Iran and China signed a 25-year “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” cooperation agreement on 27 March 2021. The 18-page agreement constitutes intensive cooperation between the two countries in the production of oil, gas, petrochemicals, transportation, security, infrastructure development, railways, roads and ports. The new deal also includes coordination in other strategic sectors such as defence, military and information technology, which are essential to China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”.
According to the agreement, China will invest $280 billion in Iran’s energy sector and $120 billion in infrastructure development activities, totalling $400 billion. In return for these investments, meanwhile, Iran will be supplying relatively low-priced oil to China permanently.
The state-controlled Tabnak news agency reported that “the Iranian government has also granted Chinese companies a fishing licence on Iranian maritime borders in the Arabian Gulf and the Sea of Oman,” emphasising that the presence of Chinese fishing vessels in the southern waters of Iran began in 2015. Iranian officials denied this news, however, possibly fearing a public backlash and potential diplomatic fallout.
Iranian news sources also noted that the Chinese have a long-term lease agreement with Iran to fish in the waters around the maritime borders, with China’s trawlers equipped with the technology to fish at a depth of 200 metres. Some Iranian official bodies, such as MP for Jambron (Bandar Abbas), Ahmad Moradi, said that this agreement would destroy the marine environment of the entire region and cause unemployment for thousands of families in Iran.
In fact, the environmental crisis resulting from the agreement with China is viewed as being far more critical for the wellbeing of the region than the comprehensive joint agreement signed on 27 March, with the representative for Robat Karim, Hassan Norouzi, expressing concern for the situation of the region’s environment due to oil dealings with China.
Speaking in the Iranian Parliament, Norouzi warned the Iranian president against granting a fishing concession to the Chinese in southern Iranian waters. Government officials have rejected these statements, insisting, “These allegations are false information.”
Moreover, as a direct result of the agreements between China and Iran in recent years supposedly aimed at development, a number of environmental disasters have already afflicted the long-suffering Ahwaz region, with Chinese companies actively participating in this environmental devastation which has had a terrible impact on the Ahwazi people.
In this context, three points should be considered in making any comprehensive assessment of the impact of the Iran-China agreement on the region’s environment: namely, examining the effects of China’s activities on the region’s environment, analysing China’s failure to abide by international laws related to the environment, and looking at the impact of the oil and gas agreement with China on the region’s environment.
Impact on environment
According to Iranian officials’ statements, Chinese trawler fleets are studying the seafloor together with all forms of marine life there, with the devastating bottom-trawling form of fishing set to effectively strip the region of its entire stock of fish, crustaceans and other life, emptying the Arab Gulf’s waters. There is no doubt that this the depletion of aquatic life in the Arabian Gulf due to these destructive Chinese fishing methods is one of the most serious ecological challenges to ever face the region, and one which is set to destroy the region’s environment.
Bandar Abbas representative, Ahmad Moradi, said that there is ambiguity over how to issue permits to Chinese trawlers for fishing in southern waters, stating recently that: “Secretive and opaque communications in obtaining contracts with Chinese ships and fishing in Iran’s southern waters have a massive impact on the region’s environment because the Chinese will completely destroy aquatic life here.”
Moradi asserted that the activities of the massive Chinese trawler fleet in Iranian waters are a violation, adding: “The number of these vessels has increased from two ships in 2009 to about 120 now.” Moradi indicated that fishing has a severe impact on the region’s environment and the citizens’ economy.
Iranian sources also noted that the Chinese had caught about 2.5 tons of lanterns and sharks in the Gulf region, off the coast of Iran, reporting: “In recent years, the presence of foreign ships, especially the Chinese, in the waters of the Arabian Gulf and the Sea of Oman has increased dramatically.” Chinese activities in the Gulf region caused significant dissatisfaction among fishermen in Baluchistan and three Ahwazi provinces, namely Hormuzgan (south of Ahwaz), Bushehr (central Ahwaz) and Khuzestan (northern Ahwaz).
Lanterns occupy a special place in the aquatic food chain in the Gulf waters, with a decrease in the numbers of this type of fish leading to a reduction in the number of other fish and ultimately affecting the economic situation of local communities reliant on fishing, as well as having a devastating impact on other marine organisms and the environment. Iranian sources have reported that 70,000 tons of lantern fish have been caught in the Arabian Gulf in recent months, with these fish being exported to China, Thailand and Vietnam. Some sources indicated that this fishing violates environmental and economic laws, as well as causing widespread public discontent due to the effects on local fishing communities’ livelihoods.
Abdullah Aref, Head of the Baluchistan Activists’ Campaign, said in an interview with DUSC, that “Fishing licenses issued by government agencies to Chinese trawlers that depend on overfishing have caused severe damage to the marine environment and coral reefs, as well as causing a terrible decline in fish stocks in the Gulf.”
Aref added that Balochi fishermen are already complaining about a severe scarcity of fish due to the intensive fishing of the giant Chinese trawler fleets that sweep the seafloor, destroy the marine environment and damage even the smaller fish not caught up in their nets, all with a green light from the Iranian regime.
Due to this intensive over-fishing and the resulting imbalance in the marine environment, Jask county has already witnessed massive falls in the levels of fishermen’s catches, and severe damage to the remaining marine life in coastal areas, with this scenario repeated three times within one year.
