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Additional considerations on the Iranian nuclear issue

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We all know that the Russian Federation has been one of the true resolver of the Iranian nuclear issue, also within the negotiations that led the P5+1 to define the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran.

For Russia, the nuclear deal expands the economy, as well as the strategic rayonnement of an ally, namely Iran, which is necessary for Russia both in the Middle East and in the complex oil price system to resolve a question of life or death for it: the increase in crude oil prices. Not to mention that – in the new equilibrium resulting from the war in Syria – Russia supports the Shi’ite Republic insofar as the United States support Saudi Arabia and Turkey.It is worth recalling that it was the Lebanese Shi’ite Imam, Mussa Sadr – kidnapped in Rome, probably by Libyan agents – to decide the Syrian Alawites belonging to the Shi’ite universe.

Nevertheless, with caution and attention, Russia does not take part in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran – hoping, on the contrary, to witness “a decrease of tensions between the two countries” and supporting all measures which can restore some sort of relations between the two Islamic nations.

However, is Russia a true ally for Iran?

From the viewpoint of the current war in Syria, Russia militarily supports Bashar el Assad, who is a staunch ally of Iran. The problem, however, is that the Russian Federation has no strategic interest in increasing tensions in the Middle East, which could cause a “domino effect” that would be very dangerous for Russian interests, as well as for its military and intelligence apparatus. Especially for the linkage between Ukraine and the Russian-Alawite actions in Syria. The costs of actions in Syria may lead to a decrease of the Russian engagement in another key area, namely Ukraine, while this country is essential to protect and manage Russia’ s oil and gas system, which reaches up to its primary market, namely Europe.

Hence, if the Greater Middle East flares up, considering the Syrian crisis, the Shi’ite Houthi insurgency in Yemen, the gradual destabilization of the Shi’ite areas inside the Saudi Kingdom and the de facto closure of the sea routes south of Suez, then the overstretching of Russian military engagement would create severe economic and strategic problems that would be hard to solve for Russia. Conversely, the real keystone of the Russian system in the region could be Israel, placed at the centre of regional tensions, very efficient at militarily level, distant both from Iran and Saudi Arabia, and now alien to the US geopolitics in the region, as well as capable of managing a long war of attrition both with Shi’ites and Sunnis. And also capable of threatening fully credible retaliations.

We cannot make peace nor waging a war, throughout the Middle East, without creating a strategic correlation with Israel.The Palestinian movements of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and pre-Bashar Syria, knew this all too well.At the time, the solution was a long low-intensity war with the use of Palestinian terrorism against targets both in the Jewish State and, above all, in the territory of its traditional allies. Terrorism is a poor war which destroys the “enemy” peoples’ morale, but does not cause excessive damage to the military structures and facilities of the target country.

On the contrary, the case of ISIS/Daesh is different: a territorial jihad which is the background, – as hoped by Al Baghdadi – of the Sunni Islamic States after their destabilization and after the wiping out of the “takfiri” (apostate) rulers.Hence, in Syria, we are currently witnessing a real war along its borders because, after Al-Qaeda’s terrorism and the unsuccessful “Arab springs”, the region has no significant external strategic protection.

Not even Iran now wants a real war along its borders, since it has every interest in taking full advantage of the new economic and political climate emerged, especially with Europe, after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan.Therefore a “regional cold war” between Shi’ites and Sunnis in the Middle East is likely, once clarified to which sphere of influence Syria, or what will remain of it, belongs.However, how is the management of the P5+1 agreement with Iran progressing, which is the keystone of the whole Middle East current system?

At economic level, the Iranian government has set some productive sectors in which the Iranian-Russian trade will be enhanced.According to the plans of the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, the funds given back to Iran and the increasing trade with the European Union, the United States, Russia and China will create the capital needed for the final economic takeoff of the country.

The productive sectors of Iranian-Russian trade regard the nuclear sector, armaments, natural gas and oil, of which a price correlation is envisaged between the Russian and the Iranian products.The geoeconomic tripartite relationship foreseen by Iran is the one with Russia, Iraq and Venezuela, while Russia proposes coordination with OPEC, as a whole, so as to proceed to an acceptable oil price increase per barrel.After signing the JCPOA, Russia and Iran have also decided to increase their economic exchanges from 1.5 billion US dollars in 2013 to 15 billion US dollars within the next five years.

This means that the Iranian ruling class is trying to rebalance and offset the economic opening to the West with an almost equivalent expansion of trade with Russia.Moreover, the Russian Federation is also planning to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in the nuclear sector, while it already supports the Iranian nuclear industry – and it will support it ever more in the future.

