Iranian regime’s first Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, once remarked that if he were faced with a situation that required either giving up on the country’s ruling system or abandoning Islamic principles, he would choose the latter. It was a remarkable acknowledgment of this regime’s priorities, and with this new agreement with China, once again, that priority is demonstrated.
If Khamenei is willing to give up the regime’s core identity as an “Islamic Republic,” then what wouldn’t he be willing to give up in order to tighten his grip on power? Over four decades, every major undertaking by the regime and its officials has been self-serving and being absolutely at direct odds with the public good.
This has arguably grown all the more obvious in recent years, during which steep economic downturns and public unrest put the system in an extremely precarious position even before the Iranian people came under siege from the coronavirus pandemic. That public health crisis has been uniquely mismanaged in Iran, and much of the international community remains ignorant of the true extent of that mismanagement. The Iranian Health Ministry estimates that roughly 60,000 citizens have died of Covid-19 in the nation of 83 million people, but independent assessments suggest that the real figure is around four times higher.
In fact, while the severity of the crisis was beginning to be recognized in every corner of the globe, Iranian officials were encouraging and even compelling government employees and ordinary citizens to take part in public celebrations of the regime’s 40th anniversary. Strong attendance at those events was vital to state propaganda, in part because they were taking place in the shadow of at least three nationwide uprisings. The largest of those, in November 2019, was brutally suppressed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which opened fire on crowds of protesters, killing approximately 1,500.
On its own, that systematic massacre was a prime example of the regime’s willingness to disregard the lives of people to suppress challenges to the ruling system. But that phenomena had already been put on display, albeit more subtly, with the decisions that set the stage for the uprising. Protests were sparked simultaneously across nearly 200 cities and towns when government officials announced that they would be sharply increasing gas prices at a time when more than half of the population was already living in poverty as a result of rampant currency inflation and a worsening trend of corruption among state-linked entities that dominate the Iranian economy.
It has long been understood that more than half of Iran’s gross domestic product is controlled by companies that are owned either in whole or in part by the Revolutionary Guards. Much of the remaining national wealth is directly controlled by the supreme leader, who stands at the head a series of so-called religious foundations that have accumulated hundreds of billions of dollars in assets while spending little to nothing on projects designed to help those most in need. Even after Iran’s coronavirus outbreak was acknowledged as the worst in the Middle East, none of the available assets were released to help Iranians survive while avoiding high-risk workplaces.
Quite to the contrary, when Iran marked the start of its calendar year in March 2020, Khamenei declared that that year should be dedicated to boosting economic production. Thus he made no secret of an economic plan that allowed state institutions to continue hoarding wealth while telling ordinary Iranians that it was up to them to solve their own worsening crises.
This plan has remained more or less unchanged, but the recently-announced conclusion of a 25-year agreement for economic cooperation with China indicates that regime authorities have actually further abdicated their responsibility for the national economy. That agreement essentially entails Tehran giving up control of major industries, regions, and projects in exchange for a short-term infusion of cash that will no doubt be channeled directly into the hands of the institutions responsible for safeguarding the clerical regime’s hold on power.
In 2016, about a year into the negotiating process, the regime announced that Iran would be liquidating large quantities of infrastructure, including parts of the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. In 2019, it was announced that China would be permitted to defer payment for up to two years when purchasing Iranian goods. Even more recently, Iranian regime Member of Parliament Hassan Norouzi revealed that China was to be given control of Kish Island, a vital economic hub, for a period of 25 years. And according to Norouzi, the stage was also set for Iran’s “forfeiture of the Caspian Sea.”
In the face of growing international isolation and expanding challenges to Western policies that have been criticized for appeasing Tehran, the regime has apparently determined that this embrace of economic dependency on China is necessary.
The agreement is an obvious auction of the Iranian people’s assets and resources, and even some of the regime’s officials have specifically compared the deal to the Turkemenchay Treaty of 1828, with which Iran’s Qajar dynasty was ceding control of vast regions in the north of the country to Czarist Russia. Whether intentionally or not, the comparison reinforces slogans and arguments that featured in the November 2019 uprising and other major protests over the past three years. Participants in those movements have frequently been heard to chant, “No to dictatorship, be it the Shah or the mullahs.” This suggests popular recognition of the same corrupt practices in the clerical regime as previously seen among dynastic rulers.
Behind those corrupt practices lies the fact that with a single-minded focus on maintaining the existing power structure, the Iranian regime is willing to sacrifice anything that doesn’t directly serve its goal. And as the agreement with China now indicates, the regime is even willing to sacrifice the country’s autonomy if it means the ruling system will live another day.