Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow in April. Although Russia signed an economic agreement with Iran targeting over $25 billion in trade, the actual figure is below $2 billion. File Photo by Maxim Shipenkov/EPA-EFE
As the theocratic regime’s traditional backers, seen as bulwarks for the mullahs against Western sanctions, there are growing indications the two superpowers may be tiring of their Iranian friends. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin were enthusiastic supporters of Barack Obama‘s deeply flawed nuclear deal with the Iranian regime. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was unilaterally shredded by President Donald Trump in 2018, when he imposed his “maximum pressure” campaign of super-tough sanctions on the mullahs.
Trump accused the mullahs of serial breaches of the deal, as well as oppressive human rights violations in Iran and exporting terror and proxy wars across the Middle East and around the world, all of which was true. The regime reacted by accelerating its uranium enrichment program to more than 60% purity, a short step away from weapons grade.
In a blind panic, the newly elected American President Joe Biden pledged to resurrect the nuclear deal, but was met with an impenetrable wall of obfuscation and hostility by the elderly supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who demanded the immediate lifting of all sanctions as a prerequisite to kick-starting the JCPOA.
With the sham election of the notorious executioner Ebrahim Raisi as president of Iran, negotiations on the revival of the nuclear deal have stalled. Raisi is on the U.S. sanctions list for serial human rights violations. He has openly boasted of his role as a member of the “death commission,” which oversaw the massacre of more than 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988. Most of those executed, including many teenagers and even pregnant women, were supporters of the main opposition Mojahedin-e Khalq.
Raisi was, until his elevation to the presidency, chief of Iran’s judiciary, where he has approved and supervised hundreds of executions. Even for the hard men of Tiananmen and the Kremlin, this was a step too far.
Desperate for help to alleviate the collapsing economy in Iran, the mullahs turned to China and Russia. But help may be slow in arriving if it comes at all. The clerical regime has signed extensive economic cooperation agreements with both countries, but the hoped-for relief from crippling Western sanctions has failed to materialize. In fact, the opposite has happened.
After Trump slammed on the additional sanctions against Iran, China was one of the first countries to withdraw its finance from oil, gas, automobile and road and rail projects. Chinese companies with international contracts do not want to fall foul of U.S. sanction laws. Beijing even blocked the mullahs’ resources. It is thought that about $40 billion of Iranian assets have been frozen in at least five countries, at least half of it in China.
Never slow to miss out on a good trading opportunity, the Chinese even took advantage of the sanctions to purchase Iranian oil at well below world market values. They then negotiated the purchase of Iranian oil-related products like urea fertilizer, at rock-bottom prices, selling it on to India at a profit. Not content at simply exploiting its so-called ally, China has gone on to increase its volume of trade with the mullahs’ main enemies America, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and even Israel.
Majid Reza Hariri, head of the Iran-China Chamber, said recently: “As our total international and cross-border trade shrinks, so does our share of trade with China, as Iran and China have not had so little trade with each other in the last 15 or 16 years.” Hariri continued: “The decline in our foreign trade last year has been unprecedented in the last 10 or 12 years. In other words, in terms of the volume of our foreign trade, we are back to the mid-1990s, an important part of which was due to heavy sanctions in 2020 and declining oil sales. Naturally, in these circumstances, we cannot provide the necessary currency for imports.”
A similar situation has applied to trade between Iran and Russia. Although the two countries signed an economic agreement targeting over $25 billion in trade, the actual figure is below $2 billion, which is barely significant. Russia does more than $30 billion in annual trade with Turkey and hopes to increase it to $100 billion, which puts the paltry $2 billion trade with Iran into perspective.
The mullahs’ economic woes mean that their days of venal corruption, where they have enriched themselves at the expense of their 83 million population, are grinding to a halt. This has best been evidenced by the coronavirus pandemic, which has spiraled out of control. Resistance units of the MEK reckon the overall death toll from the pandemic exceeds 343,000, while the mullahs try to claim that the real figure is nearer 90,000. The shocking toll is a direct result of Khamenei refusing all offers of Western vaccines on ideological grounds, while supplies of China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm jabs and Russia’s Sputnik vaccine have dwindled to a trickle due to delayed payments.
The vast cost of paying for their secret nuclear and ballistic missile program has also left a black hole in state finances, as has the massive cost of funding proxy wars across the Middle East. Economists reckon that the mullahs have spent more than $16 billion propping up Bashar al-Assad‘s bloody civil war in Syria. While the cost of supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen, the terrorist Hezbollah in Lebanon, the brutal Shi’ia militias in Iraq and Hamas in Gaza are an ongoing drain on reserves and personnel.
There are growing signs of unrest even amongst the ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – the regime’s Gestapo, which runs over 75% of the Iranian economy and has suffered from the current meltdown.
When Raisi is inaugurated as president on Tuesday, he will inherit a country brought to its knees by 42 years of corruption, repression, maladministration, terrorism and war-mongering. The huge province of Khuzestan is in flames with mass street protests moving into their third week, following acute water shortages. Nationwide protests have erupted across Iran in solidarity with the Khuzestan Arabs, who have faced a brutal crackdown with tear gas, shrapnel and live ammunition, causing many deaths and injuries.
Now is the time for the West to back the Iranian people, instead of trying to appease this evil regime. If China and Russia are tiring of the mullahs, surely the writing is on the wall?
Struan Stevenson is the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.