For almost a century, the Middle East has been defined by the nation-states that emerged following the Allied victory in World War I and the end of the colonial era.
Since then, strategic analyses of the region have concentrated on the relations between these states, and diplomatic efforts have generally attempted to maintain their stability and the integrity of their borders. As a result, the current map of the Middle East has remained largely unchanged over more than nine decades.
But this is no longer the case. The old maps no longer reflect the reality on the ground, and the region is now defined not by rivalry between nation-states, but by sectarian divisions that are spilling across the old borders and rendering them irrelevant. Today, there is a single sectarian war underway across the Middle East, one that threatens to engulf the entire region.
This war has a number of fronts, some more intense and active than others, but it is everywhere defined by sectarian conflict, especially the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims. It is most intense in the area encompassing the current states of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; but has also spread further afield—to Bahrain, northern Yemen, and to some degree Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia.
The core power on the Shia side is the Islamic Republic of Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror and founding patron of Hezbollah, which until 9/11 held had killed more Americans than any terror group in the world. The Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Maliki government and assorted Shia militias in Iraq, the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are all allies or proxies of the Islamic Republic, which is capable of rendering substantial assistance to its friends through the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a powerful military and economic force that possesses substantial expertise and experience in building proxy organizations and engaging in political and paramilitary warfare.
On the Sunni side, the dominant power is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which after 9/11 has been wary of Tehran, but also has struggled against the Islamists of Al Qaeda. Its allies include various groups among the Syrian rebels, the March 14 movement in Lebanon, the military regime in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, and sometimes Turkey. The Saudis, however, are at something of a disadvantage. They possess no parallel to the IRGC, and have problematic relations with the extreme Sunni jihadists of al-Qaeda, who have played a prominent role in the fighting on all three major fronts.
How did this situation come about? Is there evidence of a clear linkage between the various forces on the respective sides? Why is this conflict so extreme in certain countries—like Syria and Iraq—where it appears to be leading to the breakup of these states? How dangerous are these changes for the West?
Focusing on the areas of most intense conflict—Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon—can help us answer these questions.
This war is a result of the confluence of a number of circumstances. First, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are all home to a host of different sectarian and ethnic communities. The stark divisions that exist in these societies have never been resolved. In Syria and Iraq, they were suppressed for decades by brutal dictatorial regimes. The Assad regime in Syria and Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq were family dictatorships based on minority sectarian communities—the Alawis in Syria and the Arab Sunnis in Iraq—while claiming to rule in the name of pan-Arab nationalism. In service of this ideology, the Syrian and Iraqi regimes ruthlessly put down ethnic and sectarian separatism in all its forms; in particular, Shia Islamism in Iraq, Sunni Islamism in Syria, and the Kurdish national movement in both countries. All were treated without mercy.
Lebanon, by contrast, is a far weaker state, which was ruled by a power-sharing arrangement between ethnic and religious groups that collapsed into civil war in 1975. The issues underlying that war were never resolved; instead, between 1990 and 2005 the Syrian army presence in Lebanon ended all discussion of basic issues of national identity.
Over the last decade, the once ironclad structures of dictatorship and suppression that kept ethnic and sectarian tensions from erupting have weakened or disappeared. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq destroyed the Saddam Hussein regime. A sectarian Shia government, based on the Shia Arab majority and conditionally accepted by the Kurds, took its place. In Syria, a brutal civil war has severely curtailed the power of the Assad regime, which now rules only about 40 percent of the country’s territory. The Sunni Arab majority and the Kurdish minority have carved out autonomous sectarian enclaves in the 60 percent that remains.
Western hopes that a non-sectarian identity would take hold in the areas formerly ruled by Saddam and the Assads have proved persistent but illusory. Remarks about Iraq made by then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in 2004 sum up these hopes and the tendency to self-delusion that often accompanies them. “What has been impressive to me so far,” Rice said, is that Iraqis—whether Kurds or Shia or Sunni or the many other ethnic groups in Iraq—have demonstrated that they really want to live as one in a unified Iraq…. I think particularly the Kurds have shown a propensity to want to bridge differences that were historic differences in many ways that were fueled by Saddam Hussein and his regime… What I have found interesting and I think important is the degree to which the leaders of the Shia and Kurdish and Sunni communities have continually expressed their desires to live in a unified Iraq.
This faith is shared by the Obama Administration, and as a result, it has continued to support the Shia-dominated government in Iraq, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It sees Maliki’s opposition to Sunni insurgents in western Anbar province as an elected government’s opposition to extremist rebels. This fails to take into account the sectarian nature of the Maliki government itself and the discriminatory policies he has pursued against the Sunnis of western Iraq.
The reemergence of sectarian conflict so evident in Iraq has also emerged in Syria and is, in turn, spilling over into neighboring Lebanon. Lebanon was first drawn into the conflict as a result of the significant and highly effective intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime by Iran’s Lebanon-based terrorist army, Hezbollah. This quickly led to retaliation against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon by elements among Syria’s Sunni rebels. Supporters of the Sunni rebels have succeeded in attacking Hezbollah’s Dahiyeh compound in south Beirut five times. The bombing on January 2 was carried out by a young Lebanese member of an organization called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) named Qutaiba Muhammad al-Satem; ISIS are Islamic extremists who have been operating as a branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria.
