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A Pax Sinica in the Middle East?

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English-language media completely ignored a noteworthy statement that led Der Spiegel‘s German-language website October 12, a call for China to “take on responsibility as a world power” in the Middle East.

Penned by Bernhard Zand, the German news organization’s Beijing correspondent, it is terse and to the point: now that China imports more oil from the Middle East than any other country in the world, it must answer for the region’s security. “America’s interest in the Middle East diminishes day by day” as it heads towards energy self-sufficiency, wrote Zand, adding:

China’s interest in a peaceful Middle East is enormous, by contrast. Beijing is not only the biggest customer of precisely those oil powers who presently are fanning the flames of conflict in Syria; as a VIP customer, Beijing has growing political influence, which it should use openly. The word of the Chinese foreign minister has just as much weight in Tehran and Riyadh as that of his American counterpart.

China’s situation, Zand continues, is rather like Germany’s after reunification: a state whose economic power is growing will eventually be asked what it puts on the table politically. He concludes:

The time when American could be counted on to secure Beijing’s supply lines soon will come to an end – America’s budget deficit will take care of that by itself. Whoever wants to be a world power must take on responsibilities.

I have no idea how China envisions its future role in the Middle East. Americans will learn the intentions of the powers who gradually fill the vacuum left by Washington’s withdrawal from the world “well after the fact, if ever”, as I wrote on September 16 (See US plays Monopoly, Russia plays chess, Asia Times Online). That is why I have retired from foreign policy analysis. It is helpful, though, to take note of what the rest of the world is saying, particularly when not a single English-language source made reference to it. Der Spiegel’s public call for China to assume a leading geopolitical role in the Middle East, though, did not appear out of context.

American commentators have regarded China as a spoiler, the source of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons technology, Iran’s ballistic missiles, and other alarming instances of proliferation. It is worth considering a radically different view of China’s interests in the lands between the Himalayas and the Mediterranean: no world power has more to lose from instability than does China.

Iran’s nuclear weapons program poses the greatest risk to the region, and China has been viewed as uncooperative in the extreme by Western diplomats trying to tighten the economic screws on Tehran. Chinese companies, moreover, have helped Iran bypass trade sanctions, but at great cost, and with a complex result. The New York Times on September 30 profiled the problems of Iran’s economy under the sanctions, and took note of the country’s dependence on China:

One economist, Mohammad Sadegh Jahansefat, said the government had been taken hostage by countries benefiting from the sanctions – particularly China, which he called the worst business partner Iran had ever had.

“China has monopolized our trade – we are subsidizing their goods, which we are forced to import,” he said, adding of its work in the energy industry, “They destroy local production and leave oil and gas projects unfinished so that no one can work with them.” [1]

China’s capacity to exert pressure on the Iranian regime is considerable. Apart from its interest in avoiding nuclear proliferation in the Persian Gulf, China has a number of points of conflict with Iran, well summarized in an October 17 survey by Zachary Keck in The Diplomat. [2] The one that should keep Tehran on its toes is the Islamic Republic’s border with Pakistan. Iran announced October 26 that it had hanged 16 alleged Sunni rebels in Baluchistan province on the Pakistani border, the latest in a long series of violent incidents.

“With a population of 170 million, Pakistan has 20 million men of military age, as many as Iran and Turkey combined; by 2035 it will have half again as many,” I observed in 2009 (see Hedgehogs and flamingos in Tehran, Asia Times Online, June 16, 2009). It also has nuclear weapons.

Iran sits between two Sunni powers -Turkey and Pakistan – that depend to a great extent on Saudi financing, and that also have excellent relations with China. Turkey’s still-disputed agreement to buy a Chinese air defense system represented a revolution in Chinese-Turkish relations, motivated by a Chinese promise to transfer the whole package of relevant technology to Turkey and to help the Turks to manufacture the systems, a more generous offer than ever Ankara got from the West. Turkey is the logical terminus for the “New Silk Road” of road, rail, pipelines and broadband that China has proposed to build in Central Asia.

China, it might be added, also has excellent relations with Israel, whose premier technical university just was offered a US$130 million grant from Hong Kong magnate Li Ka-shing to fund part of the costs of building a branch in China. Chinese provincial and local governments will contribute another $147 million. The seamless interchange of ideas and personnel between Israel’s military, universities and tech entrepreneurs is a success story in miniature that China hopes to reproduce in scale. As Singapore-based political scientist Michael Raska reports, China’s military modernization envisions the spread of dual-use technologies to private industry.

