by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 12, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1443)
With the US gripped by multiple internal crises that could easily lead to an implosion, the victims of its illegal sanctions have been taking steps to neutralize their ill-effects. At the centre of this policy is the Islamic Republic of Iran that has for more than 40 years endured US and its allies’ disruptions, sabotage, terrorist attacks, assassination of leading figures, sanctions (aka economic terrorism) and other forms of oppressive measures.
China and Russia, too, have faced US sanctions and threats. While the US threatens China in the Asia-Pacific region (for the record, China is a Pacific rim country), Russia faces a direct military threat on its border with Ukraine. The risk of war over Ukraine cannot be ruled out. As a consequence, both China and Russia have found in Islamic Iran an important ally.
This was evident from a series of meetings of far-reaching consequence between Iranian officials and their counterparts in China and Russia. With China, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian announced on January 14 the implementation phase of the Sino-Iranian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. This came about after meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province.
President Ibrahim Raeisi soon followed this by a visit to Moscow on January 19 and 20. He not only had a three-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, the Iranian president also addressed the State Duma (Russia’s Parliament), a singular honour for a foreign head of government. There were series of meetings with other Russian ministers as well as businessmen.
In China, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian announced: “We agreed to announce today [January 14] as the date to begin implementing the comprehensive agreement on strategic partnership.” He was referring to the landmark agreement Iran and China signed in March 2021 to strengthen long-standing economic and political ties.
The Sino-Iranian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership was announced during the 2016 visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Iran to boost economic cooperation between the two countries. The $400 billion agreement stretching over 25 years will cover such areas as Chinese investment in Iran’s oil and gas exploration, building of rail and road links, industries and other infrastructure. It also paves the way for Iran’s participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s signature project stretching from East Asia to Europe.
The implementation of Iran-China partnership agreement comes at a time when the unilateral US sanctions on Iran have caused immense suffering to ordinary Iranians and resulted in many preventable deaths. The illegal US sanctions have blocked billions of dollars of Iran’s assets from oil sales and prevented import of vital medicines that has been described as economic terrorism. China and Russia, too, face US sanctions but of a different nature.
During the January 14 meeting with China’s foreign minister, Amir-Abdollahian pointed to the significance of the 25-year partnership agreement between Tehran and Beijing and emphasized that the implementation of the document would be an important event and a fundamental change in relations. For Beijing, boost in ties with Tehran is a long-desired goal. President Xi described Iran as “China’s major partner in the Middle East” during his 2016 visit to Tehran. There is a similar desire in Iran—a regional power—for stronger ties with China, the emerging global power, to neutralize America’s ongoing mischief.
There is a convergence of views between Tehran, Beijing and Moscow in confronting US aggression. This is beginning to take the shape of a tripartite alliance that will not only confront but expel American mischief-mongers from the Eurasian region. The global balance of power has clearly shifted away from the US toward this region. These three countries are the centre of the new emerging power bloc.
Just as with China, Iran is also keen to strengthen its relations with Russia in all fields. This was evident from the warm reception Iran’s President Ibrahim Raeisi received during his visit to Moscow. Beyond exchange of pleasantries, wide-ranging discussions took place covering almost all fields: political, economic, security, aerospace and regional security.
In an interview with Press TV on January 19, Iran’s Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian said following the meeting of the two presidents, they tasked their respective foreign ministers to work out a roadmap for cooperation over the next two decades. Iran already had a 10-year strategic partnership agreement with Russia that was signed in 2001. It was renewed twice for two five-year terms. Now, a much broader agreement is being worked out.
Iran’s foreign minister said, Presidents “Raeisi and Putin instructed the two countries’ foreign ministers to prepare a 20-year roadmap for long-term cooperation.” He added that the topic would be on the agenda of his upcoming meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Earlier, Amir-Abdollahian had said in an article for Russia’s Sputnik news agency that Iran and Russia are determined to update the 20-year cooperation treaty they had signed in 2001.
American sanctions—the blunt instrument of coercion used by the fast fading self-proclaimed superpower—also came up for discussion. The US sanctions regime against Iran is vicious and absolutely criminal in nature. It has inflicted immense suffering on ordinary Iranians. Despite this, Iran has weathered the storm, thanks to the resistance economy it has built and continues to build, as instructed by the Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei.
Washington is now threatening to sanction Russian President Putin as well if he orders his forces into Ukraine. Russia has drawn a red line and said it would act decisively if Ukraine were to become a member of Nato, the military alliance led by the US. In 1990, then US Secretary of State James Baker had pledged to then Russian leader, Mikhail Gorbachev that if Moscow were to allow the reunification of Germany, Nato would not move one inch eastward. True to their duplicitous nature, the Americans have reneged on this pledge using the ludicrous excuse that the US did not give this in writing! (their word means nothing).
Additional threats include cutting off Russia from SWIFT, the money-messaging system. Moscow has warned that such a step would be a declaration of war and Russia would act with full force. Russia and China already have alternative systems to bypass SWIFT. They are mostly used by internal institutions but Russia’s system has been adopted by a number of other countries as well. Called the System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS), it became operational in 2017. Within a year, more than 400 Russian institutions, mainly banks were using it and by the end of 2020, 23 foreign banks connected to the SPFS from Armenia, Belarus, Germany, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Switzerland.
Plans are underway to integrate the Russian SPFS network with the China-based Cross-Border Inter-Bank Payments System (CBIBPS). Russia is discussing expansion of SPFS to Turkey and Iran. Since 2019 many agreements have been reached to link SPFS to other countries’ payment systems in China, India, Iran, as well as countries within the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan. The EAEU also has Free Trade Agreements with Serbia, Singapore and Vietnam with multiple other deals pending.
True, Russia’s SPFS will face challenges not least because it is new and limited to 20kb in size (compared to SWIFT’s 10 mb capacity 24/7). Countries joining it will lose international connectivity. Further, it cannot be ruled out that the US may impose sanctions on countries connecting to SPFS. For most countries—Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—it may not matter since they are not too dependent on the US or the SWIFT connectivity. Some like Iran and Turkey would positively welcome it to bypass America’s gangster policies.
Apart from its British poodle, other Europeans are not on-board with the US plan to block Russia from SWIFT. Germany has already voiced reservations about Washington’s ‘nuclear option’. Similarly, any disruption in Russian energy supplies will hurt European economies. While the US can fulfill Europe’s gas demand, the cost would be much higher, to the detriment of the interests of Europeans.
Already a spent force, US policies are antagonizing even its close allies. The sooner this bullying power is banished from West and Central Asia, the better for all the peoples of the region. The Iran-China-Russia cooperation and partnerships are a welcome development that would benefit their peoples immensely.