While Hezbollah’s decision to intervene on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria and the subsequent Sunni reaction is partially the result of the divided nature of Lebanon and Syria and their unresolved questions of national identity, larger regional conflicts, also of a sectarian nature, are a driving force behind the violence.
Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian civil war came not as a result of automatic sentiments of solidarity, but because Hezbollah forms part of a regional alliance headed by Iran, to which the Assad regime also belongs. When Assad found himself in trouble, Hezbollah was mobilized to assist him. On the opposing side, the Syrian rebels have benefited from the support and patronage of Iran’s rival, Saudi Arabia, and other states along the Arabian peninsula, including the United Arab Emirates.
This rivalry is long standing and not primarily rooted in theological differences. It is about power. Iran is controlled by a revolutionary regime whose goal is to become the hegemonic force in the Middle East. Although the Iranians certainly regard the Saudis as an enemy and as unfit custodians of Islam’s most holy sites, the Tehran’s main goal is to assert control over Arabian Gulf energy supplies, replacing the U.S. as guarantor of resources upon which world is dependent. Tehran understands that the real source of power in the region is the Gulf itself, with its enormous reserves of oil and natural gas that are essential to the global economy. To achieve its goals, Iran must tempt or coerce the Gulf monarchies away from U.S. protection and toward an alliance with Tehran, and ironically, American weakness in the face of Tehran’s nuclear pursuit makes that all the more possible.
Riyadh has emerged as the principle opponent to Iran’s regional ambitions, mainly because the former guarantor of the current regional order, the United States, has chosen to leave the field. Until 2011, the Middle East appeared to be locked into a kind of cold war, in which the Iranians, along with their allies and proxies, sought to overturn the U.S.-dominated regional order, which was based on U.S. alliances with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. Events over the last five years, however, have created the impression that the U.S. no longer wishes to play this role: America failed to back its longtime Egyptian ally, Hosni Mubarak, when he faced domestic unrest in early 2011. It failed to support the rebel forces fighting the Iran-backed Assad regime. And it failed to back Bahrain against an Iran-supported uprising in the same year. Now, the U.S. appears to be seeking a general rapprochement with Iran.
As a result of all this, Saudi Arabia has begun to take a far more active role in the region. Riyadh and its Gulf allies have certainly helped to finance and stabilize Egypt after the military removed Muhammad Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government from power. It began to take a leading role in supporting the Syrian rebels. It has well-documented relations with the anti-Syrian March 14 movement in Lebanon. In December 2013, the Saudis pledged $3 billion to the official Lebanese army. They also support anti-Maliki elements in Iraq. In addition, they are seeking to create an alliance among the other Gulf states in order to oppose Iranian ambitions, with some success.
This increasingly violent rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, intensified by American withdrawal from the region, has helped turn a conflict that was once cold into an increasingly hot cross-border sectarian war.
There is considerable evidence of links between Iran and Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and their respective allies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, on the other.
On the Iranian side, Tehran no longer makes any serious attempt to deny the enormous assistance they have given the Assad regime in Syria. Indeed, the Iranians have effectively mobilized all their available regional assets in order to preserve it. The commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Qods Force, Qassem Suleimani, went to Syria himself in order to coordinate these efforts. Perhaps most notably, in mid-2012 the Iranians began training a new light infantry force for Assad. Called the National Defense Force, it was necessary because Assad was unable to use much of his own army, which consisted of Sunni conscripts whose loyalty was unreliable. Iran has even sent its own IRGC fighters to fight in Syria; a fact revealed by footage taken by an Iranian cameraman who was later killed by the rebels, the testimony of Syrian defectors, and the capture of a number of IRGC men in August 2012.
In April 2013, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was summoned to Iran and instructed to deploy his own fighters in Syria. Up to 10,000 of them are now on the ground in Syria at any given time, and they played a crucial role in retaking the strategic town of Qusayr in August 2013. Hezbollah fighters are also taking a prominent role in the battle for the Qalamun area near the Lebanese border, as well as the fighting around Damascus.
Iranian financial donations have also been vital in keeping the regime alive. In January 2013, Iran announced a “credit facility” agreement with Syria that extended a $1 billion line of credit to Assad. Later the same year, an additional credit line of $3.6 billion was announced.
Iraq has also played a vital role in supporting Assad, mainly by allowing Iran to use Iraqi territory and airspace to transfer weapons to Syrian forces. At first glance, this appears to be a strange policy. Relations between Iraq and Syria prior to the civil war were not good, with Maliki openly accusing Assad of supporting Sunni insurgents. But this has now changed. Indeed, Maliki has openly supported Assad since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. This reflects his increasing closeness to Iran, which helped ensure Maliki’s emergence as prime minister after the 2010 elections and pressured Assad to support him as well. Relations between Iraq, Iran, and Syria have only improved since.
In addition to government support, Iraqi Shia militias are now fighting in Syria on behalf of Assad. The Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades, Ktaeb Hezbollah, and the Ahl al-Haq group all have forces in Syria. They are playing an important role, given that one of Assad’s major weaknesses is his lack of reliably loyal soldiers. The eruption of violence in Iraq’s western Anbar province has further cemented this alliance, since the insurgency is a direct result of advances made by Sunni jihadis in Syria.
As a result of all this, the Iranian-led side of the regional conflict has emerged as a tightly organized alliance, capable of acting in a coordinated way, pooling its resources for a common goal, and fighting effectively from western Iraq all the way to the Mediterranean.
