Mohsen Shariatinia: ‘There are different interpretations of Iran's role in the Silk Road’

Date of publication : June 28, 2016 01:00 am

While formally announced in late 2013 by Xi Jinping, China’s then-newly installed President, Beijing’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) initiative, touted as a modern recreation of the ancient Silk Road, was heavily promoted with much fanfare by the Chinese leadership throughout 2015. Holding out great promise by Beijing, OBOR ostensibly is to form a continuous trade and investment network to promote a Chinese sponsored transcontinental economic development zone among numerous emerging markets stretching from East, Central and South Asia to the Middle East and Africa. OBOR’s far more modest sister institution, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), whose objective is to provide concessionary financing for new infrastructure projects across the region, somewhat akin to a sector-focused World Bank, was also launched by President Xi in late 2013 and heavily championed this past year. We asked Mohsen Shariatinia, Assistant professor at Shahid Beheshti University (SBU) and senior fellow at Iranian Center for Strategic Research (CSR), the Iran’s current and future status in the “Chinese Silk Road” and the prerequisites for Iran to participate the Chinese project. The following is a condensed version of the interview.
A general assumption on the Chinese Silk Road is that it will be a successful project and any participant countries would benefit much. In your perspective, what would the benefits for Iran?
“Iran's bases of national power have grown weak because of sanctions, and they need a rapid boost. There are two ways to reconstruct these bases of national power. The first way is to extract resources from within the country, which despite all efforts, has resulted in Iran's civil projects having the longest rate of delay, compared to the global average. In addition, construction budget of the country is on the decline. The second way, which is used by all countries including China, is the external path. Because of its characteristics, Iran is unable to receive any resources from the West and therefore our options are restricted to developing countries for reinforcement of the national economic power bases. This plan is providing a great atmosphere for Iran to provide a good proportion of its resources needed for reconstruction of its economy basis by attracting investment and establishing common interests with other countries involved, including China. The major logic for Iran to participate in this plan is the reconstruction of its economic power bases. For example, the maximum speed of Iranian trains is 80 km/h, and its wagons are at least 50 years old; Silk Road offers Iran an opportunity to reconstruct a part of its infrastructure through attracting investment and significantly connect to the railway network of the region.”
Why China select Iran for their Silk Road project? What are the Iran’s advantages which convince the Chinese to count on Iran?
“Usually, Chinese delegations coming to Iran show equivocation and generalization in their talks. There are different interpretations of Iran's role in the Silk Road. There are three land way corridors in the document of the Silk Road; one goes across China-Pakistan to Gwadar, one passes Russia above the Caspian Sea, the third one, which was introduced as the main alternative by the accredited Chinese Xinhua News Agency, enters Iran from Turkmenistan and continues its way to Europe through Turkey. However, it seems that currently the Pakistan route is the main alternative and Chinese are advancing this plan without any problems, due to their close relationship to Pakistan. And the Iran-Central Asia route faces obstacles due to differences between the countries of the region and high expectations of China. However, given the lack of transparency, it is hard to decide what exactly the problem is. If the problem is not solved during the Chinese president's visit to Central Asia, it is likely Iran will not be included in this transit route. Still, this doesn't mean Iran will lose its role in the four out of the five aforementioned railroad linkage plans that are pursued in the Silk Road.” 
To what extent, the Central Asia developments could affect the whole Project?
“One of the problems between other countries and China is that the latter is a major power. This Asian giant can spark fear and anxiety, fear of being dominated, in these countries. China is the first trading partner of 130 countries. Anti-china-ism and Sinophobia are growing in a range of people of these countries, from the U.S.A. where Donald Trump accused China of violating the U.S., to Kazakhstan where Kazakh farmers rail against their government for renting farms to China for a meager price; Russia is concerned about the far east, and people of Iran generally do not have a positive view of China. Rise of an anti-Chinese sentiment or Sinophobic political spectrum in any of these countries can influence the plan, as it can be seen in Myanmar where the new government and democratic spectrum have an unfriendly attitude toward China. Indian INC and BJP political parties display different attitudes toward China. Also, with collapse of authoritarian countries like Gaddafi's Libya and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, China loses its resources and has to start anew. At present, the government of Kyrgyzstan does not have a positive view of China, since its weak democracy is inclined toward the West to save itself.”
What would the fulfilment of Chinese Cause affect the global politics?
“Silk Road is the most important project that can transform a regional power like China, with its most important feature being a quiet diplomacy and passivity, to a global actor. This actor has chosen the world as its acting arena. My inference is that empowerment of China will not lead to an international conflict for a foreseeable future. However, it will increase the ambit of competition and ambiguity. This plan increases the likelihood of a miscalculation by major world powers; however, it is very unlikely that the international system and relationship between China and the U.S. ever suffer from the kind of confrontation common between U.S.A. and Russia. That is because the foreign policy logic of China is different from that of Russia. Russia is a geopolitical power or a crisis-inducing and crisis-surviving government that benefits from crisis. To a certain extent, this is also true for the U.S., benefiting from creating crisis. Thus, the crisis in the South China Sea is fueled by U.S. desire to create a crisis for China. Whereas, China is a geo-economic power and needs stability, market, and profit; when economy is the ideology of a country, collaboration and competition and a peaceful empowerment, rather than an unpeaceful one such as that of Germany and Japan in WWII, will find a better opportunity to emerge. Nonetheless, we cannot be sure; many countries throughout history acted in an irrational way and against their national interest, changing the international politics. However, it is very unlikely for China to act in such a way.”
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