Without attributing any geopolitical intention to Beijing, the visible facts make clear that China has the capacity to exercise strategic influence in the Middle East, and it has an unambiguous interest in maintaining stability. What China might choose to do, Washington will learn after the fact, if ever. If China wished to influence Iran, for example, it has considerable means to do so, and a great deal else besides.

Middle East

Israel-Palestine: Risk of ‘deadly escalation’ in violence, without decisive action

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photo: UNOCHA/Mohammad Libed

With violence continuing daily throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process urged the Security Council on Tuesday to adopt a more coordinated approach to the region.  

Tor Wennesland told Council Members that “recent developments on the ground are worrying”, pointing out the situation in the West Bank and Gaza and the challenges faced by the Palestinian Authority.  

“I therefore emphasize again the importance of concerted efforts by the parties to calm things on the ground. I am concerned that if we do not act quickly and decisively, we risk plunging into another deadly escalation of violence”, he warned. 

He informed that, in the last month, violence resulted in the death of four Palestinians, including two children, and injuries to 90 others – including 12 children – due to action by Israeli Security Forces. 

One Israeli civilian was killed in the same period, and nine civilians, including one woman and one child, and six members of ISF were injured.  

Challenges 

Mr. Wennesland said that a severe fiscal and economic crisis is threatening the stability of Palestinian institutions in the West Bank. 

At the same time, he added, “ongoing violence and unilateral steps, including Israeli settlement expansion, and demolitions, continue to raise tensions, feed hopelessness, erode the Palestinian Authority’s standing and further diminish the prospect of a return to meaningful negotiations.” 

In Gaza, the cessation of hostilities continues to hold, but the Special Envoy argued that “further steps are needed by all parties to ensure a sustainable solution that ultimately enables a return of legitimate Palestinian Government institutions to the Strip.” 

Settlements 

The Special Coordinator also said that “settler-related violence remains at alarmingly high levels.” 

Overall, settlers and other Israeli civilians in the occupied West Bank perpetrated some 54 attacks against Palestinians, resulting in 26 injuries. Palestinians perpetrated 41 attacks against Israeli settlers and other civilians, resulting in one death and nine injuries.  

Mr. Wennesland highlighted a few announcements of housing units in settlements, reiterating that “that all settlements are illegal under international law and remain a substantial obstacle to peace.” 

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities have also advanced plans for some 6,000 housing units for Palestinians in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of al-Issawiya and some 1,300 housing units for Palestinians living in Area C (one of the administrative areas in the occupied West Bank, agreed under the Oslo Accord). 

The Special Envoy welcomed such steps but urged Israel to advance more plans and to issue building permits for all previously approved plans for Palestinians in Area C and East Jerusalem. 

Humanitarian aid delivered 

Turning to Gaza, the Special Envoy said that humanitarian, recovery and reconstruction efforts continued, along with other steps to stabilize the situation on the ground. 

He called the gradual easing of restrictions on the entry of goods and people “encouraging”, but said that the economic, security and humanitarian situation “remains of serious concern.” 

The Special Envoy also mentioned the precarious financial situation of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which still lacks $60 million to sustain essential services this year. 

The agency has yet to pay the November salaries of over 28,000 UN personnel, including teachers, doctors, nurses and sanitation workers, many of whom support extended families, particularly in the Gaza Strip, where unemployment is high.  

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Middle East

Saudi religious moderation is as much pr as it is theology

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Mohammed Ali al-Husseini, one of Saudi Arabia’s newest naturalized citizens, ticks all the boxes needed to earn brownie points in the kingdom’s quest for religious soft power garnered by positioning itself as the beacon of ‘moderate,’ albeit autocratic, Islam.

A resident of Saudi Arabia since he had a fallout with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia, Mr. Al-Husseini represents what the kingdom needs to support its claim that its moderate form of Islam is religiously tolerant, inclusive, non-sectarian, pluralistic, and anti-discriminatory.

More than just being a Shiite, Mr. Al-Husseini is the scion of a select number of Lebanese Shiite families believed to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.

Put to the test, it is a billing with as many caveats as affirmatives – a problem encountered by other Gulf states that project themselves as beacons of autocratic interpretations of a moderate strand of the faith.

Even so, Saudi Arabia, despite paying lip service to religious tolerance and pluralism, has, unlike its foremost religious soft power competitors – the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia, yet to legalise non-Muslim worship and the building of non-Muslim houses of worship in the kingdom.

Similarly, the first batch of 27 newly naturalized citizens appeared not to include non-Muslims. If it did, they were not identified as such in contrast to Mr. Al-Hussein’s whose Shiite faith was clearly stated.

