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Why Russia & China Love Iran's Hardliners

05 Aug 2009 00:5825 Comments


Russia knows how to play the hardliners -- by keeping them in need.

By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles | 5 Aug 2009

Marg bar Amrica -- "Death to America."

For 30 years now, it has been the chant at every political gathering, every Friday prayer, and every demonstration staged by the state. Even the Majles (parliament) deputies have not always been able to help themselves. On many an occasion, members of Majlis would shout "Marg bar America" during a session discussing foreign policy. Even when high officials of the country meet with the Supreme Leader, his speech is repeatedly interrupted by chants of Marg bar America.

It is known that even when Iran and the United States were negotiating the release of the American hostages in the fall of 1980, the Iranian delegation, led by Behzad Nabavi, now a leading reformist leader and strategist (arrested after the rigged June 12 election), would chant Marg bar America before entering negotiation sessions.

The slogan is almost always accompanied by Marg bar Engelis (Death to England) and Marg bar Esrail (Death to Israel). The only time that the chanting stopped was in the first few weeks following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

Suddenly everything changed. On Friday July 17, former president and powerful politician, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, led a highly anticipated Friday Prayer in Tehran. To preempt what he might say, and also to give him a message about what he should refrain from saying during his two sermons, the hardliners sent Reza Taghavi to speak before Rafsanjani -- it's a tradition to have someone speak before the actual Friday prayer imam.

Taghavi, who coordinates what Friday prayer leaders throughout the country should talk about in their sermons every week, raised a favorite issue with the hardliners -- then and now: foreign powers trying to meddle in Iran's internal affairs. Several times through his speech, he shouted Marg bar America. Normally, the crowd would respond by chanting the same.

Not this time. Each time Taghavi shouted Marg bar America, the crowd responded by chanting Marg bar Rusieh (Death to Russia) and Marg bar Chin (Death to China). At first, Taghavi seemed surprised. He was not used to such a response. But, by the end of his speech, he had grasped what was going on. People seemed to be rejecting the idea of the United States as their enemy during that period, and were expressing their anger at Russia and China instead. This kind of chanting has of course become routine now, during the demonstrations against the rigged election and against the hardliners.

Iranian people who chant Marg bar Russia and Marg bar China believe that they have good reasons to be angry. In addition to being the only major world powers to congratulate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his rigged election "victory," Russia and China have also been protecting the hardliners in Tehran in the international arena, and have been expanding their commercial and strategic relations with them.

On Tuesday June 16, Ahmadinejad went to Moscow to attend a conference of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Iran is not a member, but attends the meetings as an observer. Ahmadinejad did so while Iran was (and still is) in a deep crisis.

Ahmadinejad and his hardline supporters are keenly aware of Russia's experience with "color" revolutions in countries formerly within the influence of the Soviet Union. The loss of those states has shrunk Russia's sphere of influence and pained the Russian nationalists, particularly Vladimir Putin. So they are now trying to exploit the situation to their advantage. After all, it was Russia that warned Ahmadinehad about the possibility of a color revolution in Iran. Ahmadinejad, his supporters among the top commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the clerics have been ranting about the possibility ever since.

Putin and the Kremlin believe that the United States has betrayed Russia. While heralding American-Russian friendship, the Bush administration moved to prevent, or at least slow down, the resurgence of Russia. The Russians believe -- with good reason -- that the United States and its National Endowment for Democracy were instrumental in the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, and in the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, both of which brought to power pro-West regimes. These were interpreted by Russia as attempts by the United States to limit its influence abroad, and to prevent it from rising up again as a world power.

Developing close relations with an Iran controlled by the hardliners is just one component of countering the United States and its efforts in that direction.

