Iranian Media Claim China Still a Friend After Chilly Response to Soleimani Affair

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) shakes hands with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing on December 31, 2019. (Photo by Noel CELIS / POOL / AFP) (Photo by NOEL CELIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
NOEL CELIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Media based in or run by the Iranian authoritarian regime spent much of Monday and Tuesday publishing articles touting friendly relations with China in their English-language outlets. This follows a week in which China has largely remained silent about Iran losing its top terrorist mastermind and Chinese media blasted Iran’s military as “incompetent.”

Iran and China are nominal allies and engage in significant commerce together, so much so that China bore the brunt of a new round of sanctions against Iran levied by the United States this week.

Yet Chinese officials have not publicly offered condolences for the loss of Major General Qasem Soleimani and government-controlled media displayed no patience or understanding after Iran blew a commercial airliner out of the sky last week.

Soleimani was the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, its external terrorism unit tasked with killing American soldiers and expanding Iranian influence abroad. The IRGC is a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization.

Iranian officials admitted on Saturday to shooting Ukrainian International Airlines (UIA) Flight 752 out of the sky with a Russian surface-to-air missile last week. The plane had just taken off from Tehran’s international airport as Iran shot over a dozen ballistic missiles at Iraqi military airbases in response to the U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani. While Iran first claimed the plane spontaneously caught fire, it later admitted an Iranian soldier shot it, mistaking it for an American missile.

Iran has blamed America for Iran shooting the plane out of the sky.

Iran’s state-run Fars News Agency highlighted alleged support from China on Tuesday in an article titled, “China Defends Iran Trade as U.S. Cranks Up Pressure.” The article does not lead with any defense from China, however, but with a report that unnamed “officials” have unmasked a nefarious U.S. plot “to pressure China into halting all its oil and condensate imports from Iran.” It noted that Iran exports about 70 percent of its oil sold abroad to China.

The article highlighted remarks from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang against the new sanctions targeting Chinese companies doing business with Iran – which did not mention Iran, but rather merely condemned the concept of unilateral sanctions.

“We think that sanctions or threats of sanctions will not solve the issues at hand,” Fars quoted Geng as saying.

Geng’s remarks are from Monday’s daily press briefing at the foreign ministry. The official briefing transcript reveals no supportive comments towards Iran in the context of the Soleimani airstrike or Iran’s choice to shoot a civilian plane down. Instead, Geng merely noted: “for a long time, China and Iran have been conducting mutually-beneficial cooperation in various sectors within the framework of international law. Such cooperation, which is justified and lawful and doesn’t harm any third party’s interests, should be respected and protected.”

Fars News Agency also highlighted alleged cooperation between Iran and China on anti-drug initiatives on Tuesday, citing a meeting between an Iranian anti-drug official and a low-level envoy from China.

“In a meeting between Head of Iran’s Drug Control Headquarters (DCH) Eskandar Momeni and Chinese State Councilor Zhao Kezhi in the Chinese capital city of Beijing, the two sides explored avenues of enhancing cooperation between the two countries in the fight against illicit drugs,” the publication noted.

“In this visit, we will strengthen cooperation between the two countries in various fields of combatting drugs, such as countering, treatment, mitigating damages, and prevention at the level of regional and international diplomacy,” Momeni reportedly said.

Iran’s Tasnim news agency attempted to highlight ties between China and Iran on Monday through sports rather than drugs, quoting the captain of the Chinese men’s volleyball team following a defeat at the hands of Iran.

“Congratulations to team Iran for the qualification to the Tokyo Olympic Games. They taught us an impressive lesson. As a volleyball team which ranked 5th in the world in 2016 Olympics, their offense and defense techniques are well worthy of learning,” captain Jiang Chuan reportedly said.

The Chinese government reacted initially to the airstrike against Soleimani with a condemnation of the United States and a defense of Iraq’s – not Iran’s – sovereignty, as that is where the airstrike took place.

“Iraq’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity must be respected, and peace and stability of the Gulf Region in the Middle East must be upheld,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said. “We urge the relevant parties, the US side in particular, to remain calm and restrained and avoid further escalating the tensions.”

Geng did not mention Iran.

Following the missile attack on the UIA flight, China’s foreign ministry issued a short and sober statement of lament for the flight. The Global Times, a Chinese regime-controlled newspaper, condemned Iran for its “incompetent” military fumble.

“There was no excuse for the tragedy and Iran must take responsibility and punish those accountable for downing the jetliner, Chinese analysts said,” the Global Times insisted. “While some Chinese military observers said the operator was left with no choice but to gamble and shoot the suspected missile down to prevent a potential U.S. attack, others said all these mistakes reflected the Iranian military’s poor equipment capabilities and incompetent personnel.”

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