The 27 were naturalized under a recent decree intended to ensure that Saudi Arabia can compete with countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Singapore in attracting foreign talent. About a quarter of the new citizens, including Mr. Al-Husseini and Mustafa Ceric, a former Bosnian grand mufti, were religious figures or historians of Saudi Arabia.

In doing so, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman linked his economic and social reforms that enhanced women’s rights and catered to youth aspirations to his quest for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. The reforms involved tangible social and economic change. Still, they refrained from adapting the ultra-conservative, supremacist theology that underlined the founding of the kingdom and its existence until the rise of King Salman and his son, the crown prince, in 2015.

Prince Mohammed’s notion of ‘moderate’ Islam is socially liberal but politically autocratic. It calls for absolute obedience to the ruler in a deal that replaces the kingdom’s long-standing social contract in which the citizenry exchanged surrender of political rights for a cradle-to-grave welfare state. The new arrangement expands social rights and economic opportunity at the price of a curtailed welfare state as well as the loss of political freedoms, including freedoms of expression, media, and association.

A series of recent op-eds in Saudi media written by pundits rather than clerics seemingly with the endorsement, if not encouragement of the crown prince or his aides, called for top-down Martin Luther-like religious reforms that would introduce rational and scientific thinking, promote tolerance, and eradicate extremism.

Mamdouh Al-Muhaini, general manager of the state-controlled Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath television networks, spelled out the top-down process of religious reform that would be led by the crown prince even though the writer stopped short of identifying him by name.

“There are dozens, or perhaps thousands, of Luthers of Islam… As such, the question of ‘where is the Luther of Islam’ is wrong. It should instead be: Where is Islam’s Frederick the Great? The King of Prussia, who earned the title of Enlightened Despot, embraced major philosophers in Europe like Kant and Voltaire and gave them the freedom to think and carry out scientific research, which helped their ideas spread and prevail over fundamentalism after bitter clashes. We could also ask where is Islam’s Catherine the Great…? Without the support and protection of these leaders, we would have likely never heard of these intellectuals, nor of Luther before them,” Mr. Al-Muhaini said.

Messrs. Al-Husseini and Ceric represent what Saudi Arabia would like the Muslim and non-Muslim world to take home from their naturalization.

A religious scholar, Mr. Ceric raised funds in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Malaysia during the Bosnian war in the 1990s and defended issues close to Saudi Arabia’s heart even if his own views are more liberal.

Mr. Ceric argued, for example, that opposition to Wahhabism, the kingdom’s austere interpretation of Islam that has been modified since King Salman came to power, amounted to Islamophobia even if the cleric favoured Bosnia’s more liberal Islamic tradition. The cleric also opposed stripping foreign fighters, including Saudis, of Bosnian citizenship, granted them for their support during the war.

To Saudi Arabia’s advantage, Mr. Ceric continues to be a voice of Muslim moderation as well as proof that Islam is as much part of the West as it is part of the East and the hard to defend suggestion that being a liberal does not by definition entail opposition to ultra-conservatism.

Referring to the fact that he is a Shiite, Mr. Al-Husseini said in response to his naturalisation by a country that was created based on an ultra-conservative strand of Islam that sees Shiites as heretics: “The glowing truth that cannot be contested is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is open to everyone…and does not look at dimensions of…a sectarian type.”

Beyond being a Shiite Muslim cleric, Mr. Al-Husseini is to have been a Hezbollah insider. A one-time proponent of resistance against Israel, Mr. Al-Husseini reportedly broke with Hezbollah as a result of differences over finances.

He associated himself on the back of his newly found opposition to Hezbollah with the Saudi-backed March 14 movement headed by Saad Hariri, a prominent Lebanese Sunni Muslim politician.

As head of the relatively obscure Arabic Islamic Council that favoured inter-faith dialogue, particularly with Jews, Mr. Al-Husseini ticked off another box on the Saudi checklist, particularly given the kingdom’s refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel without a clear and accepted pathway to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While Mr. Al-Husseini’s history fits the Saudi bill, his impact appears to be limited. He made some incidental headlines in 2015 after he used social media to urge Muslims, Jewish, and Christian clerics to downplay religious traditions that call for violence.

Mr. Al-Husseini spoke as the tension between Israel and Lebanon mounted at the time after Hezbollah killed two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border attack.

Earlier, Mr. Al-Husseini seemingly became the first Arab Shiite religious figure to address Israelis directly and to do so in broken Hebrew.

“We believe that not all Jews are bad [just as] not all Muslims are terrorists. Let us cousins put our conflicts aside and stay away from evil and hatred. Let us unite in peace and love,” Mr. Al-Husseini told an unknown number of Israeli listeners.