Much has been said over the past several weeks about the possible role of the CIA and the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, in the demonstrations that erupted in Iran after the election. The speculations have been made mostly by the extreme left, and some Iranian supporters of Ahmadinejad in the United States who admire his stance regarding Iran's nuclear program. The author has no doubts that the CIA (and Mossad) would try to stir things up in Iran if they could, regardless of what President Obama may say in public about the U.S. keeping its hands off Iran. After all, the Obama administration has not cut off the funding for the so-called democracy project in Iran that was put in place by its predecessor. But, the CIA and Mossad have extremely limited resources, if any, within Iran. Their influence and power to stir up trouble in Iran is minimal, if at all.

But, regardless of the extent to which the CIA or Mossad's meddles or tries to meddle in Iran, there is little doubt that Russia provided intelligence to Iran regarding such activities. In return, Ahmadinejad and his cohorts blew them way out of proportion to advance their agenda. So, perhaps Ahmadinejad went to Moscow to express his gratitude to the Russians, and that angered Iranians, particularly because it was in the midst of their huge demonstrations against the rigged election.

Russia has also exploited the fact that the hardliners in Iran need its protection and assistance. For several years now, it has virtually become a ritual to announce at the beginning of each year that the Bushehr light water nuclear reactor that Russia is constructing will be starting operations by mid-year, and to then postpone that to the end of the year, or early in the following year. Even so, the reactor has not yet become operational.

There has also been much talk about Russia selling an air defense system called S-300 to Iran. The Russians have dazzled Iran's military with the capabilities of the S-300 system. The capabilities are indeed very significant, to the extent that they have prompted the United States to issue a warning about their sale to Iran. The prospect of the sale has also generated much concern in Israel. Yet, after nearly a decade of dazzling, no sale has been finalized and no system has been delivered to Iran.

The reasons are twofold. Russia treats Iran as a winning card in its relations with the United States. The fact that anti-American hardliners are in power in Iran is to Russia's advantage. First, because it keeps the U.S. influence in Iran, if any at all, minimal. Second, it forces the United States to focus its attention on Iran, and less elsewhere. At the same time, by not completing the Bushehr reactor and promising to sell it the S-300 system, but not actually going through with the sale, Russia keeps the hardliners in Iran in need. The Iranian public and the reformist-democratic groups in Iran in particular, also see this, which explains their anger at Russia.

China, on the other hand, has a long history of supporting despots around the world, so long as doing so protects and expands its interests. Iran is no different in that respect for it. In Africa, for example, China supports Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe and the Omar Al-Bashir's in Sudan, despite all the calamities there. In East Asia, China supported the bloody Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia who murdered 2 million Cambodians; and it supports North Korea.

Iran's natural resources, large population, and strategic position are all important to China. China imports about 700,000 barrels of oil a day from Iran. Chinese companies are partners of Iran's National Iranian Oil Company in the first and second phases of the development of Yadavaran, the giant Iranian oil field, which contains 17 billion barrels of oil. China is supposed to invest up to $70 billion in the project. China has also signed another agreement to develop a medium-size oil field, the North Azadegan, which is north of the giant Azadegan oil field with $34 billion barrels of oil.

In June, the China National Petroleum Company signed an agreement with Iran to replace the French company, Total, and participate in the Phase 11 of the development of the giant South Pars field in the Persian Gulf, which contains 8% of world's total natural gas reserves. Iran and Pakistan have agreed to construct a pipeline that would export Iran's natural gas to Pakistan, and there has been talk of continuing the pipeline to China.

China is important to Iran's hardliners for another reason. The United States and its allies have threatened Iran with tough sanctions if it does not respond positively to their overture regarding Iran's nuclear program. A September deadline has been set for Iran's official response. High on the sanctions list is gasoline, as Iran must import up to 40% of its gasoline consumption because it lacks the necessary refining capacity. On July 13, Iran's Ministry of Oil announced that China had agreed to invest up to $40 billion in Iran's oil refining industry (the announcement is yet to be confirmed by China).

