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Plagued by a String of Blasts and Fires, Iran Gets a Helping Hand From China

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarifץ
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Beijing, Aug. 26, 2019.Credit: How Hwee Young/Pool Photo via AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Concern about the coronavirus has naturally pushed security-related developments out of the headlines. But that doesn’t mean the clandestine campaign related to Iran has at all abated during the past week.

Only one event, the explosion at the centrifuge production facility at Natanz at the beginning of the month, has been attributed by foreign media to Israel with certainty. Israeli spokespeople, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Intelligence Affairs Minister Eli Cohen, have declined to comment on the claims. But the ever-expanding chain of events, even if not connected by a single thread, is upping the internal pressure on the Iranian regime and perhaps prodding it to act in response.

The most recent serious incident occurred on Wednesday at the port of Bushehr, where a major fire broke out at a shipyard, setting seven ships on fire. That incident was preceded by dozens of fires and explosions around Iran since April, in which power stations, factories and a missile-production site have been damaged. Some of the incidents have been attributed to sabotage and others to faulty maintenance.

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Iranian strategic expert Foad Izadi told the New York Times on this week that the regime’s enemies are currently trying to use every means at their disposal to sow a sense of instability, chaos and insecurity. And in the background, there is America’s stated policy of ratcheting up the economic pressure on Iran to force it to renegotiate its international nuclear accord. The United States withdrew from the accord in 2018 and is now seeking much less favorable terms from Tehran.

This photo released July 2, 2020, by Iran's Atomic Energy Organization shows a building after it was damaged by a fire at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility.Credit: AP

Part of the Iranian response to the external pressure will come from another direction. A week ago, the Times reported on a draft economic and defense cooperation agreement that Iran has hashed out with China. The agreement would have China buy Iranian oil at reduced rates for 25 years and build infrastructure projects in Iran. The Chinese would also hold joint exercises with the Iranian military, develop weapons and share intelligence with Tehran.

The pact was first discussed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2016 visit to Iran, but was not approved until last month by the Iranian cabinet. It would give Beijing an important foothold in the region, in keeping with China’s Belt and Road Initiative – a global development strategy to build ports and massive infrastructure projects.

But it appears to be more than that. The agreement also reflects Chinese defiance of the United States, in light of the escalating confrontation between the superpowers in East Asia. Having China clearly at its side would ease the economic pressure on Iran. In more extreme circumstances, the Chinese-Iranian alliance could serve as a counterweight to American-Israeli friction with the Iranian regime over its nuclear program. In a theoretical scenario in which the recent moves continue to escalate, Beijing’s potential response would have to be taken into account to a greater extent.

The various moves in the region, both above and below the radar, are all occurring in the shadow of two upcoming dates: the U.S. presidential election in November and Joe Biden’s possible move into the White House in January 2021. At present, the weekly polling in the United States projects a defeat for Donald Trump, due to his colossally inept handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the severity of the economic crisis.

That leaves Netanyahu four months, maybe six, for coordinated moves with Trump regarding Iran and, to some extent, also regarding the Israeli annexation plan in the West Bank, which has been completely forgotten, since the July 1 target date to begin the process. At the same time, the Israeli prime minister has to attempt to repair his relations with Biden and the Democrats, which have sustained critical damage due to his excessively close alliance with Trump.

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