The Sunni side of the conflict is more chaotic and disjointed. Saudi Arabia is its main financier, but it lacks an equivalent to the Qods force and the IRGC, who are world leaders in subversion and irregular warfare.
Only the most extreme jihadi elements appear capable of clear coordination across borders. For example, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as its name suggests, is active in both countries and controls a contiguous area stretching from the western Anbar province in Iraq to the eastern Raqqa province in Syria. ISIS regards itself as a franchise of al-Qaeda, although it does not take orders directly from the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan. Another al-Qaeda group, Jabhat al-Nusra, is active in Syria. In Lebanon, a third branch of al-Qaeda, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, has played a role in the attacks on Hezbollah. In addition, both the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are active in Lebanon.
But there are also less extreme groups opposing the Syrian-Iranian axis. Saudi Arabia has backed the March 14 movement, which is the main Sunni opposition party in Lebanon, as well as providing financial support to the Lebanese army. In Syria, the Saudis have fostered the Islamic Front, an alliance of eight Islamist groups unconnected to al-Qaeda. It includes some of the strongest rebel brigades, such as Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Islam, and Liwa al-Tawhid. It is now emerging as the key bloc among the rebels. The Saudis also dominate the Syrian opposition in exile, with Ahmed Jarba, who has close links to Riyadh, recently reelected chairman of the Syrian National Coalition.
There are no indications that the Saudis are backing Sunni insurgents in Iraq, but the larger Sunni community is certainly looking to Riyadh for help. Relations between Saudi Arabia and the current Iraqi government are very bad. The border between the two countries is closed except during the Hajj pilgrimage, there is no Saudi embassy in Baghdad, and commercial relations are kept at a minimum. Some of the Sunni tribes in western Anbar have close links to the Saudis. While they are hostile to al-Qaeda, they are also opposed to the Maliki government, which they regard as a sectarian Shia regime.
There is a third element to this regional conflict that is something of a wild card: The Kurds. A non-Arab people who have long sought an independent state, the Kurds have succeeded in creating a flourishing autonomous zone in northern Iraq that enjoys most of the elements of de facto sovereignty. Since July 2012, another Kurdish autonomous zone has been established in northeast Syria. These two areas occupy a contiguous land mass, but are not politically united. The Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq is controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Party, led by Massoud Barzani, while the autonomous zone in northeast Syria is controlled by the PYD (Democratic Union Party), which is the Syrian branch of the Turkish-based leftist PKK movement.
These movements are rivals, and each sees itself as the appropriate leader of the Kurds. But while there is tension between them, each appears to be securely in control of its respective areas. The Kurds do not enjoy the support of any state in the region, and both the Iranians and the Saudis regard Kurdish national aspirations with suspicion. Nonetheless, the Kurds have managed to accumulate sufficient organizational and military strength to ensure the survival of their self-governing enclaves.
All these factors indicate that two rival alliances are clashing for hegemony over the region. There are myriad practical links between the various combatants, and their activities have long since spilled across the borders of the various states involved in the fighting; as indicated by the presence of Iranian fighters, ISIS, and Hezbollah in Syria; Syrian rebels in Lebanon; and many other examples. Iran is the leader of one side, Saudi Arabia is the main backer of the other, while the Kurds are concerned with maintaining their areas of control and are trying to stay out of the conflict.
The most significant result of this is that the continued existence of Syria and Iraq as unified states is now in question. Practically speaking, Syria has already split into three areas, each controlled by one of the three elements listed above. Iraq has also effectively split into Kurdish and Arab zones, with Sunni and Shia groups fighting over the latter.
In many ways, Lebanon ceased to function as a unified state some time ago; since Hezbollah essentially functions as a de facto mini-state of its own. The Lebanese Sunnis lack a military tradition and have proved helpless in the face of Iran’s support for Hezbollah. But now, the emergence of the Syrian rebels and the growing popularity of Islamism among the Sunni underclass may be altering this balance. This appears to be borne out by the recent surge in Sunni violence against Hezbollah, which is the result of an attempt by Syrian jihadis and other rebels—in concert with their local allies—to bring the war to Lebanon.
Taken together, this indicates that a massive paradigm shift is underway in much of the Middle East. The eclipse of Arab nationalist dictatorships in Iraq and Syria, the historical failure to develop a unified national identity in these states, their mixed ethnic and sectarian makeup, and the U.S.’s withdrawal from its dominant position in the region—with the resulting emergence of a Saudi-Iranian rivalry—have all combined to produce an extraordinary result: A region-wide sectarian war is now taking place in the areas still officially referred to as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
For the West, as in the region itself, this has very serious implications. Dealing with it effectively will required an equally massive paradigm shift in strategic thinking on the Middle East, one that is capable of dispensing with previous illusions and admitting that sovereign borders once regarded as sacrosanct are swiftly becoming meaningless.
There are new borders taking shape, defined by sectarian divisions that the West ignores at its peril. Despite fantasies of withdrawing from the region, the security of global energy supplies and the maintenance of regional stability are still essential to Western interests. The West has as large a stake in the outcome of this sectarian conflict as the regional players involved. If it cannot adapt to the new Middle East that is swiftly taking shape, it will find itself on the losing side.
Looming Large: The Middle East Braces for Fallout of US–China Divide
China would like the world to believe that the Middle East and North Africa region does not rank high on its totem pole despite its energy dependence, significant investment and strategic relationships with the region. In many ways, China is not being deceptive. With relations with the United States rapidly deteriorating, China’s primary focus is on what it views as its main battleground: the Asia–Pacific. China is nonetheless realising that remaining aloof in the Middle East may not be sustainable.