According to the announcement, China will construct the new Hormoz refinery in southern Iran, which will be able to produce 300,000 bbl/day of gasoline. China is also supposed to modernize Iran's old Abadan refinery on the shores of Persian Gulf in order to increase it capacity, which at some point was the world's largest refinery. Given China's large investment in Iran's energy sector, it is likely that it will veto any United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution against Iran calling for tough sanctions, particularly in the oil and natural gas sector.

Iran's large population provides China with a large market in which to dump its low-quality products. Many companies linked with the IRGC import cheap, low-quality Chinese products. The IRGC uses more than 60 seaports and airports under its control, outside the official government control, to carry this out, raking in huge profits. Many Iranian businesses suffer as a result, because such imports have bankrupted the local industries that produce the same type of products with higher quality and at a higher cost.

China has also apparently been helpful to Iran's hardliners in yet another way. After the first of the UNSC Resolutions against Iran was issued, Iran began withdrawing its foreign currency reserves from European banks, fearing that it would be frozen by the European Union. A significant portion of the currency reserves appear to have been transferred to Chinese banks, outside the reach of the U.S. Treasury Department and the European Union.

Iran's hardliners appear to be looking up to the Chinese and Russians in other ways too.

The show trials of the reformist leaders and their supporters, which began on Saturday, resemble the Chinese show trials during the Cultural Revolution in the mid 1960s. The way the reformist leaders were treated in jail, then paraded in court "to confess," resemble what happened to many Chinese political leaders, including Deng Xiaping (who went on to became China's "Paramount" leader). Note that Iran had its own Cultural Revolution, which began in 1980 with the closure of all the universities. (In fact, Several sources in Tehran have told the author that they believe that China has provided training for Iran's intelligence agents.)

The trials are of course also reminiscant of what happened to the leaders and politicians of the Soviet Union, such as Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin (1888-1938), during the Great Purge of Joseph Stalin and the show trials of 1936.

The wrath of Iranians toward Russia and China are rooted in these factors. The Iranian people recognize that at this point in time, it is Russia and China that give Ahmadinejad and the hardliners support and comfort, not the United States. It is the author's hope that the Obama administration will not do anything counterproductive or foolish, such as imposing new sanctions on Iran, or giving the green light to Israel to attack Iran, because it will destroy the good will of the Iranian people toward the United States, which may already be on a downward spiral. In a YouTube video circulating on the Web today, the White House spokesman says that the U.S. accepts Ahmadinejad as its elected leader. That will surely disappoint and anger the majority of Iranian people.

But, then again, perhaps no one should really expect the United States to change its strategic view, which looks at Iran, as it has over the last 60 years, as the prize in the Middle East, which means the same old worn out and failed policies, which the president seems determined to follow -- albeit, with some smiles and grins this time.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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is the first sentence of the last paragraph what you meant to say?: "The wrath of Iranians toward Russia and Israel are rooted in these factors.".

did you mean israel or china?

kevin / August 4, 2009 10:06 PM

Russia and Iran historically are enemies. Today their friends of convenience until Russia wants to slice off a hunk or Iranian territory like they did to the Democratic Republic of Georgia while claiming it was in their traditional sphere of influence.

It seems like whether for or against the current government chanting slogans really gets the Iranians off. Oh well, it's an annoying, but reasonably harmless affliction.

Richard Kadas / August 4, 2009 10:32 PM

what a great article and behind the scene analysis of the politics.thanks.i need to know what assurances the reformist are going to give to the iranian people that the same old policies of ahmadinejad is not going to be repeated,and the change is not just a cosmetic change?