Mr. Al-Husseini’s presence on social media pales compared to that of the Muslim World League and its head, Mohammed Al Issa. The League, the one-time vehicle for Saudi funding of Muslim ultra-conservatism worldwide, and its leader, are today the main propagators of Prince Mohammed ’s concept of moderate Islam.

Mr. Al-Husseini’s 47,00 followers on Twitter and 10,200 on Facebook pale against his Saudi counterparts who propagate a message similar to his.

The League has 2.8 million Twitter followers in English and 3.4 million in Arabic in addition to 662,000 in French and 310,00 in Urdu. The League boasts similar numbers on Facebook. The League’s president, Mr. Al-Issa, has 670,000 followers on Twitter and 272,000 on Facebook.

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Middle East

Vienna Talks: US-Russia-China trilateral and Iran

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Talks between Iran and other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) 2015/Iran Nuclear deal regarding the revival of the deal resumed at Vienna on November 29, 2021 after a hiatus of five months (the talks which began on April 2021 have been stalled since June 2021). The US has not been participating directly in these talks.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi who won the June 2021 election has not been opposed to engaging with other signatories to the JCPOA, including the US, but has repeatedly stated, that Iran would only return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement, if its key demands are addressed favorably, and would give precedence to its national interest.

 EU political director, Enrique Mora sounded optimistic with regard to the resumption of the talks, and while talking to reporters said:

‘I feel positive that we can be doing important things for the next weeks’

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, also the country’s chief nuclear negotiator,  said that the US is adopting a ‘maximum pressure’ approach (referring to economic sanctions) which would not help in achieving any genuine results.

Ali Bagheri Kani’s statement underscores the fact that any significant headway with regard to the Iran nuclear deal is likely to be an uphill task.  Iran has increased its uranium enrichment and uranium stockpile, away above the limits agreed upon during the 2015 agreement, and has also restricted access of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to it’s nuclear program. Tehran has also made it clear, that if the US lifts all economic sanctions, it will get back to full compliance to the agreement of 2015. Tehran is also seeking a guarantee from the US, that in future it would not withdraw from an agreement, as Donald Trump had done.

 The Biden Administration too has been adopting a more aggressive stance vis-à-vis Iran in recent months (Iranian officials have gone to the extent of saying that Biden’s Iran policy is no different from that of Trump). The US seems to be unwilling to remove all sanctions against Iran. US has also been saying that if diplomacy fails it will need to explore other options against Iran and would not refrain from exerting more pressure . On Monday, a US State Department spokesman categorically stated that ‘If Iran demands more or offers less than a mutual return to compliance, these negotiations will not succeed,’.

US-Russia-China trilateral and Iran

In recent weeks, Washington has made efforts to reduce tensions with Beijing and Moscow, sending out a message that it is keen to work with both countries on certain issues – especially Afghanistan, Climate Change and Iran.

Both Moscow and Beijing have adopted a different stance from Washington on the Iran issue. Washington’s decision to host a Democracy Summit (December 9-10, 2021) has not gone down to well with either especially Beijing.

 During a video conversation on November 24, 2021 with Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi not only supported Tehran’s demands with regard to the JCPOA, but also criticized the Summit For Democracy saying that it will only create further divisions globally.  Russia’s Ambassador to Tehran, Levan Dzhagaryan, also supported Tehran’s demands saying some of them were pertinent. In a newspaper interview he said:

‘For example, they, the Iranian side, want to guarantee, let’s say, in future Americans wouldn’t repeat the same step as they did before.  The Iranian side also needs some guarantees from the European businesses to fulfill and to implement all that contract. It is quite logical’

US President, Joe Biden while seeking to have a working relationship with China and Russia has also been trying to work together with democracies, and also send out a message that democracies can deliver (hours before his conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 14, 2021, Biden signed into law an ambitious 1.2 trillion USD infrastructure package). The Summit for Democracy was aimed at greater coordination with other democracies, especially US allies, on important global issues, but it remains to be seen if the Summit will raise tensions between Washington and Beijing and Moscow, and thus indirectly act as an impediment to further progress on talks related to the Iran nuclear deal.

While Biden’s emphasis on democracies working together, and the need to check China’s growing clout is legitimate, it is important that he does not make the same mistakes as Trump and does not compel Iran to become an appendage of China (imposition of further sanctions at a time when Iran’s economy is in the doldrums will only increase the Anti-US sentiment in Iran). It is also important that the US works closely with its allies on the Iran issue. France, Germany and UK should be playing a more pro-active role in the revival of JCPOA and should not be quiet bystanders. Iran on its part also needs to demonstrate flexibility and pragmatism.

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