In assessing the importance of the Middle East and North Africa region to China, the glass seems both half full and half empty with regard to what it will take for China to secure its interests. In the final analysis, however, the glass is likely to prove to be half full. If so, that will have significant consequences for Chinese policy towards and engagement in the region.
Indeed, measured by Chinese policy outputs such as white papers or level of investment as a percentage of total Chinese overseas investment, the Middle East and North Africa region does not emerge as a priority on Beijing’s agenda even if virtually all of it is packaged as building blocks of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
It was only in 2016 that China published its first and only Middle East-related white paper, devoted to the Arab states rather than the region as a whole. Apart from rehashing China’s long-standing foreign policy principles, the paper highlighted opportunities for win-win cooperation in areas ranging from energy, trade and infrastructure, but also technology, nuclear development, and space.
Investment figures tell a similar story. Of the US$2 trillion in Chinese overseas investment between 2005 and 2019, a mere US$198 billion or under 5 per cent went to the Middle East and North Africa.
The region is unlikely to climb Beijing’s totem pole any time soon, given the dramatic decrease in Chinese foreign investment in the last four years to about 30 per cent of what it was in 2016 and expectations that Middle Eastern and North African economies will significantly contract as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and sharp downturn in energy markets.
Half Full Rather Than Half Empty
What turns the glass half full is the fact that the Middle East fulfils almost half of China’s energy needs. Moreover, some of China’s investments, particularly in ports and adjacent industrial parks in the Gulf, Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, are strategically important. What was once primarily a Belt and Road “string of pearls” linking Indian Ocean ports has evolved into a network that stretches from Djibouti in east Africa through Oman’s port of Duqm and the United Arab Emirates’ Jebel Ali port into a near dominant position in the eastern Mediterranean and onwards into the Indo–Pacific.
China already exerts influence in the eastern Mediterranean region through its involvement in ports in Greece, Turkey, Israel and Egypt. It has expressed interest in the Lebanese port of Tripoli and may well seek access to the Russian-controlled ports of Tartus and Latakia if and when it gets involved in the reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria. This was one reason that the Trump administration warned the Israelis that China’s engagement in Haifa, where they have built their own pier, could jeopardise continued use of the port by the US Sixth Fleet.
Asserting the importance of the Middle East, Niu Xinchun, director of Middle East Studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), wrote back in 2017: “The politics and security of the Middle East [are] inextricably related to China. This is the first time in history that China has possessed political, economic and security interests in the Middle East simultaneously.” CICIR is widely viewed as China’s most influential think tank.
More recently, however, Niu has taken what seems like an antipodal position, maintaining that the Middle East does not feature prominently in China’s strategic calculations. In a webinar in May 2020, he said: “For China, the Middle East is always on the very distant backburner of China’s strategic global strategies … Covid-19, combined with the oil price crisis, will dramatically change the Middle East. [This] will change China’s investment model in the Middle East.” Niu emphasised that China considers the Asia–Pacific rather than the Middle East as its primary battleground for differences with the United States.
This shift was part of a game of shadow boxing to subtly warn the Gulf, and particularly Saudi Arabia, to dial down tension with Iran to a point where it can be managed and does not spin out of control.
To ensure that its message is not lost on the region, China could well ensure that its future investments contribute to job creation, a key priority for Middle Eastern states struggling to come to grips with the economic crisis as a result of the pandemic and the sharp fall in oil demand and prices. Middle East political economy scholar Karen Young noted that Chinese investment has so far focused on a small number of locations and had not significantly generated jobs.
Subtle Chinese messaging was also at the core of China’s public response to Iranian leaks that it was close to signing a 25-year partnership with the Islamic republic that would lead to a whopping US$400 billion investment to develop the country’s oil, gas and transportation sectors.
China limited itself to a non-committal on-the-record reaction and low-key semi-official commentary. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, a “wolf warrior” or exponent of China’s newly adopted more assertive and aggressive approach towards diplomacy, was exceptionally diplomatic in his comment. “China and Iran enjoy traditional friendship, and the two sides have been in communication on the development of bilateral relations. We stand ready to work with Iran to steadily advance practical cooperation”, Zhao said.
Writing in the Shanghai Observer, a secondary Communist party newspaper, Middle East scholar Fan Hongda was less guarded. Fan argued that the agreement, though nowhere close to implementation, highlighted “an important moment of development” at a time that US–Chinese tensions allowed Beijing to pay less heed to American policies. In saying so, Fan was echoing China’s warning that the United States was putting much at risk by retching up tensions between the world’s two largest economies and could push China to the point where it no longer regards the potential cost of countering US policy as too high.
Diplomacy with “Chinese Characteristics”
Nonetheless, China’s evasiveness on the Iran agreement constituted a recognition that the success of its Belt and Road initiative and its ability to avoid being sucked uncontrollably into the Middle East’s myriad conflicts depends on a security environment that reduces tension to manageable proportions and ensures that disputes do not spin out of control.
“Beijing has indeed become more concerned about the stability of Middle Eastern regimes. Its growing regional interests combined with its BRI ambitions underscore that Middle East stability, particularly in the Persian Gulf, is now a matter of strategic concern for China,” said Mordechai Chaziza, an expert on China–Middle East relations.