China and international treaties
There is no doubt that China is not bound by international treaties to protect the environment, despite the government in Beijing signing several treaties. China’s failure to abide by international regulations to protect the environment has caused the cumulative adverse effects of pollution to emerge there in increasingly alarming ways, with the country’s leaders indifferent to the consequences and concerns that will arise from the continuation of the status quo. These consequences and concerns and the regime’s indifference are the same in both the domestic and international contexts.
China is one of the world’s biggest environmental polluters countries that cause environmental pollution, so China should solve global environmental problems due to its size and escalating economic growth. China ratified the London Amendments to the Montreal Protocol in 1991 and the Copenhagen Amendments in 2003. However, China still has not complied with all laws to stop environmental pollution.
So far, China has signed several international environmental treaties. However, the extent of Beijing’s apparent lack of commitment to adhering to the terms of these treaties and the factors affecting compliance have not been systematically investigated by the international community, although the Beijing regime’s evident failure to comply has already caused severe environmental consequences in many countries worldwide.
Speaking with DUSC, Irina Tsukerman, an American International Lawyer, noted that “China is one of the worst violators of international treaties and regulations concerning the environment in the world.” She pointed out that this includes high levels of indoor and outdoor atmospheric pollution (including heavy smog), a destructive impact on water, desertification, and soil pollution, all of which have been surging in tandem with the country’s industrialisation, putting both the local population and the international community at risk.
Tsukerman added that China has not been forthcoming about environmental regulations or other measures to protect the environment. It is quite clear that China is one of the most significant contributors to the negative impact on the human environment, as well as being a growing consumer of other fossil fuels, with no known measures taken to offset the impact.
Tsukerman also noted that the government in China has no real reason forcing it to abide by international laws for several reasons: primarily, as a member of the Security Council, China has the right to veto any international resolutions condemning its actions, giving it the reassurance that it can do almost anything with impunity. Beijing has no incentive to improve nor any sense of accountability because care for the environment, despite a commitment to internationalist rhetoric, has never been a part of the Communist mentality.
The international lawyer also pointed out that China’s totalitarian regime has had a profound and almost wholly negative impact in recent years wherever it is involved. In many African countries, China has destroyed the local business climate; those nations which call upon Beijing to help with the construction of infrastructure end up with unfinished amenities, with the CCP also refusing to hire locals, destroying the environment with its practices, and creating massive debt traps. She emphasised: “We have also already seen Sri Lanka and other smaller countries in Asia and Europe facing the impact of China’s unsustainable ‘Belt and Road’ initiative that even Beijing cannot fully afford.”
Oil and gas impact on the environment
The Iranian agreement with China in the oil and gas sector has also had a serious adverse impact on the environmental scene in the region. According to the agreement, China will invest around $280 billion in oil, gas and petrochemicals, but the agreement does not obligate China to protect the environment or respect international laws. Given these factors and China’s previous behaviour elsewhere, Ahwazi researchers believe that the deal will have a strong negative impact on the Gulf environment, marine organisms, trees and soil.
Nuri Hamza, a researcher in Iranian affairs, told DUSC that Chinese companies have already played a major role in plundering Ahwazi wealth and destroying the environment through previous agreements with Iran’s regime. He pointed out that the Chinese and Iranian economic relations began in 1988, when flights increased between Tehran and Beijing, with the intention of attracting Chinese companies to invest in Ahwaz, which caused a stir among the economic mafia associated with Iranian intelligence agency and the so-called Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. However, the relationships first became public in 2006.
Hamza added that since they first entered Ahwaz, Chinese companies had played a massively destructive environmental role, wreaking devastation on the region’s ecosystem and wildlife. Hamza recalled that according to an article published by the Iranian newspaper ‘Kayhan’ on 2 February 2014, Chinese personnel working on the oil exploration project in the Hor Al-Azim wetlands were merciless on everything that exists in the Ahwazi wetlands. This resulted in a situation that left the birds, mammals and aquatic life in the marshes on the verge of extinction as a result of Chinese workers eating the reptiles, fish and amphibians, draining swamps and burning vast areas of reeds and other vegetation.
Abdullah Aref further noted that the Chinese-Iranian agreement is also causing environmental devastation in Baluchistan, which he added will affect the demographics of the region due to the migration of many Balochis due to environmental pollution and lack of job opportunities. There is no doubt that the same horrendous levels of environmental pollution seen in Ahwaz as a result of petrochemical refineries and oil and gas drilling will soon be witnessed in Baluchistan, where the Iranian regime is similarly indifferent to the health of the Balochi people or the safety of the environment. Aref said that the Iranian regime’s failure to adhere to environmental protection is also causing the spread of disease among citizens.
The agreement between Iran and China is an important and potentially catastrophic strategic shift in the Chinese regime’s policy towards the global order and regional policies. Although Beijing’s stated policy on the environment is ambiguous, its practices are devastating, endangering humans, marine and terrestrial creatures. China, through Iran, will strongly impose its presence in the Arab Gulf region and the Middle East, endangering the entire region’s ecosystem as a whole due to China’s indifference to the environment.
There is no doubt that Iranian and Chinese economic activity in the field of energy and fishing will lead to restrictions on people in all aspects of life, including intensifying droughts and floods, and systematic marginalisation of minorities, destroying marine life and reducing job opportunities for fishermen in order to displace Ahwazis from their villages and cities. The agreement with China will rapidly destroy the region’s environment, because the deal gives China absolute control over Iranian energy, with China set to make every effort to impose its control on energy security in the region without any respect for the environment. The Chinese experience also proves that China will become a major threat to affect the region’s environment through Iran.