As President Raisi Visits China: Renewed Debate on Iran's Policy regarding Uyghur Muslims
IraniX No. 11 | March 2023
Written and Edited by Dr. Raz Zimmt
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's visit to China in the latter half of February 2023 renewed the internal debate on the official policy of the Iranian regime, which has refused to speak out against China's treatment of its Muslim-Uyghur population. Sparking the debate was the former Reformist Majles member Mahmoud Sadeghi's criticism of Tehran's continuous indifference towards the oppression of Uyghurs. This led to criticism from hardline pro-regime circles who defended Iran's official policy - which is to refuse to comment on China's treatment of its Uyghur population. The renewed argument falls within the context of a more general debate on Iran's policy towards China, especially in light of the Islamic Republic's increased reliance on the anti-American alliance led by Russia and China, as part of its "Look to the East" strategy.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's visit to China in the second half of February 2023 renewed the years-long debate on the Islamic Republic's policy regarding Uyghur Muslims and their oppression by the Chinese authorities. This controversy was renewed when former Reformist Majles member Mahmoud Sadeghi criticized the Iranian government's ongoing indifference towards the oppression of Uyghurs, during the President's visit to Beijing. On February 14th, Sadeghi tweeted a demand that the President protest the Chinese government's policies. Sadeghi, a known Reformist who was a member of the Majles from 2016 – 2020, claimed that as President of a country that is considered the political and religious center of Islam (Umm al-Qura), Raisi should have raised objections to his Chinese counterpart in light of their treatment of Uyghur Muslims.
Moreover, two days later, in an op-ed published in the reformist newspaper E'temad, Sadeghi wrote that the government is bound by the Islamic law and the Iranian constitution to protect Muslims. He cited Iranian support for Muslims in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Palestine and Iraq as examples of this protective policy, claiming this commitment does not extend to the Muslims in China. Sadeghi added that the Uyghurs share a close cultural and linguistic bond with Iran, and elaborated upon the Chinese government's attempts to oppress their Muslim identities, to ban their religion and to subjugate them in various manners, including expulsion from universities, forced labor, prevention of childbirth, and forced indoctrination camps. According to Sadeghi, the Iranian government cannot remain indifferent in light of this reality, and must use its ties with China in order to demand the realization of the Uyghur's rights. He emphasized that although no one wants to create tension between the countries, the Chinese should at least have been requested to provide information and clarifications regarding the state of Muslims in their country.
Sadeghi's words provoked criticism among pro-regime hardliners . They spoke out in defense of Iran's official policy, which refuses to criticize China's treatment of its Uyghur population, and rejected Sadeghi's claim for two major reasons: the Uyghur's alleged sympathies with extremist Islamist-Sunni ideologies associated with ISIS and Al Qaeda, and the Uyghur's support for the Iranian opposition, especially the People's Mujahedin organization (MEK). As testimony to the Uyghurs' collaboration with this organization, a few media outlets affiliated with the Iranian regime published a video clip documenting Rebiya Kadeer, an Uyghur political activist, at a conference held by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the political arm of MEK, , convened several years ago and headed by the organization's leader Maryam Rajavi. According to pro-regime elements, the ties between the Uyghurs and the Iranian opposition attest to the fact that like the MEK, the Uyghurs are also a "terrorist group in the guise of Islam".
Sadeghi's stance on Iranian lack of support for the Uyghurs also inspired criticism on social media. On Twitter, one user commented that the Reformists and the Western countries support Muslims of one kind only: separatists and supporters of terrorism. Another user attacked Sadeghi for his support of the Uyghurs, who are "Wahabis, the pillars of Israel, and separatists." Yet another accused Reformists like Sadeghi with claims that their opposition to the Islamic Republic was what stood at the base of their support of extremist Sunni-Islamic organizations and their indifference to the Western desecration of Islam and the Muslims in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
This is not the first time that Iran's policies towards China regarding its Uyghur population have launched a public and political debate in the Islamic Republic. In July of 2009 there were violent clashes between Chinese authorities and the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang in Western China, leading to the death of over 150 people. The Iranian regime's relative indifference to the Chinese oppression of the riots inspired harsh criticism among senior clerics and media outlets. Senior cleric Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi condemned the oppression of Muslims in China and noted that despite the two countries' close and friendly political and economic relations, Iran could not turn a blind eye towards the violent oppression of Muslims in China. Tabnak news website asserted that Iran's policy towards the Chinese events constituted a double standard when comparing the mistreatment of Muslims in China to the mistreatment of Muslims in Palestine. The website raised the question of whether relations with Communist China were more important than the murder of Chinese Muslims.