Reflecting what appears to be a shift in China’s approach to regional security, Chinese scholars Sun Degang and Wu Sike described the Middle East in a recently published article as a “key region in big power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics in a new era”. Sun and Wu suggested that Chinese characteristics would involve “seeking common ground while reserving differences”, a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution. The scholars said Chinese engagement in Middle Eastern security would seek to build an inclusive and shared regional collective security mechanism based on fairness, justice, multilateralism, comprehensive governance and the containment of differences.
A Blunt Rebuke
But China’s conflict management diplomacy may not go down well with the Gulf Arabs, notably Saudi Arabia, judging by what for Saudi media was a blunt and rare recent critique of the People’s Republic. In a game of shadow-boxing in which intellectuals and journalists front for officials who prefer the luxury of plausible deniability, Saudi Arabia responded bluntly in a column authored by Baria Alamuddin, a Lebanese journalist who regularly writes columns for Saudi media.
Alamuddin warned that China was being lured to financially bankrupt Lebanon by Hizballah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’a militia. She suggested in a column published by Arab News, the kingdom’s primary English-language newspaper, that Hizballah’s seduction of China was occurring against the backdrop of a potential massive 25-year cooperation agreement between the People’s Republic and Iran. “Chinese business and investment are welcome, but Beijing has a record of partnering with avaricious African and Asian elites willing to sell out their sovereignty. Chinese diplomacy is ruthless, mercantile and self-interested, with none of the West’s lip service to human rights, rule of law or cultural interchange”, Alamuddin charged. She quoted a Middle East expert from a conservative US think tank as warning that “vultures from Beijing are circling, eyeing tasty infrastructure assets like ports and airports as well as soft power influence through Lebanon’s universities.”
Abandoning Saudi official and media support for some of the worst manifestations of Chinese autocratic behaviour, including the brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and the repression of democratic expression and dissident, Alamuddin did not mince words.
Alamuddin went on to assert that “witnessing how dissident voices have been mercilessly throttled in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, Lebanese citizens are justifiably fearful that their freedoms and culture would be crushed under heavy-handed, authoritarian Chinese and Iranian dominance, amid the miserable, monolithic atmosphere Hizballah seeks to impose.”
A Hair in the Soup
Further complicating Chinese efforts to nudge the Middle East towards some degree of stabilisation are China’s technology and military sales with no constraints on their use or regard for the potential geopolitical fallout. The sales include drone and ballistic missile technology as well as the building blocks for a civilian nuclear programme for Saudi Arabia, which would significantly enhance the kingdom’s ability to develop nuclear weapons should it decide to do so at some point in future.
These sales have fuelled fears, for different reasons, in Jerusalem and Tehran of a new regional arms race in the region. Israel’s concerns are heightened by the Trump administration’s efforts to limit Israeli dealings with China that involve sensitive technologies while remaining silent about Chinese military assistance to Saudi Arabia.
Washington’s indifference may be set to change, assuming that the recent rejection by the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi of an offer by the UAE to donate hundreds of Covid-19 test kits for screening of its staff was a shot across the Gulf’s bow. A US official said the tests were rejected because they were either Chinese-made or involved BGI Genomics, a Chinese company active in the Gulf, which raised concerns about patient privacy.
The American snub was designed to put a dent in China’s “Silk Road” health diplomacy centred on its experience with the pandemic and predominance in the manufacturing of personal protective and medical equipment as well as pharmaceutics.
A Major Battlefield
Digital and satellite technology in which Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei’s 5G cellular technology rollout is but one component seems set to be a major battlefield. US officials have warned that the inclusion of Huawei in Gulf networks could jeopardise sensitive communications, particularly given the multiple US bases in the region, including the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command, or Centcom, in Qatar.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said the United States had advised its Middle Eastern partners in the region to take “a careful look at investment, major contracts and infrastructure projects.” He warned that certain engagements with China could “come at the expense of the region’s prosperity, stability, fiscal viability and longstanding relationship with the United States.”
Schenker cautioned further that agreements with Huawei meant that “basically all the information and your data is going to Huawei, property of the Chinese Communist Party”. The same, he said, was true for Chinese health technology. “When you take a Covid kit from a Chinese genomics company, your DNA is property of the Chinese Communist Party, and all the implications that go with that.”
The rollout of China’s BeiDou Satellite Navigation System (BDS), which competes with the United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS), Russia’s GLONASS and Europe’s Galileo, sets the stage for battle, with countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Turkey having signed up for what is known as China’s Digital Silk Road Initiative. So far, Pakistan is the only country known to have been granted access to BeiDou’s military applications, which provide more precise guidance for missiles, ships and aircraft.
Promoting “the development of the digital service sector, such as cross-border ecommerce, smart cities, telemedicine, and internet finance (and) … technological progress including computing, big data, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and quantum computing,” the initiative will enable China to enhance its regional influence and leverage in economics as well as security. China’s state-owned international broadcaster, China Global Television Network (CGTN), implicitly anticipated US resistance to its Middle Eastern partners being roped into a Chinese digital world when it declared that “a navigation system is like a gold key of your home that should be kept only in your own hands, not others.”
The successful launch in July of a mission to Mars, the Arab world’s first interplanetary initiative, suggested that the UAE was seeking to balance its engagement with the United States and China in an effort not to get caught in the growing divergence between the two powers. The mission, dubbed Hope Probe, was coordinated with US rather than Chinese institutions, including the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG). It launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center.
