xi in January 2016 in Tehran.
"Iran and China have agreed to expand bilateral ties and increase trade to $600 billion in the next ten years," Rouhani told reporters at the time, adding, "Iran and China have agreed on forming strategic relations as reflected in a 25-year comprehensive document."
Ayatollah Khamenei also rushed forward to praise the idea of a Tehran-Beijing strategic relationship, describing it as "absolutely correct" and "sagacious."
Speaking of $600 billion trade in ten years sounded like an outlandish statement.
In the best of market conditions and high oil prices, Iran’s annual income from crude exports could be around $60-70 billion and doing $60 billion business just with China was an overly rosy claim by Rouhani, to say the least.
However, that was the sweet years immediately after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers, when sanctions were lifted and Iran seemed to be open for business.
Two years later, the situation has dramatically changed. In May 2018, US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the JCPOA and re-impose sanctions on Iran.
Under the pressure of the sanctions, Iranian officials had to replace the thought of having a long-term strategic relationship with Beijing and just hope that China would buy a limited amount of oil.
During his meeting with Song in Tehran, Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said that Iran "expects" friendly countries, including China, to buy more oil from Iran.
Nonetheless, even a glance at the trade volume between Beijing and Washington on the one hand and Beijing-Tehran on the other, shows how hard it is for the Chinese to meet Iran’s demand.
The volume of trade between Tehran and Beijing amounted to nearly $33 billion in 2017, slightly increasing to $35 billion in 2018.
Nevertheless, in the first half of 2019, China's exports to Iran dropped by 46% while its imports from Iran also dropped 28% as a direct result of US sanctions.
Therefore, the prospect of $600 billion in trade in ten years or $60 billion annually has totally vanished, and Tehran could only hope to keep most of its pre-sanctions trade with China, i.e., $30 billion.
Moreover, the volume of trade between Tehran and Beijing amounts to only a tiny fraction of China's foreign trade.
China's foreign trade in 2018 amounted to more than $4.6 trillion, out of which more than $633 billion was with the US. In other words, nearly 14% of China's total foreign trade is with Americans.
More significantly, the trade balance between Washington and Beijing is highly in favor of China. While its exports to the US amount to $478 billion, it only imports $155 billion of American products.
That is probably why Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has questioned Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's "Eastern" policy and ruled it out as "meaningless."
In unprecedented and provocative comments he made during a speech in Tehran on December 14, 2018, Zarif said that the age of superpowers has ended, but Iranian officials don't want to believe this.
Zarif further explained, "At the time being, looking toward the East is as meaningless as looking to the West."
Zarif's comment sharply contradicted Khamenei's October 17, 2018 statement during a meeting with a group of "academic elites and prominent scholars."
"We should look to the East, not the West. Pinning our hope on the West or Europe would belittle us, as we would beg them for favor and they would do nothing," Khamenei told the group, which included Iranian academics returning from various Western countries.
During the past 30 years, under the leadership of Khamenei, Iran has been practically relying on the East, increasing its interactions not just with China but particularly with Russia.
One important example is its partnership with Moscow in the Syrian war at the expense of ruining its own economy. Tehran also increased its cooperation with Russia at the United Nations and other international forums, although Russia has supported all the UN resolutions on nuclear sanctions on Iran.