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The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir

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Few issues in recent years have seen as intensive high-level, international negotiations as Iran’s nuclear program. Unfortunately, the account by Mousavian, an Iranian policymaker and scholar, will probably become the definitive book about that effort.

A more important work, but one unlikely to get as much attention, is from a team led by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which examines in detail how Iran’s nuclear program fits within the broader challenge to U.S. interests from the Islamic Republic.

Mousavian’s account gains credibility from his previous position as spokesman for Iran’s nuclear negotiating team as well as through the vigorous promotion of his views on U.S. television and at lectures in elite venues. His personal story is intriguing: An important official on Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, he was, in effect, jailed for his opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and is now a fellow at Princeton, though clearly still deeply supportive of the Islamic Republic. But the reason his book will become the standard reference is not necessarily due to his pedigree: It is the care with which it was prepared, with 1,113 footnotes to all the right sources. On question after question, Mousavian recounts the facts in detail, providing the references to check up and follow further.

But for all that Mousavian gets the details right, he casts the nuclear impasse in a profoundly misleading way. The fundamental problem has always been that Iran has not lived up to its obligations under the international agreements to which it is a party. At its heart, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a trade-off: Countries have the right to dangerous nuclear technology if they accept the responsibility to be fully transparent about what they are doing. The irony is that had Iran, an NPT signatory, followed through on the requirements of the treaty, Washington may have been profoundly unhappy about Iran’s nuclear progress but could have done little to mobilize international pressure. On this, as so many other issues, the Islamic Republic’s leaders have systematically miscalculated where Iran’s national interests lie. Their attitude, shared by Mousavian, is the profound arrogance of asserting rights but refusing responsibilities.

In Mousavian’s account, Iran never did anything worse than miss some tactical opportunities. And in his telling, that only happened after he left the job. Mousavian makes a persuasive case that Iran was better served by his policy, which was to blow smoke in the West’s eyes rather than to spit into them. The prolonged negotiations he describes persuaded Europe that Iran should be offered incentives and not penalized so as to entice it into further negotiations and temporary concessions. His team understood the importance of looking reasonable, whereas Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i’s priority seems to be what the ayatollah called resistance to “global arrogance.”[1]

In contrast to Iran’s excellent track record, Mousavian presents the West—especially the United States—as continuously taking unreasonable positions and missing chances to improve relations. But not surprisingly, there is a telling omission: The George W. Bush administration is often castigated for spurning an alleged May 2003 Iranian “grand bargain” to open talks with Washington about all the issues separating the two sides. Mousavian makes no mention of it whatsoever.

While Mousavian recognizes that many issues besides the nuclear program separate Washington and Tehran, the Council on Foreign Relations’ (CFR) Iran: The Nuclear Challenge edited by Blackwill simply ignores that strategic context. While it could be argued that the CFR report is intentionally only about the nuclear issue, the obvious response is that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities is not isolated from its other activities, nor are vital U.S. interests about Iran confined to its nuclear program: Most U.S. sanctions on Iran can be justified as reactions to its state support of terrorism, not just its nuclear program.

This narrow focus on Iran’s nuclear program is all the more striking given the main theme in Blackwill’s insightful concluding essay: Consider carefully and do not jump to conclusions. He warns against unanticipated consequences, artificial analogies, false certainty, and short-term thinking that ignores longer term repercussions. He suggests eleven pertinent questions to focus thinking about a potential preemptive attack, bringing great depth of knowledge to the subject. Regrettably, he hardly mentions how actions on the nuclear issue could affect broader U.S. interests regarding Iran. In particular, his essay is infused with the implicit view that the Islamic Republic is a given, not an unnatural system whose days may be numbered. If one concludes that the Islamic Republic will, at some point in time, disappear, then U.S. policy thinking ought to be much more about timing: Delaying the nuclear program becomes a potential route to successful resolution of the problems between the two states, depending on what nuclear policy a successor regime might pursue.

The six other authors in the CFR volume offer much insight about sanctions, negotiations, military options, regime change, the implications of a nuclear-armed Iran as well as what is known about the Iranian nuclear program. But their lens is so centered on the nuclear issue that everything else is essentially left out of the picture. For instance, Elliott Abrams’ essay on regime change, while presenting a thoughtful evaluation of current U.S. programs and practical suggestions for alternatives, devotes exactly one sentence to the nonnuclear advantages for U.S. strategic interests were the Islamic Republic to fall. Surely the end of the mullahcracy would have vast repercussions on world Islamist movements and on the Middle East. To take one point that preoccupies U.S. Persian Gulf allies: Were Washington to form a close working relationship with a friendly Tehran, might that make relations with the gulf monarchies less important to U.S. administrations? Under those circumstances, Washington might choose to be more supportive of the forces calling for democratic reform in those countries, a prospect the ruling families find profoundly unsettling.

