Talks between Iran and China aimed at finalizing a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement are continuing despite what Tehran dismissed as "baseless rumors" about the deal that leaked earlier this month.
The draft partnership proposal leaked online to the press calls for China to invest $400 billion in Iran's energy, telecommunications, infrastructure, ports, railways and other sectors in exchange for Tehran's supplying Beijing with a heavily discounted supply of oil over the next 25 years.
Iran's ambassador to neighboring Pakistan, Seyed Mohammad Ali Hosseini, has rebutted the reports as Western media propaganda.
"Given that no modalities have been agreed on the details of the cooperation so far, these rumors are baseless and mere political and media speculations," Hosseini said.
The Iranian envoy's written remarks were read out at an online forum organized this week by the Islamabad Policy Institute (IPI), a nongovernmental Pakistani think tank, to discuss the prospective China-Iran partnership.
Hosseini said that Tehran and Beijing were still consulting on the "generalities" to develop their bilateral cooperation "in a 25-year horizon." He noted that discussions on what he referred to as the comprehensive document on strategic cooperation started during Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Iran in 2016.
"This document is a comprehensive framework of long-term and strategic cooperation in all political and economic fields and in an equal and fair approach," he said. Hosseini went on to stress that "the dimensions of this document for cooperation have not so far reached the final conclusion."
China remains Iran's main trading partner and largest importer of Iranian oil. However, that cooperation has been undermined by U.S. economic sanctions imposed in 2018 after Washington withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Tehran.
The prospect of a strategic partnership between Iran and China comes at a time when U.S. sanctions and the outbreak of the coronavirus are deepening Iran's economic woes, bringing President Hassan Rouhani's government under domestic pressure.
Politicians in Iran, including former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have assailed Rouhani for trying to secretly conclude a deal with China that they said would undermine the country's sovereignty.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif rejected those concerns and told lawmakers earlier this month that "there is nothing to hide about the deal" and the details would be made public once they were finalized.
Beijing acknowledges the existence of the joint statement on the "comprehensive strategic partnership" issued during Xi's visit but it has not publicly commented on details leaked to media by unnamed Iranian officials.
Jin Liangxiang, a senior fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, a government-affiliated think tank in China, told Wednesday's online forum in Islamabad that Beijing's relations with Tehran have matured in recent years. However, he noted that internal Iranian politics pose a challenge to the proposed 25-year cooperation plan.
"The biggest challenge for Iran is whether Iran can form a national consensus about its cooperation with China," Jin said.
He insisted that the long-term cooperation document was still a draft "even if it exists," but he said it was not a good idea to leak details of such a document.
"In China, we have a very famous saying that if you want to do something, if you really want to achieve something, just do it. If you do not want to do it, you just bring out the plan for discussions, for debates," Jin said.
Pakistan's former ambassador to Iran, Asif Durrani, said Iranian officials might have intentionally leaked details of the draft to "create a hype" to try to gather international reaction. He suggested the statement by Iran's Hosseini could be a damage-control attempt made under pressure from China.
"I think China will be very cautious while dealing with Iran at a time when they have to grapple with American criticism," he said. "They would not want to open another front at this stage. But at the same time, Chinese are not going to annoy regional countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with which they have close to $70 billion trade."