A former Iranian lawmaker has started a big controversy by raising rare criticism of China’s treatment of its Muslim minority population.
Ali Motahari said a Foreign Ministry official had admitted that Tehran is turning a blind eye to the repression of Muslims in China due to its “economic” interests.
Iran’s clerical establishment -- which poses as the defender of Muslims around the world -- has remained largely silent about China’s reported repression of its Muslim population while championing the Palestinian cause and being vocal about the plight of Yemeni civilians caught in the conflict between Saudi forces and Iranian-backed, Huthi rebels that has created a humanitarian disaster.
In several recent tweets, as well as in an interview with a popular news site, the outspoken Motahari said Tehran’s silence over China’s persecution of Muslims in its western Xinjiang region where serious human rights violations are being reported was a “failure” for the clerical establishment and hard-liners, whom he accused of “double standards.”
Motahari noted that while Tehran has avoided confronting Beijing, Washington has highlighted the crackdown.
“It is a failure for the Islamic republic that the United States protests against China’s treatment and torture of Muslims from the Xinjiang region to eradicate the Islamic culture from that region, but Iran has remained silent because of its economic needs,” Motahari said on Twitter on August 1.
“Chinese Muslims are no different from Yemeni or Palestinian Muslims,” added Motahari, who was prevented by a hard-line watchdog from running in Iran’s February parliamentary elections.
Beijing is accused of forcing more than 1 million Uyghurs and members of other mostly Muslim ethnic groups -- such as Kazakhs and Kyrgz -- into camps and prisons where reports suggest they have been physically abused and forced to denounce their religion and language.
Some have been reportedly also pushed into forced labor.
China says the camps are “vocational training centers” needed to combat separatist terrorism and extremism and give people new skills.
In an August 5 interview with Asriran.com, Motahari said he had raised the issue a while ago with an unnamed Foreign Ministry official whom he quoted as having responded: “We have to be silent due to economic needs.”
Enmity with the West should not make us dependent on the East and then we dare not protest against China."-- Ali Motahari
“I said: ‘Why do you have to bring relations with other parts of the world to the point of falling into China’s lap’,” Motahari said he told the ministry official.
China remains Tehran’s main trading partner and Beijing continues to buy some Iranian oil despite U.S. sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy and denied the country its main source of revenue.
China has also spoken out against Washington’s 2018 exit from the 2015 nuclear deal and the reimposition of harsh economic sanctions on Iran.
Beijing has also signaled that it will reject a U.S. resolution aimed at extending a United Nations arms embargo against Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the United States would call for a Security Council vote next week on a U.S.-drafted resolution to extend the embargo, which is due to expire in October.
Iran and China have in past weeks discussed signing a 25-year agreement that would greatly expand trade relations and cooperation between the two countries.
Motahari suggested on Twitter in July that, before signing the pact, Tehran should raise the fate of Chinese Muslims with Beijing.
The former lawmaker has come under fire from hard-liners for criticizing China, with a current lawmaker, Mahmud Ahmadi Bighash, calling on the judiciary to take action against Motahari because of his remarks, which he said are against Iran's national security.
In a speech to parliament earlier this week, Bighash described Motahari as a “useless politician” while suggesting that the reports about China’s persecution of its Muslim minority are baseless.
“Tens of millions of Chinese Muslims have no problem with the government and the government with Muslims, and comparing them with Palestinian Muslims is pro-Western sedition,” Bighash was quoted as saying.
Motahari fired back, saying that people like Bighash believe that “since America is Iran’s enemy and according to the famous phrase, 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend,' China is Iran’s friend and it shouldn’t be criticized.”
"Enmity with the West should not make us dependent on the East and then we dare not protest against China," Motahari said in his interview with Asriran.com.
Earlier this year, a Health Ministry spokesman came under attack by hard-liners for publicly expressing doubts over China’s official coronavirus numbers, calling them “a bitter joke.”
Kianush Jahanpur was later replaced amid speculation that his criticism of China had contributed to the decision to sack him.
Despite Iran’s increased reach out to Beijing, many Iranians remain distrustful of China.
Anti-Chinese sentiment and distrust in Iran appear to have increased due to the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in China late last year.