In comparison to the tight focus of the CFR volume, the great strength of U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition is that Cordesman, et al., capture the full character of U.S.-Iran relations. They demonstrate that the United States and Iran are in a low-level war, or in “strategic competition,” a phrase often used in national security circles. That war has many fronts, which the authors cover in great (sometimes excessive) detail. Separate chapters, generally coauthored by Cordesman and one or more collaborators, cover the nature of the strategic competition in general, as well as sanctions and energy, the gulf military balance, and competition between Washington and Tehran in various parts of the world including Iraq, the Levant, Turkey, the Caucasus, “Af–Pak,” Europe, Russia, China, Latin America, and Africa. The concluding chapter, on policy implications, stresses that the U.S. administrations must compete with the Iranians in a wide array of geographic arenas and with many policy instruments. That is, in effect, something Washington is now doing but not always with a conscious understanding of how all these disparate efforts should fit together.

Cordesman is led to the pessimistic conclusion that the mullahs’ pursuit of nuclear weapons is part of a concerted strategy around which the entire military and national security strategy is built. Restrictions on Tehran’s enrichment activities, he argues, are not likely to impede Iran’s nuclear progress much because it has developed such a varied and robust set of nuclear weapons-related programs (including delivery options) that it could break down the remaining work into compartmentalized programs. Each is readily concealed and could be presented to a credulous international community as peaceful in intent. He concludes that if one studies the full range of strategic competition between Washington and Tehran, the current P5+1-Iran negotiations—even if fully successful—would make only a small difference in the mullahs’ challenge to U.S. policymakers and not much of a difference to its nuclear pursuits.

Cordesman’s message is not likely to have the resonance of Mousavian’s. Too many in the West seem inclined to assume that Iran is being reasonable in the current nuclear impasse and that more understanding of the developing world is needed. Unfortunately, if history is any guide, few international problems can be solved through the greater display of empathy, especially toward rogue regimes.

Patrick Clawson is director for research at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir

by Seyed Hossein Mousavian
Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012. 597 pp. $25, paper.

Also:

Iran: The Nuclear Challenge
Edited by Robert Blackwill. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2012. 77+xii pp. $9.99, paper.

U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition
by Anthony Cordesman, Adam Mausner, and Aram Nerguizian
Washington D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2012. 937 pp. Free download.

Reviewed by Patrick Clawson

Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2013, pp. 87-89

 http://www.meforum.org/3495/the-iranian-nuclear-crisis-a-memoir

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The 25-year China-Iran agreement

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On March 27, 2021, a document entitled “Comprehensive Document of Iran-China Cooperation” was signed by Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, and his Chinese counterpart. The Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had previously called “the agreement between the presidents of Iran and China correct and wise.” However, the Iranian people have widely criticized it as entirely against their national interests. Iranian officials have not even publicized the document’s contents yet probably because it is highly contentious.

In 2019, excerpts from this document were revealed by the Economist Petroleum news site. The details included:

  • China invests $460 billion in Iranian oil and transportation sectors. China will get its investment back from the sale of Iranian crude during the first five years.
  • China buys Iranian petroleum products at least 32% cheaper.
  • The Chinese can decide before other companies whether to participate in completing all or part of a petrochemical project.
  • 50,000 Chinese security personnel will be deployed to protect Chinese projects in Iran.
  • China has the right to delay the repayment of its debts for up to two years in exchange for Iranian products’ purchase.
  • At least one Russian company will be allowed to participate in the Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline design together with the Chinese operator.
  • Every year, 110 senior Revolutionary Guards officers travel to China and Russia for military training. 110 Chinese and Russian advisers will be stationed in Iran to train Revolutionary Guards officers.
  • Development of Iranian military equipment and facilities will be outsourced to China, and Chinese and Russian military aircraft and ships will operate the developed facilities.

Even some circles within the regime have criticized the agreement. The state-run Arman newspaper wrote, “China has a 25-year contract with Iran and is investing $460 billion in Iran. It is somewhat ambiguous. Presently, China is holding the money it owes us and blames it on the U.S. sanctions. How can we trust this country to invest $460 billion in Iran?”

