Iran and Silk Road Economic Belt: Attractions and Ambiguities

Friday, May 22, 2015

Mohsen Shariatinia
Ph.D., Researcherat The Center for Strategic Research (CSR), Tehran

Chinese President Xi Jinping, as the symbol of the fifth generation of Chinese leaders, has been following a proactive and innovative foreign policy since he came to power as the leader of his country. During two years that he has been leading China, Xi Jinping has come up with several regional and global initiatives, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Asian Security Concept (NASC). Such initiatives have brought about important changes in the foreign policy approaches of China as compared to past years.

The most important initiative presented by Xi Jinping, however, was the Silk Road Economic Belt, also known as “One Belt, One Road” initiative, about which he explained for the first time in a visit to Kazakhstan in 2013. This initiative has been discussed by experts in various countries, including Iran. Within framework of the Silk Road Economic Belt, Xi Jinping has offered the following five proposals for the joint implementation of this initiative by countries located along its path:

1. Bolstering communications and consultations among countries located along this road in the field of common economic policymaking;

2. Bolstering connections among countries in the field of transportation, so that, a big transport corridor would be created from the Pacific Ocean all the way west to the Baltic Sea and from Central Asia all the way south to Indian Ocean;

3. Considering trade facilities for countries situated along the road;

4. Bolstering financial cooperation with emphasis on currency settlement; and

5. Bolstering ties among people in countries located along the Silk Road Economic Belt.

However, relative attraction of this big idea in Iran does not necessarily mean that all its features have been transparently understood by Iranian public opinion and elites. On the opposite, there are big question marks and ambiguities in the minds of Iranians about this big plan. Such ambiguities can be divided into several categories as follows:

1. A general problem regarding expansion of interactions between Iran and China is the language problem. Few Iranians can speak Chinese and few Chinese can speak Persian. Therefore, the two sides mostly understand each other through the English language, which can cause problems in this type of interactions. One problem is that the two sides follow developments in each country through the mentality of Western writers and media. This problem has been an issue with regard to the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative. English websites and publications that are printed in China and other countries have only disclosed general outlines of this plan and only those outlines have been understood by the public opinion and elites in Iran. Therefore, the foremost and most important ambiguity regarding this plan in Iran is the ambiguity regarding its details. There is a famous idiom in the West, which says "the devil is in the detail." This idiom has been frequently applied to the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran in recent weeks. This idiom also applies to the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative because as long as details are not clear, it would be difficult to make a decision on or react to this initiative.

2. The second ambiguity regarding this initiative in Iran is related to the role of the Islamic Republic in the implementation of this initiative. In other words, what role has been assigned to Iran in this initiative and in what fields the cooperation between Iran and China would be possible within framework of this initiative? The answers to these questions are not clear for Iranian media and public opinion yet. Many maps have been published to show the path of this economic belt every one of which has depicted Iran's position in a different manner. This issue has also added to ambiguities that surround Iran's position with respect to this initiative. In short, it is not clear whether Iran is simply a transit route in this initiative or will be playing the role of an important economic partner to China in future.

3. Technical ambiguities can be considered as the third type of ambiguities that exist about China’s initiative in Iran. Although economic relations between Iran and China are currently expanded, they are not complex because in practice, the two countries are engaged in a simple form of bilateral trade. This form of trade is not institutionalized and changes in it are mostly a function of the two sides’ decisions and, of course, the policies of the United States. However, when the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative is put into gear, economic interactions between China and countries located along this road will become greatly institutionalized. Due to basic differences in economic systems of Iran and China, the process of institutionalizing these relations will be certainly marked with many technical problems and hardships. For example, China is a member of the World Trade Organization, but Iran is not a full member of that organization. China has acceded to many trade agreements while Iran is only a partner to other countries through a few agreements and this issue can cause problems for the facilitation of trade exchanges between Tehran and Beijing. In addition, the two countries transportation systems are based on different standards and unification of those standards will need time-intensive expert work.

4. Since Iran and China have no common border, it follows that third actors will naturally play a role in boosting cooperation between the two countries. On the one hand, Central Asian countries, which connect Iran to China, have their own specific economic systems and it is not very easy to cooperate with them in this field. For example, during all the years, which have passed since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the idea of facilitating the access of these landlocked countries to free waters through Iran has been on the table. However, the two sides have not been very successful in this regard during all these years. On the other hand, Turkey is of special importance as the link that connects the Asian part of the Silk Road belt to its European part. However, increasing cooperation between Tehran and Ankara and helping the two sides achieve an understanding in this regard would need extensive expert work.

On the whole, one can daresay that although the idea of Silk Road Economic Belt has drawn a lot of attention in Iran, there are also many ambiguities still surrounding this idea. The important point, however, is that Iran looks upon this initiative as a strategic opportunity. Iran is among countries that are not very much concerned about China’s ambitions and basically consider further growth of China’s power as an opportunity, not a threat. Therefore, technical dialogue between the two countries on the details of the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative and Iran's position in that initiative is necessary in order to dispel current ambiguities and promote cooperation between the two sides.

Key Words: Iran, China, Silk Road, Economic Belt, Attractions, Ambiguities, Strategic Opportunity, Shariatinia

More By Mohsen Sahriatinia:

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*Iran and China Moving toward Expanded Cooperation?:

*Geneva Agreement and Iran's Strategic Power:

*Photo Credit: Stratfor

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