Could the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) create a pathway toward democracy in the Islamic Republic of Iran or is the United States investing in a nation whose political portfolio has continually displayed a diminishing return?
We know that democratic nations tend to be less willing to engage in conflict and are generally more cooperative in the realm of international relations. Moreover, democratic nations tend to be economically independent and more developed, and are more likely to hold alliances with other nations. While this is political theory, there is a significant amount of weight behind its importance. So how could the JCPOA lead to the promotion of democracy within Iran and the greater Caspian Region?
If we take the above-mentioned political theory of increased cooperation among democratic states and apply it to the diverse political environment of the Caspian region we observe a series of rivalries exacerbated by political, economic, and religious ideologies that have remained as relics of the Soviet Era. Take, for example, the nations of Iran and Azerbaijan. Iran is a nation whose political structure follows that of a theocracy, which allows for a single “Supreme Leader” to exercise total ideological and political control throughout a system dominated by clerics who manage every function of the state. Iran is home to the world’s largest population of Shi’a Muslims, with its northern neighbor, Azerbaijan, home to the second largest. Due to their contiguity these two countries share a mutual past and hold common links between their cultures. Despite this common culture—which should be a strong element for any relationship—the two nations are stuck in a continual paradox of competition. The reasoning behind this competition lies in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s ideologically-motivated foreign and domestic agenda, where its version of Shia Islam influences all aspects of political, social, and economic life.
Unlike Iran, which has observed multiple economic sanctions from the international community, Azerbaijan has been the recipient of over $967 million in U.S. foreign aid. The Obama administration has stated that U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan is to develop democratic institutions and civil society; support the growth of economic sectors not related to oil; strengthen the interoperability of the nation’s armed forces with NATO; as well as increase maritime border security, combat terrorism, eliminate corruption, and prevent the growth of transnational crime. After the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Azerbaijan allowed U.S. over-flight of its airspace, as well as approved numerous landings and refueling operations at Baku’s civilian airport to assist coalition military operations occurring in Afghanistan. It was the threat of an emerging common enemy—global terrorism—that created a new positive relationship between the two nations, regardless of cultural differences and/or political structures.
These efforts have later become scrutinized by mainly Iran and Russia—the other major super power in the region—which signed a political declaration barring foreign militaries from having a presence in the Caspian Sea region. This is a geostrategic attempt on behalf of Iran and Russia to prevent Western influence in the smaller states making up the region. This is because Western support would undoubtedly come in the form of developing the trans-Caspian pipeline, a move that would diversify other littoral states’ (specifically Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan) energy dependence and break the monopoly of Russia’s exports of natural gas to European countries. Moreover, Tehran may observe a Western presence in the Caspian Basin as an attempt to place more pressure on its long-term geostrategic ambitions, including the nuclear issue.
The international isolation of economic sanctions placed upon Iran by the United States and European Union (EU) severely crippled its petroleum-dependent economy. After decades of failing economic polices driven by religious ideology, Iran is now ranked last out of fifteen countries in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. While religious beliefs are a cultural trait and should be embraced with deep conviction by any believer, Iran’s failure to separate religious propaganda from economic, political, and social realities has fueled this decline. Moreover, these failures have impacted not just Iran, but also the bordering states within the Caspian Region, with cascade effects throughout the MENA Region. The JCPOA would undoubtedly lead to socio-economic developments within Iran and create new dynamics–intentional or not–for the Caspian region. Despite the controversy surrounding the nuclear deal, it is these resultant economic developments that could possibly create a pathway to democracy within Iran. However, when Iran has remained the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism despite the crippling sanctions, which seem to have had little effect on quelling Iranian support, can Iran be trusted to not utilize its JCPOA-inspired economic advancement to fund or equip terror organizations more effectively? Iran has previously deceived and defied world powers as well as covertly constructed nuclear facilities throughout the last two decades. And while Iranian leadership declared these nuclear pursuits peaceful, its disregard for democratic processes and cooperation with the international community earned it the label of rogue nation. I think the question that needs to be asked is whether the JCPOA will be ultimately hopeful diplomacy or political folly? Is the U.S. allowing a rogue state to increase its use of proxy forces to build regional hegemony or is it leading said regime out of its ‘roguishness’?
The JCPOA has seen divided support among the political elites of both the U.S. and Iran. So could the agreement rouse a pathway to democratic promotion within Iran or is the deal simply a distraction that holds the potential to create more instability in both the Caspian region and the Middle East? I believe there is a possibility of democracy within Iran because of two hopeful dynamics. First, the historical and religious commonalities shared between Azerbaijan and Iran and the established partnership between the U.S. and Azerbaijan prove that democratic processes can gain ground even in a radically ideological nation. Second, if the agreement is approved by the U.S. Congress, the socio-economic developments that will arise from the lifting of sanctions and the economic opportunities for Iranian citizens will likely produce both social and political change, mostly from a bottom-up approach that is from the citizens themselves.
