An op-ed by the Chinese envoy in Tehran published in the Iranian government mouthpiece, Iran Newspaper, on Monday may backfire and make more Iranians angry by the preferential treatment afforded to China.
The Chinese ambassador's op-ed only promoted President Xi Jinping's proposal to countries affected by the coronavirus pandemic to build a "Health Silk Road", a step towards gaining a place of global leadership for China during the pandemic.
But Iranians critical of the increasing influence of "Chinophiles" in the higher echelons of decision-making may find yet more proof that their government is "capitulating" to China. Buying China's support against the United States when it comes to putting Iran's nuclear file to vote in the United Nations Security Council and in other international forums is costing Iran much more than it may hope to achieve, many believe.
"Even the smallest criticism of Russia and particularly China worries Iranian authorities and diplomats," Dr. Ahmad Zeydabadi, a reformist political analyst said in a commentary published on his Telegram channel on April 6. Iran has become dependent on China and Russia instead of achieving "political independence" from the West and the United States because it searches for allies against the U.S., he wrote.
China has for many years been considered an ally -- and not surprisingly – the biggest exporter to the sanctions-squeezed Iran. Despite the efforts of the hardliner political establishment to sell the idea that proximity to China can help Iran break the impasse of sanctions imposed by the Islamic Republic's arch-enemy the United States, many Iranians are extremely distrustful of Beijing.
Iranians blame China for the countries coronavirus crisis among other things. Iran was the second country with a major outbreak of the virus Which most probably came directly via Chinese Muslim seminary students in Qom in February or possibly earlier.
Not only dissidents but also many advocates of the Islamic Republic have recently been warning about the ever-increasing Chinese influence in Iran. They quote the slogan of "Neither East, Nor West, Only the Islamic Republic", a motto of the founder of the Iran's Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, that adorns the entrance to the building of the Iranian Foreign Ministry in Tehran.
Ambassador Chang Hua on April 5 took to Twitter to chastise an Iranian official, the Spokesman of Iran's Health ministry, for publicly voicing the suspicions of Iranian health officials about China's coronavirus data and saying their reporting had been misleading. Ambassador Chang Hua's authoritative tone towards the Iranian official caused an uproar in the Iranian political scene and in social media.
Iran's Foreign Ministry was apologetic but not to the Iranian official. The Foreign Ministry Spokesman in fact quickly rose to the task of trying to placate China and its envoy for the Health Ministry spokesman's allegations. The Iranian ambassador in China took the same path and accused critics of the Chinese ambassador of "offending the people of China" and of not having "the interests of the country and people of Iran at heart".
The revolutionary guards were more forthright in their defense of China and its ambassador. An official Guards' publication said the health official's remarks were "irresponsible and against [Iran's] national security" and "reiteration of the allegations" of Western and American media.
But others kept defending the Iranian official who questioned China. "Our campaign against America was not supposed to end with our dependency on China," outspoken conservative lawmaker Ali Motahari said on April 9 in reference to what he called the "arrogance" of the Chinese envoy in Tehran. Motahari and a number of reformist lawmakers have demanded that the Foreign Ministry summons the ambassador for his remarks. Many Iranian social media users have branded the leaderships' attitude to placate Beijing as "capitulation to China".
Following the lead of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his doctrine of "Looking to the East", the hardliner political and military establishment promotes China and Chinese interests – probably too enthusiastically for Iranians to accept.
Iran's foreign policy is directly dictated by Khamenei who has repeatedly said that it should be based on seeking allies in the East against the West. By the East he means China and Russia among the world powers against the United States and European powers. Iranian presidents are required to get his consent even before proposing a minister of foreign affairs to the parliament.