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Iran: Analysis From Washington -- A Transforming Visit

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 23 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's visit to China this week appears certain to change China, Iran, and the international balance of power, but quite possibly in very different directions than either the Iranian leader or his Chinese hosts expect or want.

The greatest impact of Khatami's visit is likely to be on China itself. On the one hand, Khatami's meetings in Beijing -- which began on Thursday -- are likely to offer the Chinese government a new opportunity to expand its influence in Asia. But on the other hand, the Iranian leader's visit to Hong Kong and especially China's restive Muslim region of Xinjiang over the course of his five-day stay may create new problems for China's rulers.

The Chinese authorities naturally welcome the arrival of leaders from around the world as an indication of their growing power in the post-Cold War environment: Beijing spokesmen appeared pleased to be able to note the "coincidence" of the arrival of Khatami and the presence in the Chinese capital of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

But they have a special interest in Iran. Close ties with Iran give Beijing enhanced leverage against two of its traditional competitors in the region, India, and Russia. By warming up relations with Tehran, China has the chance to send a message to New Delhi and Moscow that it has alternatives to cooperating with either. That gives it a freer hand to pursue its interests not only with these two capitals but with the countries of Central and South Asia as well.

Khatami is widely expected to use this occasion to issue a formal invitation to Chinese President Jiang Zemin to visit Tehran within the next year, an exchange that many in both countries and more broadly will view as a move to solidify these ties and opportunities.

But the impact of Khatami's visit on Iran may prove to be equally large. Tehran too is interested in escaping from the diplomatic isolation it has experienced in recent years. Khatami is certain to welcome ties that give Iran greater freedom of action vis-a-vis Russia, as long as welcome Chinese support does not become unacceptable Chinese tutelage.

Khatami clearly will win points from conservatives at home because of his reaching out to another Muslim community abroad. But at the same time, his visit to Xinjiang both poses a threat to China and may reinforce a widespread view in Western countries that Tehran is still a revisionist power, a country committed to changing the existing international community by exploiting Islamic grievances.

China is currently confronted by an ever more active independence movement in Xinjiang. Last week alone, the Chinese reportedly executed five members of that Islamic group and sentenced eight others to long terms of imprisonment. By insisting on going to Urumqi and Kashgar and by including the Iranian Islamic guidance minister in his entourage, Khatami may intentionally or not encourage this challenge to Chinese rule there.

But many Iranians will evaluate his trip in terms of his ability to gain Chinese aid. When Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani visited in 1992, he returned with a Chinese commitment to build two 300 megawatt nuclear power plants. Even though that deal eventually collapsed because of American pressure, Khatami almost certainly needs to return with something to shore up his support from the Iranian business community.

Khatami's prospects in this regard, however, do not appear especially bright. Indications are that China may not be willing to help finance an Iranian pipeline that would allow Tehran to become a major player in the export of Caspian basin oil. Unless Beijing changes its position, Khatami may cite his contacts with the Muslims of Xinjiang as the chief success of the trip, something Iranian reformers may be less than pleased to hear.

Finally, because the visit affects these two large and important countries, it inevitably affects the international balance of power, calling into question certain assumptions about power relationships and creating conditions for the emergence of new ties and alliances in Asia.

Diplomats in the Chinese capital are already saying that the communiqu to be signed by Khatami and his Chinese counterpart will reflect a common commitment to the separate themes of the two leaders, restating Khatami's desire for "a dialogue among civilizations" and Jiang's opposition to an American-dominated "unipolar world."

Such a declaration signals a new power arrangement in Asia and hence in the world, one in which both Iran and China will have an expanded role. Consequently, what may appear to be small chess moves at this summit are likely to have a transforming impact on everyone involved.