Acceptance of the JCPOA could possibly establish a pathway to renewed relations with the hopeful prospect of promoting democracy within Iran, while a Congressional rejection could aggravate historical grievances due to economic and political isolation. While either outcome will not be zero-sum in nature, the regional dynamics in trade, terrorism, and energy will be dramatically shaped through the consequential shifts in power. These shifts could either exacerbate the paradox of continual competition as observed in the Iranian-Azerbaijani model or lead to the acceptance of democratic processes through socio-economic developments within Iran. For now only time will tell if Iran will continue to be an isolated nation or if constructive actions can create new American engagement, proving the JCPOA was a positive investment.
Chinese purchases of Iranian oil raise tantalizing questions
A fully loaded Chinese oil tanker ploughing its way eastwards from two Iranian oil terminals raises questions of how far Beijing is willing to go in defying US sanctions amid a mounting US military build-up in the Gulf and a US-China trade war.
The sailing from Iran of the Pacific Bravo takes on added significance with US strategy likely to remain focused on economic rather than military strangulation of the Iranian leadership, despite the deployment to the Gulf of an aircraft carrier strike group as well as B-52 bombers and a Patriot surface-to-air missile system.
As President Donald J. Trump, backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appears to be signalling that he is not seeking military confrontation, his administration is reportedly considering a third round of sanctions that would focus on Iran’s petrochemical industry. The administration earlier this month sanctioned the country’s metals and minerals trade.
The sailing raises the question whether China is reversing its policy that led in the last quarter of 2018 to it dramatically reducing its trade with Iran, possibly in response to a recent breakdown in US-Chinese trade talks.
“The question is whether non-oil trade remains depressed even if some oil sales resume, which I think it will. That’s the better indicator of where Chinese risk appetite has changed. Unfortunately Iran‘s reprieve will be limited—but better than zero perhaps,” tweeted Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, head of Bourse & Bazaar, a self-described media and business diplomacy company and the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum.
A Chinese analyst interviewed by Al Jazeera argued that “China is not in a position to have Iran’s back… For China, its best to stay out” of the fray.
The stakes for China go beyond the troubled trade talks. In Canada, a senior executive of controversial Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is fighting extradition to the United States on charges of violating US sanctions against Iran.
Reports that Western companies, including Kraft Heinz, Adidas and Gap, wittingly or unwittingly, were employing Turkic Muslims detained in re-education camps in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang, as part of opaque supply chains, could increase attention on a brutal crackdown that China is struggling to keep out of the limelight.
The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized the crackdown but has stopped short of sanctioning officials involved in the repressive measures.
Bourse & Bazaar’s disclosure of the sailing of the Pacific Bravo coincided with analysis showing that Iran was not among China’s top three investment targets in the Middle East even if Chinese investment in the region was on the rise.
The Pacific Bravo was steaming with its cargo officially toward Indonesia as Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was touring his country’s major oil clients, including China, in a bid to persuade them to ignore US sanctions.
A second tanker, the Marshal Z, was reported to have unloaded 130,000 tonnes of Iranian fuel oil into storage tanks near the Chinese city of Zhoushan.
The Marshall Z was one of four ships that, according to Reuters, allegedly helped Iran circumvent sanctions by using ship-to-ship transfers in January and forged documents that masked the cargoes as originating from Iraq.
The unloading put an end to a four-month odyssey at sea sparked by buyers’ reticence to touch a cargo that would put them in the US crosshairs.
“Somebody in China decided that the steep discount this cargo most likely availed … was a bargain too good to miss,” Matt Stanley, an oil broker at StarFuels in Dubai, told Reuters.
The Pacific Bravo, the first vessel to load Iranian oil since the Trump administration recently refused to extend sanction exemptions to eight countries, including China, was recently acquired by China’s Bank of Kunlun.
The acquisition and sailing suggested that Bank of Kunlun was reversing its decision last December to restrict its business with Iran to humanitarian trade, effectively excluding all other transactions.
The bank was the vehicle China used in the past for business with Iran because it had no exposure to the United States and as a result was not vulnerable to US sanctions that were in place prior to the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.
China’s willingness to ignore, at least to some extent, US sanctions could also constitute an effort to persuade Iran to remain fully committed to the nuclear accord which it has so far upheld despite last year’s US withdrawal.
Iran recently warned Europe that it would reduce its compliance if Europe, which has struggled to create a credible vehicle that would allow non-US companies to circumvent the sanctions, failed to throw the Islamic republic an economic lifeline.
In a letter that was also sent to Russia and China, Iran said it was no longer committed to restrictions on the storage of enriched uranium and heavy water stocks, and could stop observing limits on uranium enrichment at a later stage.
Russian president Vladimir Putin warned in response to the Iranian threat that “as soon as Iran takes its first reciprocal steps and says that it is leaving, everyone will forget by tomorrow that the US was the initiator of this collapse. Iran will be held responsible, and the global public opinion will be intentionally changed in this direction.”