The “stance” of Ali Akbar Velayati, a close aide of Rahbar Khamenei for foreign policy, also defines that the future of the stabilization of the area stretching from Central Asia to the Maghreb region and the Middle East, through the Caucasus, will be permanently guaranteed only by a tripartite agreement between China, Russia and Iran.Europe is currently swinging between a useless and a ridiculous strategic stance and the United States have now made it clear to everyone that they are walking out of the Middle East – indeed, there is no effective alternative to this new geopolitical project.

The agreement envisaged by the Iranian leader is designed to eradicate the jihad, enlarge the area of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and to enable China to secure its great project of a new “Silk Road”, the so-called One Belt One Road which was announced by Xi Jinping in October 2013.Europe, which still delights in useless and expensive “peace operations”, which maintain and exacerbate conflicts rather than solving them, will have an Eastern border controlled by this Sino-Russian-Iranian axis.In this new area, the European Union will have no say in the matter, while – after the disasters made – the United States are walking out of the Middle East so as to focus on the project of a new “cold war” along the Euro-Russian border.

A strange strategic nonsense, probably useful to keep some grip on the geopolitical void that the European Union is today and to avoid the territorial, economic and military continuity that the Russian analysts, linked to the Eurasian project, are proposing to the now meaningless Europe.Moreover, in 1991, Iraq openly infringed the rules of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it had previously adhered.Khomeini, just risen to power, declared that nuclear energy was “satanic”, but then he had to change his mind.

In the lack of advanced conventional weapons, of well-trained forces and of an effective grip of the Shi’ite regime on much of the population, the only solution was nuclear weapons, which had been started by the Shah.

Meanwhile, pending the Implementation Day of January 16, 2016, as many as 593 individuals and companies connected to Iran’s project for uranium enrichment have been “pardoned” by both the United States and the European Union, including many Iranian transport companies, some banks, individual experts of nuclear technologies and many companies located outside the Shi’ite Republic.The reason for this is Iran’s compliance with the Agreement, parallel to the JCPOA, on the release of four prisoners held in its jails.Iran’s behaviour is what is defined as a “win-win” strategy in the mathematical game theory: you always win regardless of the game strategy.Hence, faced with Iran’s quick recovery of over 120 billion US dollars already frozen in foreign banks, each small-scale calculation shall be relinquished by the Shi’ite regime.

This means that Iran will be increasingly interested in putting an end to the Syrian game, after quickly annihilating Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate, which is the maximum strategic threat to Iran that would be blocked every channel with Iraq, Syria and the Mediterranean, in particular.This is also the problem of China, which cannot complete its operation of “New Silk Road” to Europe without eliminating ISIS/Daesh.And it is also the problem of the Jewish State, which has no interest in having, almost along its borders, a territorial jihad which could also set fire to the Palestinian radicalism inside and outside Israel.

On the other hand, it remains to be seen whether and to what extent, in the coming months, the Shi’ite State will still need the Lebanese Hezbollah along the border with Israel or whether it will use them – as happens today – for its proxy wars to be managed without getting too much involved and soiling its hands.

It is easy to predict, for the “Party of God”, a future very similar to that of the North-American marines, and it is very likely for them to be present in Central Asia, in the predominantly Shi’ite areas of Saudi Arabia, in the Maghreb region and, in the future, even in Libya.However, at least 35% of the new funds recovered after the lifting of sanctions on Iran will serve to acquire new weapons, both Russian and Chinese one, as well as to allow the geopolitical shift of its nuclear threat from the territory of the Shi’ite Republic to that of a traditional ally, namely North Korea.

Yemen will host an Iranian nuclear power plant; after the current disaster, Syria will assign parts of its territory to Iran for its nuclear-conventional operations and nothing prevents Iraq from accepting the presence of Iran’s “forbidden” weapon systems on its territory.

Hence new weapons, instead of the old nuclear power, which does not allow a reasonable threshold for its use or for the credibility of a threat.The current strategic thinking is not interested in the old game, typical of the “cold war”, of the nuclear escalation which, as such, deters the opponent.The Iranian leaders’ current doctrine is to have useful weapons – a real deterrent, which can be used in the reality of regional clashes.It comes to mind the old Soviet strategy manual written by General Shaposhnikov, in which he defined the use of nuclear weapons in full continuity with conventional weapons. It was just a problem of tactical usefulness.

