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China And Iran Are Preparing A Grand Alliance

January 11, 2020

Via Iranian media.

Buried under the past month of alarming news involving Iran and the US is a subtle diplomatic push that may have lasting consequences for an entire continent. Towards the end of 2019 the Islamic Republic’s highest ranking officer and armed forces Chief of Staff, Major General Mohammed Bagheri (sometimes spelled “Baqeri”), wrapped low-key visits to China. It was during his last trip, a three-day affair in the first week of December, that Bagheri revealed a “25-year strategic plan” was being put into place.

Few details about Bagheri’s meetings were reported and the substance of the “plan” is just as mysterious. But scrutinizing the two country’s ties–one an ascendant superpower and the other a rogue state–reveals some clues where the relationship is heading.

China is Iran’s largest trade partner and main foreign investor. But the sinews binding their alliance are military transactions that aren’t scrutinized enough. From the mid-1980s until the 1990s it was China who helped recapitalize the battered Iranian air force (its fleet until then composed of US-made aircraft) with deliveries of single engine fighter jets. These might have been inferior to the air force’s F-14A Tomcats but they plugged serious gaps left by the ruinous war with Iraq. China was also responsible for vital technical assistance that allowed Iran to build its own military-industrial sector–whether assembling Kalashnikov rifles or Red Arrow anti-tank missiles–and accelerate the IRGC’s ballistic missile R&D.

By the time Iran stockpiled enough Scud B’s and C’s from North Korea the next stage were other missile types supplied by China. These included the conversion of the HQ-2 anti-aircraft missile (copied from the Soviet S-75 Dvina) to a surface-to-surface missile called the “Tondar.” Further progress with large diameter rocket artillery and short-range ballistic missiles went on uninterrupted since the mid-1990s. Even Iran’s vaunted air defenses owe their effectiveness to China’s patronage; a whole range of shoulder-fired MANPADs are based on Chinese models. The widely distributed 107 mm rockets sent by Iran to its proxies is of Chinese origin too.

If Bagheri, in his role as the Iranian armed forces’ chief of staff, laid down a 25-year road map with China’s own defense ministry the resulting agreement could be extensive. Both the regular armed forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are in a peculiar state where their separate branches make do with aging equipment while some units enjoy unparalleled capabilities. Unmanned aircraft, for example, have been maximized to the point where they are in a class of their own. Locally made firearms and other portable weapons have improved by leaps and bounds. There are limits to Iran’s technological advances, however.

Since the Iranian military is wanting in a number of fields this is where China’s input may possibly make a huge difference.

  1. Iran’s once mighty air force (by the standards of the 1970s) is suffering from long-term attrition. Introducing a new multirole fighter (or fighters) can revive it.
  2. The Artesh in particular are hobbled by their obsolescent vehicles that pale in comparison to China’s new generation of tanks and IFVs.
  3. Chinese assistance may prove the key to launching Iran’s naval ambitions, perhaps even a super quiet diesel-electric submarine.
  4. The Chinese PLA’s own goal to prepare for “informationized war” may have applications for Iran too. It’s possible for China to equip Iran’s military for network-centric operations where communications and data sharing is seamless.
  5. Iran may boast having a cutting-edge missile arsenal but the next great leap–hypersonics and intermediate flight range–could be realized with China’s help.
  6. China’s advances in artificial intelligence and big data, not to mention its willingness to adopt a blockchain-based digital currency, look like a viable antidote for Iran’s economic decline. (The IRGC’s commercial empire stands to benefit from this as well.)
  7. Of course, it seems inevitable that Chinese involvement with Iran’s space program will lead to enhanced geomapping and other satellite-based advances…that do have military applications.

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