The Iran Question
Will there be war with Iran? Will there not be war with Iran? The questions are being asked repeatedly in the media even though a single carrier task force is steaming up there. The expression is old for the latest carriers are nuclear powered. Imagine the mess if it was blown up.
There are two kinds of weapons in the world … offensive and defensive. The latter are cheaper, a fighter plane compared to a bomber. If a country does not (or cannot afford to) have offensive intent, it makes sense to focus on defense. It is what Iran has done. Moreover, its missile centered defense has a modern deadly twist — the missiles are precision-guided.
As an Iranian general remarked when questioned about the carrier task force: some years ago it would’ve been a threat he opined; now it’s a target. Iran also has a large standing army of 350,000 plus a 120,000 strong Revolutionary Guard and Soviet style air defenses. In 2016 Russia started installation of the S-300 system. It has all kinds of variants, the most advanced, the S-300 PMU-3 has a range similar to the S-400 if equipped with 40N6E missiles, which are used also in the S-400. Their range is 400 km, so the Iranian batteries are virtually S-400s. The wily Putin has kept trump satisfied with the S-300 moniker without short-changing his and China’s strategic ally. The latter continuing to buy Iranian oil.
Iran has friends in Europe also. Angela Merkel in particular has pointed out that Iran has complied fully with the nuclear provisions of the UN Security Council backed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action i.e. the Iran nuclear deal. She is mustering the major European powers. Already alienated with Trump treating them as adversaries rather than friends, they find Trump’s bullying tiresome. President Macron, his poll ratings hitting the lowest, is hardly likely to engage in Trump’s venture. In Britain, Theresa May is barely able to hold on to her job. In the latest thrust by senior members of her party, she has been asked to name the day she steps down.
So there we have it. Nobody wants war with Iran. Even Israel, so far without a post-election government does not want to be rained upon by missiles leaky as its Iron Dome was against homemade Palestinian rockets.
Topping all of this neither Trump nor Secretary of State Pompeo want war. Trump is as usual trying to bully — now called maximum pressure — Iran into submission. It won’t. The wild card is National Security Adviser John Bolton. He wants war. A Gulf of Tonkin type false flag incident, or an Iranian misstep, or some accident can still set it off.
In Iran itself, moderates like current President Hassan Rouhani are being weakened by Trump’s shenanigans. The hard liners might well want to bleed America as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iran’s game just started
By announcing that Iran will begin keeping its excess uranium and heavy water, the Islamic Republic now sends a firm and clear message to the west, exactly one year after U.S. president, Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from its nuclear deal with Iran.
At this point, it seems that Iran has made a wise decision. Over the last year, the European troika has not only done anything to revive the nuclear deal or bring any kind of benefit to the Iranian nation, but they have actually backed up U.S. by developing new plans to undermine Iran’s “missile work”, and diminish its “power in the region” as well as its “nuclear technology”.
As stated in clauses 26 and 36 of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action
(JCPOA), if the other side fails to meet its obligations, Iran is entitled to
partially or completely end its commitments as well. So, Iran’s recent decision
could be analyzed both on legal and strategic terms.
However, it seems that the strategic aspects of Iran’s decision are even more important than its legal aspects. This decision is strategically important because it stops Washington and European troika to carry out their anti-Iran scheme, a dangerous scheme that they actually started devising when Trump took the office in 2017.
At the time, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, and Emmanuel Macron, the French president played a major part in carrying out the west scheme. A scheme based on enforcing Iran to keep its “nuclear promises” and stay committed to a “distorted nuclear deal” while “U.S. had abandoned the deal”, and at the same time, trying to “diminish Iran’s power in the region” and “reduce its missile activities”.
All other actions of Europeans toward Iran were also simply targeted at carrying out this major plan, including how they constantly changed their strategies toward Tehran, and how Germany, U.K. and France intentionally delayed in launching the alternative trade mechanism (Instex) with Iran.
Now, Iran’s decision to keep its Uranium and heavy water is definitely in compliance with JCPOA, and more importantly, it will seriously undermine the “American-European” joint plan against Iran. This also explains why French government was so distressed by Iran’s new nuclear strategy and had such a quick reaction, considering that Emmanuel Macron, the French president and Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister both have had important roles in carrying out the American-European anti-Iran scheme.
At any rate, what is clear now is that the game has just started! And the Iranian political system and specially the foreign ministry have a great mission to run this game wisely.
In following days, the European troika might want to force Iran into changing its decision by threats such as reviving the European Union sanctions against Iran or even taking Iran’s case to the United Nations Security Council (so that Trump administration can meddle in Iran’s affairs). But, it is time for Iran political system to be adamant in its decision.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry should clearly ask the Europeans to choose one of these options, either Iran will “further reduce its commitments to the nuclear deal” or the Europeans should do something practical to “protect the rights of Iranian nation”.
It is also necessary that the Iranian political system reveals the American-European joint anti-Iran scheme to the people so that the true nature of Europeans is showed to Iranians. In that case, Europe and specially the European troika will completely lose their reputation.
First published in our partner Tehran Times
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