Therefore, after signing the JCPOA, Iran has chosen the credible and immediate threat instead of an old geopolitics of nuclear confrontation which becomes impossible through the gradual equalization of arsenals.Incidentally, if the nuclear threat becomes possible in continuity with a conventional clash, it will be good for the European and Italian decision-makers to rethink many of the clauses of the old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Italy signed in 1970 and still believes to be the “cornerstone” of its foreign policy.

The five-year conference of May 2015 on the review of the Treaty ended with no results, while in 1998 even Italy threatened to withdraw from the NPT if the legitimate nuclear powers did not guarantee our security and safety.It would be worth remembering that no one guarantees anybody’ security and safety: the Italian political theorist, Nicolò Machiavelli, used to remind us of the fact that “States’ own weapons” can make them safe, and he liked to repeat that States “cannot be maintained with words”.In addition, after signing the P5+1 non-proliferation agreement, Iran will become a legitimate regional power and thus an important mediator and broker of future regional conflicts.

And we must clarify how and to what extent we could later ensure the Israeli security and safety if a new August war, like the one which broke out between the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Israeli armed forces in 2006, happened.If the Jewish State collapses, the whole jihad will unite. It will definitely win in the Arab States still considered “moderate” and it will dangerously get close to Europe, without any control or supervision, thus knocking on its doors.As it happened on September 11, 1683, when the Polish cavalry defeated the Ottomans in Kahlenberg, at the gates of Vienna.Today Sobieski’s Polish cavalry is no longer there.

Indeed, the ideology of multiculturalism, of “submission” – as the French writer Houellebecq called it in his novel – no longer allows the battle of ideas or the preparation of the real battle.Hence, without a reliable centre of gravity for us in the Middle East, breaking the jihad’s line of continuity and enabling the European Union to remain safe within its borders – because Islamist terrorism can turn into an open war – there will no security and safety in the European landmass or in the Mediterranean basin.

Therefore we can think of a new negotiation of the P5+1 “contact group” on Iran’s missile system, allowing limited conventional weapons. We can also think of freezing Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions and then relying on a strategic tripartite relationship between Russia, China and EU-NATO.A tripartite relationship which should rebalance the strategic potential of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and possibly Iraq, thus keeping the nuclear confrontation between Pakistan and India under control.

As we have already said, the United States have focused on their action for regionalizing the Russian Federation, which is not in Europe’s interest. They will also operate in Central Asia to control the Chinese power projection.Neither Iran nor China are focused on a short-term perspective but, as happened before World War II, today the West seems to be inebriated with quick fixes to be sold to the media for purely cosmetic geopolitical reasons.Therefore, both in Italy and in the rest of Europe, we should think of a less naive policy, more sensitive to old and new threats, which are changing shape and position.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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What Does China-Iran Relations mean for United States?

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What China wants in the Middle East

Although the recent China-Iran deal prompted extensive debates in international media, Iran is not the only country in the region to keep up a strategic partnership with China. The GCC states such as Saudi Arabia (since 2016) and the United Arab Emirates (since 2018) do as well. According to the China Global Investment Tracker, Beijing invested up to $62.55 billion in Saudi Arabia and the UAE between 2008 and 2019. (Julia Gurol & Jacopo Scita, 2020) Although due to the impacts of Washington’s maximum pressure strategy this new dimension of relationships looks more beneficial to Iran than to China, however, Beijing will now merge as one of the global powers to make sure the survival of the JCPOA presenting China with the opportunity to set the tone in the broader nuclear non-proliferation debates.

Economically, China needs to import its energy mostly from the Middle East and it also maintains a huge interest in exporting. China, in Iran’s Pivot to the East policy, will become now one of few formal buyers of Iran’s oil boosting its footprint in the Iranian market. Under the umbrella of the One Belt, One Road project, China is steadily expanding its political influence and investment plans in the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf, which has occurred as a new theatre of U.S.-Iran power competition. Moreover, China is keen to stabilise the security environment that will help its infrastructure investments in the region. (Global Times, 2017) According to China’s estimations, the growth opportunities through the One Belt, One Road project will reduce tensions in the Middle East. (Xinhua, 2017) Therefore, China has proceeded to invest in Iran. The latest example was a 538 million USD railway deal. (South China Morning Post, 2017)

Iran’s Look East Policy

Iran’s policy of a “Pivot to the East” involves developing robust ties with the giants of the Asian continent, namely, China and Russia. (Micha’elTanchum, 2020) China and Iran have now signed an agreement, a roadmap for 25 years. While the Iranian government spokesperson said that there was no legal obligation to publish it (Patrick Wintour, 2021), we can assume that the agreement entails political-strategic, economic and cultural components for improving and promoting relations between China and Iran in the long run. The present agreement emphasises the effective participation of Iran in the Chinese one belt one road project with extensive projects in infrastructure, financial and banking fields. In terms of the political-strategic dimension (military, defence and security), China and Iran will set up close positions and cooperation promoting exchanges, and consultations on issues of mutual interest, including strengthening the defence infrastructure, countering terrorism and holding regular military manoeuvres. (Hossein Amir Abdollahian, 2021) China and Iran have emphasised economic ties, including cooperation in the fields of oil, industry and mining, and energy-related fields. 