Last year, Iran and China had the lowest trade in the previous 16 years, and according to statistics, by the end of 2020, the volume of trade between Iran and China was about $16 billion, which, including undocumented oil sales, still does not reach $20 billion.

Jalal Mirzaei, a former member of Iran’s parliament, said: “If in the future the tensions between Tehran and Washington are moderated, and we see the lifting of some of the sanctions, China can also provide the basis for implementing the provisions of this document, but if the situation continues like today, Beijing will not make any effort to implement the document, as it is essentially unable to take concrete action on the ground because of the sanctions.”

China’s objectives

Iran is vital to China in two ways, through its geopolitical location and its geo-economic importance. China knows that it does not have enough natural resources and is currently having a hard time supplying them from Russia and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia supplies its energy needs from oil giant Aramco, half of which is owned by the United States. That is why China is looking for a safe alternative that the United States will not influence, and the only option is Iran. They may also have a two-pronged plan in Iran, which involves using Iran’s profitable market and making Iran into a lever of pressure against the United States for additional concessions.

The Iranian regime’s objectives

The deal could deepen China’s influence in the Middle East and undermine U.S. efforts to isolate the Iranian regime. While the international dispute over the Iranian regime’s nuclear program has not been resolved, it is unclear how much this agreement could be implemented. The regime intends to make it a bargaining chip in possible future nuclear negotiations. However, some of Iran’s top authorities believe that China and Russia cannot be trusted 100 percent.

Due to the sanctions, the regime has a tough time to continue providing financial support to its proxy militias in the region. The regime also faced two major domestic uprisings in 2017 and 2019. Khamenei’s regime survived the widespread uprisings by committing a massacre, killing 1,500 young protesters in the 2019 uprising alone, according to the Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and later confirmed by the Iranian regime’s Interior Ministry officials. Now with the coronavirus pandemic, Khamenei has been able to delay another major uprising.

Iran’s economy is on the verge of collapse. Khamenei must bow to western countries’ demands regarding the nuclear issue, including an end to its regional interventions and its ballistic missile program. Khamenei will struggle to save his regime from s imminent uprisings and a deteriorating economy that will undoubtedly facilitate more protests by the army of the unemployed and the hungry at any moment.

Unlike the 2015 JCPOA, the Iranian regime in 2021 is in a much weaker position. In fact, by many accounts, it is the weakest in its 40-year history. By signing the recent Iran-China agreement and auctioning Iranian resources, Khamenei wants to pressure the United States to surrender and restore the 2015 JCPOA as quickly as possible. But in the end, this pivot will not counteract domestic pressures that target the regime’s very existence.

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China-Arab Relations: From Silk to Friendship

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China and the Arabs have a long and rich economic and cultural history, and this distinguished relationship still exists today, with a promising future. This bilateral relationship between the two nations is based on the principles of respect and non-interference in internal affairs or foreign policies. Therefore, China’s relationship with the Arabs as well as with other nations is unique and a model to be followed. If you meet a Chinese person, the first phrase will be “Alabo” or an Arab in Mandarin, and he/she will welcome you. The Chinese state’s dealings with its counterparts can be measured based on the model of this Chinese citizen. China deals with the Arabs on the basis of friendship and historical ties.

The history of Sino-Arab relations goes back to the Tang Dynasty, and these relations developed with the flourishing of trade between the two nations. Since China was famous for its high quality silk, this trade route was called the “Silk Road”. Baron Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, better known in English as Baron von Richthofen, was a German traveller, geographer, and scientist. He is noted for coining the terms “Seidenstraße” and “Seidenstraßen” = “Silk Road” or “Silk Route” in 1877.

Chinese-Arab relations have developed in contemporary history. In 1930, China established official relations with the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A library in China was named the “Fouad Islamic Library”, after the late Egyptian king, “Fuad the First”. In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser cut ties with China and established relations with the Communist People’s Republic of China and inaugurated an embassy in Egypt. In the same year, the Arab League established relations with the People’s Republic of China. By the year 1990, all Arab countries cut their relations with the Republic of China and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

In 2004, the China-Arab Cooperation Forum was established, and today it is considered a milestone for the Sino-Arab relationship. At its inauguration, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing delivered a speech stating:“The Arab world is an important force on the international scene, and that China and the Arab countries have enjoyed a long friendship. Our similar history, our common goals and our broad interests have been credited with enhancing cooperation between the two sides; no matter how the international situation changes, China has always been the sincere friend of the Arab world”. The China-Arab Cooperation Forum was officially established during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the headquarters of the League of Arab States in January of 2004.