You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide
A continuously deteriorating relationship between the United States and China is a worst-case scenario for Middle Eastern states. It would progressively reduce their ability to walk a fine line between the two major powers. That would be particularly true if US efforts to force its partners to limit their ties to the People’s Republic compel China into defiance by adopting a more geopolitically assertive posture in the region.
Ironically, the US desire to recalibrate its engagement with the Middle East and a realisation on the part of Saudi Arabia and Iran that their interests are best served by a reduction of tension rooted in an arrangement based on a non-aggression agreement could serve as a catalyst for a new Gulf security architecture. This could involve embedding the US defence umbrella, geared to protect Gulf states against Iran, into a multilateral structure that would include rather than exclude Iran and involve Russia, China and India.
A more multilateral security arrangement potentially could reduce pressure on the Gulf states to pick sides between the United States and China and would include China in ways that it can manage its greater engagement without being drawn into the region’s conflicts in ways that frustrated the United States for decades.
None of the parties are at a point where they are willing to publicly entertain the possibility of such a collective security architecture. Even if they were, negotiating a new arrangement is likely to be a tedious and tortuous process. Nonetheless, such a multilateral security architecture would ultimately serve all parties’ interests and may be the only way of reducing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran and managing their differences, which would in turn help China secure its energy and economic interests in the region. This reality enhances the likelihood that the glass is half full in terms of China ultimately participating in such a multilateral security arrangement, rather than half empty, with China refraining from participation.
Author’s note: This article first appeared in Middle East Insights of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute
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 “Iran announced a 25-year comprehensive cooperation plan with China. Can China–Iran relations get closer?”, Shanghai Observer, 20 June 2020, (观察家 | 伊朗宣布与华25年全面合作计划，中伊关系能否进一步走近？)https://www.shobserver.com/news/detail?id=264494.
 Mordechai Chaziza, “Religious and Cultural Obstacles to China’s BRI in the Middle East”, The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, 12 June 2020, https://besacenter.org/perspectives-papers/china-middle-east-obstacles/.
 Sun Degang and Wu Sike, “China’s Participation in Middle East Security Affairs in the New Er: -Ideas and Practice Exploration” (中东研究】孙德刚 吴思科：新时代中国参与中东安全事务-理念主张与实践探索), Shanghai International Studies University, July 2020.
 Baria Alamuddin, “Chinese and Iranian vultures circling over Beirut”, Arab News, 2 August 2020, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1713456.
 Danielle Pletka, “Lebanon on the Bbrink”, American Enterprise Institute, 9 May 2020, https://www.aei.org/op-eds/lebanon-on-the-brink/.
 Baria Alamuddin, “Chinese and Iranian vultures circling over Beirut”.
 Phil Mattingly, Zachary Cohen and Jeremy Herb, “US intel shows Saudi Arabia escalated its missile program with help from China”, CNN, 5 June 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2019/06/05/politics/us-intelligence-saudi-arabia-ballistic-missile-china/index.html.
 Mattingly, Cohen and Herb, “US intel”; Timothy Gardner, ”US approved secret nuclear power work for Saudi Arabia”, Reuters, 28 March 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-saudi-nuclear/us-approved-secret-nuclear-power-work-for-saudi-arabia-idUSKCN1R82MG.
 Interview with author, 8 June 2020.
 Interview with author, 10 July 2020.
 Middle East Institute, “Shifting Dynamics and US Priorities in the Middle East: A Conversation with David Schenker”, 4 June 2020, https://www.mei.edu/events/shifting-dynamics-and-us-priorities-middle-east-conversation-david-schenker.
 Ben Westcott, “China’s GPS rival Beidou is now fully operational after final satellite launched”, CNN Business, 24 June 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/06/24/tech/china-beidou-satellite-gps-intl-hnk/index.html.
 Belt and Road News, “China’s Global Digital Silk Road is arriving in the Middle East”, 16 September 2019, https://www.beltandroad.news/2019/09/16/chinas-global-digital-silk-road-is-arriving-in-the-middle-east/.
 Maria Abi-Habib, “China’s ‘Belt and Road’ Plan in Pakistan takes a military turn”, The New York Times, 19 December 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/19/world/asia/pakistan-china-belt-road-military.html.
 Huang Yong, “Construction of digital Silk Road lights up BRI cooperation”, People’s Daily, 24 April 2019, http://en.people.cn/n3/2019/0424/c90000-9571418.html.
 Kristin Huang, “China’s answer to GPS complete as final BeiDou satellite launches”, South China Morning Post, 23 June 2020, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3090186/chinas-global-aspirations-lift-beidou-satellite-launches-orbit?utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=share_widget&utm_campaign=3090186.
 Jesse Yeung, “The UAE has successfully launched the Arab world’s first Mars mission”, CNN, 21 July 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/07/19/middleeast/uae-mars-hope-launch-intl-hnk-scn-scli/index.html.
JCPOA Implementation Amid a Tug of War between Rhetoric and Facts
The man behind the insurrection at home and disarray abroad!
