Soleimani’s path or the Silk Road?

Ghassan Charbel
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Iran’s President is set to visit Russia in a few days. Only a couple of days ago, Iran’s Foreign Minister had concluded a visit to China. Tehran seems to be more interested in furthering its “heading east” policy than in the results of negotiations in Vienna. Perhaps this is because Iran believes ties with China and Russia can offer Tehran protection in the UN Security Council whenever it chooses to adopt the stagnation policy in its long-standing head-to-head with the United States. Iran’s relations with the two giants to its east can also serve as a bargaining chip that could help the country circumvent sanctions. Perhaps Iran’s ambitions go as far as becoming an obligatory bridge linking China to the countries whose decisions it now controls.

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In Moscow, President Ebrahim Raissi’s interests are expected to include the renewal of a 20-year agreement signed in 2001 by then-President Mohammad Khatami. Some observers hint that Tehran is interested in taking relations with Moscow to the next level, especially after turning a new page with Beijing and joining the Shanghai Pact.

Iran’s position in the Russia-China-Iran triangle is not an easy one. Each of the two other countries has significant and complex considerations in the region that prevent them from committing to Tehran as the obligatory bridge to the region or parts of it. A quick review of Chinese and Russian relations with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and the UAE warrant the question of whether Iran can really get far in its ties with the two giants without changing.

To get a better idea, let us imagine how someone would feel if they were to stand before three memorials to three leaders erected in three cities tormented by memories of an imperial history or dreams of a future that brings back the heydays.

Starting with Moscow, the visitor could stop at Lenin’s grave. There, the long queue would not necessarily mean that the role of the fallen leader persists; it is probably the curiosity of tourists that explains the crowds. Yet, one may find there a relentless Communist crying for the betrayed comrade or looking for consolation in the fact that the country is now in the safe hands of the Kremlin decisionmaker, a Soviet man through and through who’s working to bring back the glorious days.

The visitor would need no assurance that the man who shook the earth at the cusp of the last century was killed as soon as his successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, dared open the window, letting the strong winds blow through the Soviet Union and bring down Lenin’s party and the empire whose protection was entrusted to the “comrades” that headed the Secretariat of the Communist Party. The rest is history. Vladimir Lenin became another page of history books. Now is the time of Vladimir Putin, the future “Vladimir the Great” or “Vladimir the Incredible.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani walk in Bishkek on June 14, 2019. (AFP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani walk in Bishkek on June 14, 2019. (AFP)

In Beijing, a visitor could stand before the shrine of the Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong. Just like China survived a Soviet-style collapse, Mao survived a fatal punishment like Lenin’s. But this does not mean that Mao still rules China from his grave, nor does it mean that the country still resorts to the old prescriptions of the Little Red Book, once the key and the fortress, to treat its development and production fevers. The Little Red Book was unofficially put out of commission: it was allowed to keep its glory in form, so long as it does not hinder the New China.

Deng Xiaoping was the leader who saved the old man in the grave and his country. A comrade of the Great Helmsman, he learned lessons from his predecessor’s weaknesses and ventures that engendered many victims and tombs. Deng refused the worship of things and statues. He understood that keeping pace with the changing world is a must, as is combating hunger, poverty, and backwardness. The end is what matters, not the means. Reconciling and catching up with the new world is a necessity. He would not let Mao rule the country from his grave; the dead cannot guide the living.

Deng saved his country from an explosion of poverty. He saved the revolution from an inevitable clash with millions of hungry people. Like Lenin, the Great Mao became just another page of history books.

The country and the party fell into the hands of a new leader who is not afraid to correct and amend the Little Red Book should he ever feel like opening it.

Suppose the visitor were to head toward Khomeini’s shrine in Tehran next. It is no secret that Khomeini’s revolution stemmed from a completely different rulebook than the one that guided Lenin and Mao.

This rulebook considered all its detractors to be infidels, heretics, or apostates; and everyone knows what kind of punishment awaits such sinners. Now, the Supreme Guide fans the flames of the revolution to keep it alive, promising similar decades where nothing changes. All that matters to him is “thwarting sanctions,” not reviewing policies.

No Gorbachev emerged in Khomeini’s Tehran. Then, experience showed that decisionmaking lies with the Supreme Guide’s office and nowhere else, and that some Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders are much stronger than the smiles or fists of successive presidents. Iran had no Gorbachev and no Deng. The statements of Iranian officials do not allude to any feeling of urgent need for modernity and reconciliation with the changing world. In other words, the Iranian reactor is still emitting the same radiations.

People in the region sum up Iran’s regional policy with the term “exporting revolutions.” This impression is based on the four coups led by General Qassem Soleimani in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen: coups that fissured states, deepened some conflicts, and ignited others. Yet, these countries have yet to taste stability or prosperity; as if Tehran cannot manage or fathom the results achieved by its “exporting revolutions” policy.

During Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian’s last visit to Beijing a few days ago, a 25-year comprehensive strategic cooperation agreement entered into effect. There’s talk of 400-billion-dollar investments, railways, ports, and cooperation in the realms of economy, tourism, development, and defense. A new boost for the Belt and Road Initiative, which will also see Iran’s interests linked to the Pakistani passageway.

Can Iran get seriously involved in this major project with China without changing? Can such a huge investment project be built on the crate of a volcano? Can Iran take both Soleimani’s path and the Silk Road at the same time? Has Tehran learned nothing from the Russian and Chinese memorials?

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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