Hu Jintao indicated at that time that the formation of the forum is a continuation of the traditional friendship between China and the Arab world. The Chinese president said at the time, “The establishment of the forum is conducive to expanding mutual cooperation in a variety of fields. He added that China had made four proposals; First, maintaining mutual respect, fair treatment and sincere cooperation at the political level. Second, strengthening economic and trade relations through cooperation in the fields of investment and trade, contracted projects, labor services, energy, transportation, communications, agriculture, environmental protection and information. Third, expand cultural exchanges. Finally, conducting training for the employees.”

During the second session of the forum in Beijing in 2006, China showed its sympathy for the issues of the Arab world and its interest in the peace process between Palestine and Israel, since China is a peace-loving country; it presented the idea of “a nuclear-free Middle East”. China is the best friend of the Arab countries today. Although some Arab countries have strong relations with the West whose policy does not match the Chinese policy, but all Arab countries agree on friendly and good relations with the People’s Republic of China.

The Arab citizen is not interested today in the foreign policy of the US, the deadly weapons of the US and Russia, or European culture, but rather the livelihood and economy, and this is what China provides through its wise economic policy. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative, or New Silk Road, which will restore glow to China-Arab relations; as the Arab world is in a strategic location on the initiative map. Thus, the Arab countries are an important partner for China in the initiative. Although the volume of trade exchanges between China and the Arab countries exceeded 200 billion US dollars, which increased 10 times over the past decade, there was no commercial and institutional arrangement to facilitate trade between the two sides.

China, as a peaceful and non-invasive country, aims to promote economic cooperation with Arab region on an equal basis because it considers the Arab world a historic partner. The historical experience of the Arabs with the Chinese through the Silk Road has confirmed that China differs from the nations of colonialism and imperialism, which consider the Arab region a place rich in natural resources only. In his historic speech at the Arab League, Chinese President Xi stressed that China will not seek to extend influence and search for proxies in the Middle East. The Chinese initiatives will contribute to establishing security and stability through economic development and improving the people’s livelihood, in line with the post-2015 development agenda and the aspirations of the Arab people for a better life, as the Chinese experience proves that development is the key to digging out the roots of conflicts and extremism in all its forms.

China is a neutral country and does not favor the use of violence. During the Syrian crisis, for example, the Chinese envoy to the Security Council raised his hand three times, meaning that China, with its wise diplomacy, supported the Syrian regime without entering the military war. During the recent Chinese military parade, Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed some Chinese military capabilities and thus sent a message to the enemies that China will always be ready if a war is imposed on it, and a message of support to China’s allies. The Arab region today needs a real partner who possesses economic and military power and international political influence, such as China; to ensure the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, and to consolidate the China-Arab relations and raise it to the level of a strategic alliance.

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The analysis of developments in relations between Turkey and Israel

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The fear of Biden’s Administration, the concern over the Abraham Accords (see below), the positioning of the geopolitical status in the Middle East, and the safeguarding of interests in Israel are the main factors through which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seeks to improve relations with Israel which, however, he connects to the Palestinians.

The statements made by Turkish President Erdoğan’s on developments in relations with Israel have confirmed media reports of his repeated attempts to reach an understanding on several controversial issues, as well as paving the way for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. The statements made by President Erdoğan, as well as other Turkish officials, have stressed the connection between the change in Turkish-Israeli relations and Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian issue.

The “linking principle” connecting the two issues has been a key factor in Turkish foreign policy since the 1950s, and it operates in the range between words and deeds, which at times have also led to severe crises in the relations between the two countries.

At the time Turkey opposed the partition plan, but recognised Israel and maintained diplomatic relations with it. Relations were suspended after the second Arab-Israeli war in 1956, when Turkey recalled its diplomatic representative from Tel Aviv, announcing he would not return there “until a just solution to the Palestinian issue was found in accordance with UN Resolutions”.

After rising to power, President Erdoğan has developed the aforementioned “linking principle”. Against the backdrop of Israel’s actions with the Palestinians, Turkey has increased its political and economic support for its Muslim brethren and caused crises.

President Erdoğan’s recent statements have been made against the backdrop of this policy: on the one hand, the Turkish President has expressed his country’s desire to improve relations with Israel and continue intelligence cooperation; on the other hand, he has maintained that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is “unacceptable”.