A few days before the fifth anniversary of Implementation Day of the JCPOA on 16 January 2021, U.S. House handed Trump a second impeachment. What is important in this regard is the fact that Trump was basically indicted by the U.S. legislature for violating the rule of law. The Article of Impeachment clearly states that the president is impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors and the president stands accused of violating the Constitution of the United States. According to the Article of Impeachment he remains a threat to national security, democracy and the constitution. The truth is, Trump has been a threat not only to U.S. national security, but an abominable menace against international peace and security all along; what Iran has clearly understood and signaled to the world since the early days of this outgoing -or the soon-to-be-removed- Trump administration, the international community only secretly admitted and quietly wished for change.
Although the establishment in the United States put a stop to Trump, his unbridled bullying on the international scene persisted for the full duration of his term with little or no practical opposition at all. By his sheer disregard for all established principles and institutions Trump threw the anarchical nature of international relations in stark relief and all the U.S. traditional allies in Europe under the bus as well! Though Trump is now history in the U.S., some worrying signs in the past weeks suggest proper lessons have not been learned by some Europeans and Trumpism towards Iran might persist for quite a while.
The post-election developments in the U.S. were the source of considerable consternation among the European leaders; therefore, the impeachment was saluted in Europe as they could finally breathe a sigh of relief. Although the impeachment and power transition occur nationally in the U.S., it has nonetheless huge global ramifications. Jo Biden promised in Munich Security Conference of 2019 that they would be back! They are back now. The U.S. president-elect put out words that he would return to the nuclear deal with Iran provided that Iran returns to compliance. In this regard there are a few elements that require prompt attention.
First and foremost, Iran was the victim in the past two years; the victim of an unrestrained bully who made no secret of his disdain for the longest established principles of international conduct, chief among which pacta sunt servanda. Thus, any attempt to twist the facts and portray Iran as the actor who undermines the diplomatic process is grossly irresponsible and highly provocative. Second, unlike the Trump administration’s whimsical and unpredictable conduct, all the reversible steps undertaken by the Iranian side have been communicated in a transparent manner to all parties. Third, for every step there has been the element of predictability and nothing came as a surprise so as to ensure good faith throughout the process. Fourth, the reversible steps taken by Iran in the past year, much to the dismay of Europeans, were the inevitable result of Europeans’ inaction and non-performance of commitments which deprived Iran of billions of dollars and prevented the normalization of trade and economic relations specifically during the last year when the Covid-19 outbreak inflicted a huge human cost on Iran. Last but not least, the IAEA monitors every step of the way and has mounted one of the most rigorous monitoring and verification regimes in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This all means that the “concerns”, regardless of the scale of their intensity, as expressed by the European parties to the deal in their statements of 6 and 11 January, are only a reflection of the discursively constructed culture against Iran’s nuclear program.
With the IAEA in Iran enjoying full access under the Additional Protocol for now, and considering Iran’s status as an NPT member state, it is difficult to understand European’s “deep regrets” and their “repeated calls” to “reverse all action that are inconsistent with Iran’s JCPOA commitments”. It is also impossible not see the hypocrisy of it all; for instance, a regional ally of Europe, while sitting atop a vast nuclear arsenal, openly boasts their nuclear weapon capacities and asserts that they do not need to explain themselves on their nuclear warheads simply because they are not NPT member states. Moreover, there are other regional allies of Europe who are NPT member states, yet they have not even signed the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, let alone the Additional Protocol.
All through the past two years, Iran has pursued a measured nuclear diplomacy and avoided any action that might hint at provocation or escalation in the nuclear field. The term reversible has been purposefully chosen by Iran in description of its reduced commitments and if Europeans want to see a reversal of actions, they know what Iran expects; it is nothing more than the EU/E3 commitments expressly spelled out in the JCPOA.
Recent postures by the EU and the E3 do not help mainly because they portray Iran as the main culprit of the current nuclear standoff whereas it is only defending its natural interests in a matter of high security stakes. Such statements also ignore one very important fact, or at least tone it down significantly and that is the destructive role that the U.S. withdrawal played in the post 8 May 2018 drama.
A tug of war between rhetoric and facts
One might ask why it has been the case that Iran’s nuclear program is conceived of as a proliferation threat! To find the answer, we should take stock of the security context of the early 2000’s when discursive constructs of threat significantly outweighed factual analyses and calculations of the Bush administration. Iraq is a vivid example of such disregard for facts where Bush’s blind insistence on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s arsenal, based on flawed cherry-picked intelligence despite all internationally verified evidence to the contrary, led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq the scourge of which is still fresh in the region.
It is a peculiar fact that Discourse shapes realities in foreign policy, and it has often been the case that discursive constructs play a far more effective role than substantial facts. The U.S. administration back in early 2000’s paid no heed neither to the IAEA expertise, not to words of warning by American senior politicians. At the time of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Bush’s claims were unconfirmed and to this day, not a trace of weapons of mass destruction has been found in Iraq. It was maybe for good reason that William Burns, recently tapped by President-elect Biden to lead the C.I.A. laments not “tak[ing] a hard stand against war altogether” and recounts the build-up to Iraq war and failure in mounting and effective opposition to it as his “biggest professional regret”.
In that light, it is safe to assert that Iran’s nuclear crisis was the direct product of such securitized foreign policy discourse which portrayed Iran’s nuclear program as a proliferation threat. Such frame of mind has poisoned everything related to Iran and its non-proliferation policies. From foreign policy circles to intelligence communities, from think thanks to centers of academic excellence, from press to media the rhetorical and constructed notion of “Iran as a proliferation threat” permeates debates and what seems to
be taken for granted is that whatever Iran does, even within the confines of the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and the Additional Protocol, is inevitably linked to weaponization efforts! This construct has become an open wound that the U.S. and others in the region find easy to poke anytime their powerful lobbies deem it necessary to further their regional agenda of aggression and war mongering.
