The strategic pact that Iran signed with China in late March is stoking fears that the agreement will lead to a military foothold for Beijing in the Middle East.
The deal envisions China investing some $400 billion in Iran over 25 years in exchange for a steady supply of oil, likely offered at a lower sale price, according to details that the two sides post for public consumption.
But concerns centre on what they do not discuss: the broader strategic co-operation between the two countries, including joint weapons development, military exercises, and intelligence sharing.
From Beijing's perspective, "the point of the deal is for China to gain a foothold in Iran, particularly on the islands of Jask and Kish in the Persian Gulf," said a former Iranian navy analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Enhanced Chinese military co-operation with Iran, resulting from the deal, "is a foregone conclusion", he said.
With this deal, a weakened, globally isolated and cornered Iranian regime -- teetering on the brink of economic collapse -- will be at the mercy of an emboldened and assertive Chinese regime.
Many observers fear Beijing will use one of its main instruments of coercion -- debt, by offering unaffordable loans to and imposes burdensome contracts on vulnerable countries -- to demand even more concessions from Iran, possibly even military ones.
Beijing has already constructed a series of ports along the Indian Ocean, creating a necklace of refuelling and resupply stations from the South China Sea to the Suez Canal, and with the deal focus will now shift to the Iranian ports of Jask and Chabahar.
Ostensibly commercial in nature, the ports would allow its rapidly growing navy to expand its reach.
Deal empowers Revolutionary Guards
The financial windfall resulting from the strategic agreement would also provide direct support to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The IRGC, through its overseas arm, the Quds Force (QF) has been responsible for exporting terror and for arming the Iranian regime's proxy militias throughout the region, including in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen and Afghanistan.
Those militias use rockets, missiles, and drones to bring destruction to these countries and destabilise them.
Iran has already used Chinese technology to improve the accuracy of its missiles and rockets, and any further Chinese military assistance to the IRGC would present a greater security threat to the region, say a number of media reports.
"Although China announced the end of all official missile and nuclear assistance to Iran in the late 1990s after growing international scrutiny on Iran, it has not cracked down on state-owned and nonstate Chinese proliferators that aid Iran’s cruise and ballistic missile programs in violation of US and UN sanctions," said a June 28 report from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
After a decade-long United Nations arms embargo against Iran expired last October, the Chinese regime stands poised to sell weapons to Iran.
"As with every economic deal involving Iran, many of the companies that the regime trusts to engage in business with China will be directly or indirectly tied to the [IRGC]," said Shahin Mohammadi, a US-based Iranian journalist.
Iran's economy is deeply corrupt, and the corruption will enable the IRGC to disproportionately benefit from the deal, he noted, adding that some of that money finances domestic repression.
Other concerns revolve around intelligence co-operation between the two regimes.
The June 28 report also cited investigative reports that uncovered how high-level co-operation between China and Iran led to the loss of dozens of assets over the years.
Chinese interests outrank Iran's
A lack of transparency and the Iranian government's refusal to disclose the details of the deal have contributed to public scepticism toward the agreement.
While hardliners and members of the Rouhani administration have largely defended the deal, many others in Iran are in disagreement.
The flagship daily paper Arman, for instance, published an editorial stating that Iran acted from a disadvantaged position by negotiating the deal with China while still under US sanctions.
The daily quoted analysts as saying that China's previous record in Iran shows that it either fails to deliver or abandons projects at will. Moreover, China has denounced sanctions on Iran only if so doing directly benefits it.
In July 2020, shortly after Rouhani's cabinet approved the deal, Iranian media cited an official at the Foreign Ministry as saying that the two sides were keeping the details secret because Beijing feared blowback from the United States.
The secrecy shows that Iranian officials are putting China's interests before the good of Iran, said media reports.
At least half the Iranian public is highly sceptical of Iran's increased reliance on China, according to public polling.
Sara Beygi, a teacher living in Iran, voiced similar ambivalence.
"On the one hand, I think to myself that the Chinese are coming here to take over everything and that would be the end of our civilisation," she said. "On the other hand, I sometimes think the Islamic Republic has done such a good job of destroying our country that it might as well hand it over to China."