It is important to note that Turkey will not relinquish the “linking principle”, which differs from the principle of the new Arab normalisation, based on the separation between the Palestinian issue and relations with Israel. The so-called Abraham Accords, such as the recognition of the State of Israel by the United Arab Emirates in September last year: the third Arab country to formally recognise Israel, after Egypt and Jordan; the fourth one if we considers Mauritania’s “frozen” recognition.

The policy implemented by President Erdoğan is not only shaped by foreign relations, but is also a Turkish internal issue in which public opinion plays a key role. It seems that until elections are held in Turkey (scheduled for June 25, 2023), there will be no complete normalisation with Israel. The majority of the Turkish population supports the Palestinians and their rights, feels full solidarity for them and opposes the Israeli presence.

Moreover, President Erdoğan regards the Palestinian issue as an important factor in building a renewed Turkish Muslim national identity. These stances increase his popularity and strengthen people’s support for him and his party, as well as his authority and prestige in the Muslim world.

At the same time, however, this policy also has pragmatic implications: President Erdoğan is not severing ties with Israel, but merely creating actions that lead to symptoms of “diplomatic” crises.

Despite this wait-and-see attitude, economic ties between Turkey and Israel are flourishing. According to official data, in 2018 exports from Turkey to Israel were worth 6.5 billion dollars and imports 1.9 billion dollars (excluding diamond trade and tourism).

Following the crisis in relations and the expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador from Turkey (May 2018), exports had fallen to 4 billion dollars in 2019 and imports to 1.7 billion dollars. Although declining, there are still deep economic ties.

Trade relations, however, are not the decisive factor in determining the nature of Turkey-Israel relations. There are four issues that are believed to have led Turkey to review its relations with Israel:

1. Turkey has welcome the new U.S. President, Joe Biden, with caution and fear that he will oppose Turkish activities in the region. The U.S. leader may also be very tough on security, armaments and minority rights in Turkey. Some believe that improved relations with Israel will calm down the situation with President Biden, and the U.S. Congress and the Zionist lobby will be able to contribute to this result. It is not known, however, whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be as good a mediator with Biden as he was with Donald Trump.

2. Turkey is seeking to remove the isolation imposed on it due to the distribution of marine economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean area, and is trying to bring Israel on its side to develop a joint stance and oppose such subdivisions. According to Israeli sources, Turkey has made Israel a generous offer to expand its area of control over the marine economic zones, in exchange for Turkey’ siding with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. Israel has reacted cautiously, both because it much weighs President Erdoğan’s intentions and because it is actually interested in strengthening its relations with the above stated countries.

3. Turkey is worried about the Abraham Accords for normalisation with Israel, particularly the aforementioned one with the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey aims at limiting their influence and status as a further “undertaking” of Arab rivals. Turkey endeavours to dismantle a rising alliance between the Arab countries and Israel. After all, we wonder why Turkey is not instead trying to improve its ties with Arab countries to achieve the same goal. Could it still be because of history and traditional mutual dislike?

4. Turkey is trying to relieve the pressure on its activities in Israel and Palestine as a result of the possible improvement in relations with Israel. Turkey funds important projects in Jerusalem and Israel is trying to contain and restrain it. Conversely, an improvement in Israeli-Turkish relations could release the Israeli brake.

To date, no official Israeli response has been provided to Turkish statements. Israel’s media speak of suspicion and coldness in response to the Turkish rapprochement, with fears that President Erdoğan is preparing a ploy, a trick aimed not at improving his relations with Israel, but at sabotaging Israel’s relations and contacts with other countries.

However, leaks from senior Israeli officials indicate that their country has set conditions for restoring relations, which include ending Turkey’s ties with Hamas and transferring Turkish projects to Jerusalem through Israeli channels, as well as abstaining from voting against Israel in international organisations and adopting a balanced position between Israel and the Palestinians.

It is not yet clear what the fate of Turkey-Israel relations will be in the coming months, with President Biden in the White House and after the Israeli elections held on March 23, 2021. It is important to note, however, that Turkey will not give up the “linking principle”, which differs from the new principle of Arab normalisation, based on the separation between the Palestinian issue and relations with Israel.

The Turkish “linking principle” is a real need for Turkey- hence the Palestinian leadership must work with Turkey to maximise common goals, especially with regard to Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Gaza.

Not easy steps to make, but not impossible either.

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