A return to the facts
In my capacity as ambassador, and so far as Covid-related restrictive measures would allow, I have been trying hard to accentuate the factual element in Iran’s nuclear program to European diplomats. The IAEA is present in Iran and its inspectors have access under the Additional Protocol to the places they might deem worthy of inspection. All nuclear activities in Iran are declared to the Agency and unfold before the eyes of IAEA inspectors. Besides, in sharp contrast to what the U.S. did on 8 May 2018, in the past two years Iran has had a transparent, verifiable and predictable and reversible course of action in its nuclear program. Let’s be clear, though, Iran agreed on a provisional basis to take confidence- building measures as stipulated under the JCPOA. You cannot build confidence forever, neither can such measures be taken for granted!
In the end, I would like to invite the European parties to the JCPOA to play a constructive role and acknowledge the fact that Iran was the victim of Trump administration’s policies in the past two and a half years. Secondly, I call upon the EU/E3 not to be part of this securitized discourse on Iran and not to tug at the rhetoric end of this discursive war and take the public opinion and its impact into serious consideration. Pursuing a policy of sanctions and coercion failed in the past and it is doomed to fail in the future as well. Finally, with the upcoming U.S. administration and the talks here or there in Washington about a prospective Biden administration return to the JCPOA it is important to build on this momentum rather than to create obstacles to the diplomatic process.
Prohibition of importing reliable vaccines to Iran
On January 8, 2021, in a televised speech, the Iranian regime’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei announced a ban on importing American, British, and French vaccines. He said, “If the Americans had been able to produce the vaccine, this coronavirus scandal would not have occurred in their country, killing about 4,000 people per day. At the same time, they are basically distrusted, and sometimes these vaccines are meant to be tested on other nations.”
Officially, the regime puts the coronavirus death toll at 60,000. But, the head of the Tehran City Council, for example, has warned that the regime’s statistics only cover the Behesht Zahra Cemetery in Tehran. The Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), has announced that the number of deaths in only half of Iran’s cities is at least 200,000 based on hospital and morgue statistics. Therefore, a major catastrophe is unfolding in Iran but it is being intentionally covered up.
The whole world is ordering, obtaining, and freely inoculating the public with reliable and World Health Organization-approved vaccines. “80 countries have provided 7 billion doses of Pfizer vaccine to the public free of charge,” said the State-run Jahan-e-Sanat newspaper on December 22, 2020. But, according to Khamenei, “If Pfizer can make the vaccine, why do they want to give it to us?”
Khamenei pulls back the curtains
Khamenei has been behind the “excuses of the regime leaders for refusing to buy the COVID-19 vaccine” and the “delay in buying it” (Jahan-e-Sanat – December 17, 2020). According to Zafar Ghandi, the head of the Medical Council, “the cost of providing the (foreign) COVID-19 vaccine in Iran is less than $200 million, and this is not a number that (the government) cannot provide.” So, why is Khamenei opposed to importing reliable vaccines?
The ban imposed by Khamenei shows that it is of strategic importance to him. The Iranian regime had previously adopted a herd immunity strategy. The Iranian Immunology Association warned Hassan Rouhani that 70 percent of the population would be infected with this strategy, leaving between one and two million dead. The regime calculates that if they can keep the Iranian people preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, their focus will be shifted away from other significant daily concerns, thereby preventing another uprising.
As long as COVID-19 continues to impact the population, then the poor, who make up more than 70% of society, can no longer resort to mass protests and articulate their demands. According to the regime, these protests, such as the November 2019 uprising, could lead to the regime’s overthrow. Khamenei considered the coronavirus a blessing and said that the regime should turn it into an opportunity for Tehran.
Wave of executions and repression
On December 31, 2020, the Deputy Police Chief, Qassem Rezaei, issued an order to the forces under his command, asking them to break the legs and arms of people they arrest. He made these remarks deliberately in public and on air in order to intimidate the population.
In the second week of December alone, 12 people were executed in Iranian prisons after several years of imprisonment. On December 31, three Sunnis were executed in the city of Mashhad. On January 3, three Baluchis were executed after enduring years of imprisonment. In an appalling act that violates all international standards, Mohammad Hassan Rezaei, who was 16 at the time of committing his alleged crime, was executed on December 31. The Iranian regime is one of the few remaining executioners of juveniles in the world.
These hasty executions are meant to control and intimidate the society. The regime, which thought it could contain it with COVID-19, is now using executions to counter the Iranian people’s demands.
“The volcano of the hungry “
One regime expert had previously said that “one should be afraid when the volcano of the hungry is no longer silent.” In recent months and weeks, young people attacked hundreds of IRGC or Basij and torture centers seeking to overthrow the status quo. Attacks on courts that issue death sentences or ordered the demolition of residences of poor people are among the sites attacked by insurgent youth. The burning of portraits of Khamenei and eliminated Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani in various cities symbolizes insurgent youth’s anger at oppression. It sends a clear message to Khamenei and the Iranian regime that the people want democratic change.
So, will Khamenei survive the eruption of the “volcano of the hungry” despite using COVID-19 and executions to curb potential uprisings? Only time will tell.
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