fay moghtader / August 4, 2009 10:48 PM

It all is summerized by one word: Ignorance! And that is why the world has been in crisis and Iran has been out of the map of the word until a revolutionary woman scientist rose and wrote 9 books in one year and changed the patterns of the world and created an unpresedented revolution never before existing in the world history. History only remembers quip de tas that are chosen by the dictators and governments and forced onto the people but the revolution I am talking about has beem taing place for the past 12 years by changing the dark underhaded patterns of the world bringing independence of mind and action and if it was not for censorship and silence making and plotts against hte creator of this revolution we would have all had the choice to be home by now and claim our land that has been in the hhands of imposters for the past 30 some years who are willing to do anything to maintain their power regardless of the consequence of it for the 60 million people: The nation of Iran! That is why our unity is of utmost significance to day and those who are trying to undermine me and Prince Reza Pahlavi and create divide against us or threaten other countries are truly only after one thing to make their dictator bosses happy and get paid for hijacking MyRevolution of Compassion for a permanent presidency of Rafsanjani. I believe people must make the choice and they deserve their freedom from all dictatorship but they must know the truth before it is too late and we have another 30 years after some bloodshed the dictators are trying to create to create fear tactics within the people who will close their hearts and minds to a true revolution of compassion without war and violence where by scientific actions through the United Nations we can reclaim oru land and bring freedom to that torn apart nation used and abused by all in disgrace!

RoseProphecy / August 4, 2009 11:31 PM

"the White House spokesman says that the U.S. accepts Ahmadinejad as its elected leader."

Even the american government recognizes the true leader of Iran!

Radical Guy / August 4, 2009 11:43 PM

US, recognizes Ahmadinejad as elected Iranian president.


Michael Roberts / August 5, 2009 12:57 AM

LOL, 11 paragraphs from the bottom it states... "China imports about 420,000 billion barrels of oil a day from Iran". WOW, China imports 420 Trillion barrels of oil a day from Iran?!!! An import of that magnitude must affect the rotational balance of the earth.

Housh Agh / August 5, 2009 1:09 AM

Really thanks the administrator for keeping us informed. I like the article and it's sad but very true. Another reason why China and Iran are allies is they are both oppressive regimes. The tricks they employ to control their citizens are the same. Liked-mind thinks the same. I am ashamed to be ruled by the psuedo-communist.

Steffi / August 5, 2009 1:58 AM

Thanks. A very nice article and analysis.

110 billion dollars investment in Iran by China seems to be very unrealistic. Does author have any reliable reference for this number? Of course referencing to Iranian Oil Ministry should be carried out very carefully. Iran currently has a total of 9 refineries. With 40 billion dollarsm Chinese can make 13 modern refineries for Iran.

China is supporting Iranian military as well to sweeten commercial transactions in energy sector. Chinese are very good at business.

In case of Sudan, China sold T-59 tanks and Shenyang F-7 combat aircraft in the wake of Chinese development of oil resources there. China imports ~150 bbl/day from Sudan.

Iran exported 700,000 barrels of crude oil per day in the early of 2009 not 420,000 billion barrels per day (420000 bbl/day is for 2007).


For the last 30 years, Iranians were under sanction and paid (and pay) a high price for their self-isolation and now as Mr. Mir Hossein Mousavi said an illegal government has to offer better deals under a higher secrecy in order to survive!

Irini, / August 5, 2009 3:03 AM

Any editing errors are mine, not the author's. I shouldn't be editing at 3 a.m. kgn

tehranbureau / August 5, 2009 8:50 AM

Obviously in this article Russia and China are profiting from their relations with Iran. And while doing so corruption is rampant and inevitable. The regime is stupid for allowing these two nations to dip their hands on Iran's vast wealth. Who knows Iran might become Russia's next state and China's dumping ground for it's inferior products. Russia and China now have the best of both worlds unknowingly to the present regime.

shetty / August 5, 2009 9:41 AM

dear Irini:

Thank you for your useful comments.

The number $110 billion is over an extended period of time, not in one year, or two. It takes years to develop a large oil or natural gas field. It also entails doing other things, like maintaining the field, injecting natural gas into it to maintain the pressure after the initial pressure declines, building oil or natural gas pipeline for it to transport it, etc.

The $40 billion is what both the NIOC and energy magzines reported. As I mentioned, China has yet to confirm it.

The 420,000 bbl/day was indeed the 2007 figure. Thank you for pointing this out.