In summer of 2020, this argument was rekindled after Majles member Ali Motahari criticized China's policy towards the Uyghurs. Motahari, the son of one of the Islamic Revolution's main ideologists, is a moderate conservatist who has taken a critical stance against the regime's conduct on controversial issues. In a series of public statements in late July and early August of 2020, the former Majles deputy chairman said that the Iranian government was keeping quiet regarding the Muslims in China because it needed the latter's financial support. He noted that there was no difference between Chinese and Palestinian or Yemenite Muslims, and that Iran's policies were a humiliation for the Islamic Republic. These statements also inspired opposition on part of hardliner supporters of the regime, who went as far as to blame him for harming national security. Some of his critics claimed that there was no basis for the reports on the oppression of Uyghurs in China, and that the Chinese government's struggle against the Uyghurs was not aimed at Muslims but rather at extremist separatists and supporters of terrorism.
The debate on Iran's attitudes towards the Uyghurs is part of a more comprehensive and extensive discussion on Iranian policies toward China. After the Islamic revolution, especially following the Iran-Iraq war, Iran was in need of military, financial and technological support that China was capable of providing. When Western organizations left Iran in the early 2000's due to the economic sanctions imposed by the West, China maintained and even expanded its influence in Iran. It has become the country's leading investment and commercial partner as well as the primary buyer of Iranian oil. The period subsequent to the removal of sanctions after the nuclear agreement signed by Iran and the Western powers in July of 2015 was characterized by then President Hassan Rouhani's attempt to attract as many foreign investors as possible and to open the Iranian market to Western players, with an emphasis on European and Far Eastern companies. However, due to the Trump administration's decision to withdraw the nuclear deal in May of 2018 and resume economic sanctions against Iran, the Iranian leadership was forced to renew its reliance on China and request its aid in efforts to circumvent these sanctions. The "Look to the East" policy adopted under the leadership of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was also encouraged by disappointment from Europe's failure to create mechanisms that would enable its continued economic cooperation with Iran.
Contrary to those supporting the expansion of the cooperation with the Chinese, opponents to this approach claim that Beijing is exploiting and increasing its profits at the expense of Iran's failing economy, and that as a result Iran has developed a disproportional dependency on China. Despite this criticism, Iranian leadership continues to support close alliances with China and Russia while feigning indifference with regard to the state of the Muslims in these countries. The Iranian regime's preference of national interests over ideology is nothing new. Thus, for example, in the 1990's Iran did not aid or express support for Chechen Muslims struggling against Moscow. The Islamic Republic's official policy on the Chinese issue reiterates the preference of national interests by the government, albeit while making various claims to justify this policy, which constitutes an exception from the revolutionary ideal of Islamic solidarity and support for Muslims around the world.
For an extended discussion see Raz Zimmt, "Islamic Solidarity in Action: Iran's Reaction to the Riots in Western China", Iran Pulse no. 36, August 13, 2009, Alliance Center for Iranian Studies, https://en-humanities.tau.ac.il/iranian/publications/irans_pulse/2009-2. For more on Chinese-Iranian relations, see Liora Hendelman and Shing Yau-Ma, "From Red Dragon to Warrior Wolf: Iran-China Relations during the First Wave of COVID-19", Iran Pulse no. 107, June 14, 2020, Alliance Center for Iranian Studies, https://en-humanities.tau.ac.il/ACIS_IranPulse_107.
 For extended discussion see Reza Haqiqatnejhad, "Iran Hardliners Claim China is Serving Islam by Suppressing Uyghur Muslims", Radio Farda, August 4, 2020, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/iran-hardliners-claim-china-is-serving-islam-by-suppressing-uyghur-muslims-/30766289.html.