Iranians wary of deeper ties with China

By Thomas Erdbrink
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

TEHRAN -- In what looks like a strong, budding friendship, China is increasingly buying Iranian oil and gas, participating in Iranian infrastructure projects, and selling vast amounts of exports to Iran while warning the West against tougher sanctions over the country's nuclear program.

China also increasingly shares Iran's anti-Western rhetoric and demands for more influence for non-Western nations.

Yet, according to politicians, businessmen and analysts, few Iranians expect the growing ties to turn into a new, lasting political axis. And there is mounting concern that Iran is becoming too dependent on China, both economically and politically.

Iran distrusts all superpowers, including China, but its own confrontational policies have left the Islamic republic without other international partners. For some Iranians, that is a source of pride.

"Iran does not count on the support of any country, including China," said Kazem Jalali, a member of the Iranian parliament's national security and foreign policy committee. "Like us, the Chinese believe they should have a more important international role," he added.

But others worry that growing reliance on China is limiting Iran's options.

"It's an uneven relationship," said Mohsen Shariatinia, a China analyst at the Tehran-based Center for Strategic Research. He said Iran relies solely on China for many products and needs Beijing's political support, while the Chinese have numerous export markets and can buy oil and gas from many other producers.

"If we needed to distance ourselves from China, who could we approach?" said Abbas Abdi, a political analyst critical of the government. "Russia, or the European Union? The United States?" China, he said, is "our only option, and the Chinese know this."

Now that Russia, which supplies Iran with military hardware and nuclear power plants, is supporting tougher sanctions against Iran, China is increasingly seen here as Iran's only friend among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Beijing insists that any new sanctions must not target Iran's energy supplies.

The sanctions have pushed Iran to renew its embrace of a millennium-old trading partner, a relationship formed during the heyday of the Silk Road, a trade route that connected Asia with Europe.

Awash with petrodollars, partly provided by the energy-hungry Chinese, the Iranian government and private sector have turned to China for the products that Western countries are no longer willing to sell.

Combined trade between the two nations has surged in recent years, rising to $28 billion in 2009 from $12 billion in 1997, said Asadollah Asgaroladi, president of the nongovernmental Iran-China Chamber of Commerce. "And we will pass the $30 billion mark this year," he said.

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