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Chinese Technology Aiding Islamic Republic’s Crackdown on Protests

Protesters call on the United Nations to take action against the treatment of women in Iran, following the death of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police, during a demonstration in New York City on November 19, 2022. YUKI IWAMURA / AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Protesters call on the United Nations to take action against the treatment of women in Iran, following the death of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police, during a demonstration in New York City on November 19, 2022. YUKI IWAMURA / AFP/GETTY IMAGES

As protests in Iran continue well into the third month following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s morality police for her hijab wear, new information reveals that the mullahs have relied heavily on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to aid in the repression of protests.

In cracking down on protesters, the regime in Iran has deployed its Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Basij paramilitary forces, and plainclothes forces to arrest, beat, and brutally kill protesters. 

Even though various human rights organizations have reported in recent days that the regime has killed around 300 protesters, experts familiar with the Islamic Republic say that the numbers are significantly higher than what is being reported.

The crackdown by security forces has been aided particularly by the regime’s ally, the People the People’s Republic of China (PRC), even as it grapples with its own domestic unrest generated by an unsustainable “zero-COVID” strategy, according to Ilan Berman, Senior Vice President of American Foreign Policy Council. 

Berman and many other national security experts note that Beijing has been a significant player in helping Iran’s ruling ayatollahs repress the country’s captive population, providing the regime with weapons, intelligence, and technology to spy and trace citizens.

“Birds of a feather flock together. Both China and Iran are led by totalitarian ideological parties that see themselves as the vanguard of global anti-western revolutions. Despite ideological differences both are happy to cooperate against the U.S., which each has identified as an archenemy” said Jim Philips, a Senior Research Fellow at the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy. 

According to Philips, “Iran’s theocratic dictatorship, locked into a confrontation with the United States, is drifting into China’s orbit. 

The Iran-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement signed in Tehran in March 2021 and Iran’s joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in September underscore the expansion of political, economic, and strategic ties between the two regimes.

“These evolving ties have strengthened Iran’s ability to resist sanctions, eased its isolation and aided its efforts to achieve regional hegemony,” he added.

In a new study  by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), the organization found that the Islamic government representatives have “publicized plans to leverage smart technologies, including AI-powered face recognition, to maintain regime stability and neutralize dissent.” 

“Enhanced cooperation with China is central to those efforts,” the report said.

The study by FDD focuses on Tiandy Technologies, a Tianjin-based technology company that, over the last several years, has emerged as a significant leader in surveillance and monitoring technologies like facial recognition, artificial intelligence-driven emotion detection software, and closed-circuit television. 

According to the study, the technology from the firm has been used by the Communist government in China to repress the country’s Uyghur Muslim population.

“Both Tiandy testimonials and Chinese government press releases advertise the use of the company’s products by Chinese officials to track and interrogate Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang province,” the report reads. 

Human rights groups note that Chinese authorities also employ Tiandy devices like “tiger chairs” to torture Uyghurs and other minorities.

According to the report, last year Tiandy’s repressive tech allowed China to prop up strategic partners like Iran, with tech firms supplying the IRGC, the Iranian national police, and the military with several key social control products, ranging from surveillance video recorders to thermal imaging cameras. 

In turn, Iranian authorities have leaned on Tiandy’s tech in their efforts to clamp down on current protests.

The report also says that in 2010, Chinese tech firms like ZTE played a major role in allowing the Islamic Republic to throttle its political opposition in the aftermath of the Green Revolution protests in 2009. 

The tech firm sold the Islamic government surveillance technology to monitor landline, mobile, and internet communications that belonged to ordinary Iranians. 

The regime has utilized this tech to “coup proof” their government, tracking down political opponents and agitators to prevent a repeat of the Green Movement in 2009.

Since then, more Chinese tech firms have found a receptive client in Tehran’s clerical elite, and their business within the Islamic Republic has boomed. According to Berman, in a 2021 survey, at least eight major Chinese technology companies, including Tiandy and Huawei, were actively lending their expertise to building a surveillance state for the mullahs.

Additionally, in 2021, China and Iran came to terms on a 25-year strategic pact worth several billions of dollars, allowing the PRC to gain preferential access to infrastructure projects throughout the Islamic Republic, its telecom sector, and critical port access for its navy along the Strait of Hormuz.

However, according to Philips and other analysts familiar with Iran and China’s relationship, many say that the regime in Tehran “needs China more than China’s regime needs Iran,” and that the U.S. should “exploit this asymmetry by driving up the costs to Beijing of close ties to Iran, reducing its economic benefits and curtailing the potential benefits to Tehran of close ties to China.”

In the U.S.,congressional lawmakers and Senators sent a letter to the Biden administration regarding Tiandy’s support of the Iranian regime and asking pointed questions about whether the company should be sanctioned for its role in helping crush the current protests.

“Washington should stress that unless Beijing encourages Tehran to compromise on its nuclear program and end its proxy attacks, Iran will continue along its current collision course with the U.S. and its allies. That could undermine Chinese economic interests in the region and disrupt regional oil exports that Beijing depends on,” said Philips.

Philips, like many other experts, believes that the Biden administration should “boost the costs and risks to Beijing of closer ties with Tehran, not only in terms of Sino-American relations but also in terms of China’s relations with other states threatened by Iran.”

“Chief among these are the Gulf Arab states and Israel, whose mutual concerns about Iran were a factor in the forging of the Abraham Accords. China currently has a much bigger economic and trade relationship with these countries than with Iran, and that imbalance is likely to grow further due to U.S. sanctions.”

According to Philips, the Biden administration should “end its self-defeating policy of eagerly seeking to revive the flawed 2015 nuclear deal by relaxing pressure on Iran. Returning to a maximum pressure approach is far more promising. Such a pivot on sanctions would not only improve the chances for a satisfactory outcome of nuclear negotiations with Iran but would reduce Beijing’s economic incentives for building closer ties with Iran.”

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