China and Iran struck a deal on Saturday that will last for 25 years. On the surface it seems like a big deal; in exchange for a steady supply of oil, Beijing agreed to invest $400 billion in Iran, The New York Times reports. But there’s skepticism among Middle East experts about whether it actually signals a significant new phase in Tehran-Beijing relations.
Dina Esfandiary, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group and co-author of a book about Iran’s relations with China and Russia, told The Wall Street Journal the pact “allows Iran to be a little more intransigent,” which could make “Europe and the U.S. a little more nervous because it looks like Iran may have a way out of economic strangulation.” But she also tweeted that while it may be a “political and rhetorical win” for Iran, “it doesn’t change much in its dealings with China for now.” Esfandiary said she concurred with Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, the founder of the think tank Bourse & Bazaar and a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, who argued the $400 billion figure is “completely made up” and “illogical.”
In a Bourse & Bazaar article published in September, Jacob Scita, a doctoral fellow at the U.K.’s Durham University, wrote that the $400 billion figure — which is not included anywhere in the official text of public agreement — came from an unreliable source, reasoning “the pattern of China-Iran trade” suggests such an investment was implausible. It’s worth noting, however, that the Times is reporting $400 billion would be invested over the full 25 years, while Scita writes the source claimed it would take place over the first five years of a 25-year plan.
Either way, Batmangehlidj doesn’t think the agreement, which other scholars agree is “vague” and “aspirational,” should be overestimated, even if it is “geopolitically significant.” “The framing that Iran is pursuing a unique relationship with China, that opens it to dependency, is incorrect,” Batmangehlidj tweeted.