Muhammad Sahimi / August 5, 2009 10:29 AM

Is it not a wise man who said the the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Radical Guy / August 5, 2009 11:51 AM

Russia and China are following their national interests. What should be expected?

America has been for years pressurising western energy companies to pull out of Iran. Of course, Russia and China will fill the gaps.

Russia and Iran have had a lot of problems in their relationship historically, but they get over them because of mutual interests.

The dysfunctional relationship is between Iran and the US, where ideology and poor leadership on both sides has prevented co-operation in areas of mutual interest. Not all the time - there was co-operation over Afghanistan for example in 2001-02.

Nazih Musa / August 5, 2009 12:52 PM

Two of the faces on the worlds "Homophobic" dial...can't you notice...there's no hint of a smile!

Jaker / August 5, 2009 4:29 PM

Dr. Sahimi, Russia and China are not good partners ... but at least they are partners. If Iran descends into chaos they have no reason to be happy. On the other hand, you and I very well know that many in the U.S and Israel will be more than happy to see Iranians tear each other apart at this juncture ... (before Iran becomes nuke capable).

anonym7 / August 5, 2009 4:38 PM

Dr. Sahimi, Russia and China are not good partners, but at least they are partners. If Iran descends into chaos they have no reason to be happy ..., on the other hand many in the U.S and Israel will be happy to see Iranians tear each other apart at this juncture (because of the nuke issue, etc).

anonym7 / August 5, 2009 5:34 PM

Oh...a new double act I see...now what shall I call them? Ahem! Well okay, it's too easy."Glummer & Glummer"!

v.gerrard / August 5, 2009 6:19 PM

Dear Anonym7:

Thank you and welcome to Tehran Bureau.

I agree with you. But, regradless of what I think, people in Iran feel differently. That is the point of the article: To explain what I believe is the angry reaction to Russia and China.

Muhammad Sahimi / August 5, 2009 6:28 PM

Mr. Sahimi: You keep producing extraordinary work everyday and I thank you for that.

The Islamic Republic's servitude toward Russia is nothing new since the leadership in Iran decided to give up it's right to the Russians in the Caspian sea.

Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea: Treaties,Diaries,and Other Stories


One thing is for certain, Russia does not want a strong Iran. They probably would like an attack on Iran to keep Iran more backward and dependable on Russia

I hope the mullahs are aware that the Russia does not have the best interest of Iran in her heart despite their feigning friendship.

unitedforiran / August 6, 2009 2:48 PM

White House spokesman Gibbs retracted statement about Ahmadinejad being "elected leader". He stated that who is elected is for the Iranians to decide. Gibbs is known for his gaffs and making reckless statements. What he says is not necessarily reflective of actual policy. Needless to say, he is not the brightest bulb.

glenn / August 6, 2009 2:57 PM

Iranians have to fend off 4 different enemies simultaneously if they don't want to get bombed to smitherines in the next 10 years:

1. The hardliners (Ahmadinejad, IRGC Inc., Basij et al)

2. The Neocons

3. The far left Iranian or non-Iranians

4. The Russians

How are we going to counter these assaults? Can someone write an essay about that?

unitedforiran / August 6, 2009 3:07 PM

Hillary Clinton just said that the show trials show that the Iranian regime is afraid of its own people. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the Iranian selected leader.http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/08/06/clinton.iran.trials/index.html?section=cnn_latest

glenn / August 6, 2009 8:39 PM

Iran at the crossroads: Revolution or Bargaining?

"The "family fight" between the so called reformists and hardliners is not our fight. People's demands go beyond what the reformists who believe in the system can possibly deliver. The masses have shown that "the game of powerful" is not their game. If the middle classes succeed in bringing the working classes to it side and turn on the engine of the revolution and only then all these political flirting will go to its rightful place; the trash can of history. This is what happened during the 1979 revolution and will inevitably happen again in a "revolutionary situation".


unitedforiran / August 6, 2009 9:44 PM

great post as usual!

TomPier / May 8, 2010 11:53 PM