China was essential to striking a nuclear deal between Iran and the West. First, the Chinese were a real (if occasionally reluctant) partner in building pressure on Tehran. Beijing voted for six UN Security Council resolutions targeting Iran between 2006 and 2010 (The Arms Control Association, 2017), and China’s oil imports from Iran fell by more than 20 per cent in 2012-2013 when the United States was rising its crippling sanctions campaign. (Middle East Institute, 2016) As Iran’s most considerable oil customer, Chinese cooperation was crucial to the effort. China was then important to designing the JCPOA.

For almost three years, the destiny of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) hung in the balance (Guardian News, 2018). However, the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, an international agreement between Iran and world powers endorsed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2231 seeking a “maximum pressure” strategy. (Hossein Mousavian, 2019) The maximum pressure strategy by the United States, if anything, sharpened Tehran’s wish to introduce Beijing as a reliable economic and political ally under the atmosphere of threats and sanctions. Thus, Iran’s policy of a Pivot to the East has achieved all the more credibility among Iranian officials after the United States withdrew from the JCPOA.

Thus, the relationship between the two countries is asymmetrical but highly pragmatic. Economic sanctions against Iran have driven the growth of China-Iran economic ties. Having been cut off from the West by sanctions, Iran has engaged in a Look East Policy. China is now Iran’s largest trade partner, its largest oil purchaser, and its largest foreign investor.

The US-Iran relations and Implications for China

A point of agreement between the United States and China is that both do not want a war in the region. China and Iran share the interests that they substantially oppose violent regime change policies. The existing U.S. sanctions and other bold moves will raise uncertainties to business and presumably postpone much of the economic engagements of China in Iran. But these policies may lead China and Iran to reduce imports and exports from each other and seek alternatives, but the policies imposed by Washington will not stop Sino-Iranian exchanges completely. Iran is not part of China’s immediate neighbourhood, but China is becoming an important part of the Iranian security calculations. 

The Trump Administration’s chaotic foreign policy offered a buffet of opportunities to Beijing. Given the absence of ties between Tehran and Washington, China steps in opportunistically. The United States’ maximum pressure campaign on Iran, combined with a confrontational approach from Saudi Arabia and Israel vis-à-vis Iran and the growth of tensions in the Strait of Hormuz are endangering both the freedom of navigation, energy security and flow of oil supplies through the Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, China seems quite reluctant to become bogged down in the regional tensions and attempts to avoid a military conflict. China’s reluctance to act as a security guarantor in the Persian Gulf indicates that Beijing does not want to pay any of the costs of possible military tensions in the Middle East and that its security strategy towards the Persian Gulf is not yet well-known. (Job B Alterman, 2013) Hence, Beijing seems unlikely to proclaim any peace initiatives for Iran and Persian Gulf security beyond broad calls for peace in the region, probably maintaining China’s existing policy of non-interference. (Camille Lons, Jonathan Fulton, Degang Sun, & Naser Al-Tamimi, 2019)

Although China would need to support cooperation with Iran on civil nuclear projects, China has been careful as Iran’s main partner in reconstructing nuclear facilities, not desiring to get ahead of the United States. Diplomatically, Beijing and Tehran stay together as long as Washington continues unilateral measures against them, although it’s unlikely that Tehran or Beijing use the alliance to confront Washington directly. Currently, with the Biden Administrations delay in recovering relations both with Iran and the failure to offer to substantially resolve the trade war with China, Beijing would be reluctant to help the United States to regain its footprint in the Middle East and certainly not dominance over the only country in the region with rich hydrocarbon resources in which Americans lack a foothold. 

Iran-China relations is also linked to the fate of their respective relations with Washington and Iran’s upcoming election in 2021. Although China and Iran now share many strategic interests, in the long run, Iran’s wish to build up good relations with Western powers may affect its relationship with China. It remains yet unclear how far United States commercial and banking sectors will be willing to ease sanctions and engage with Iran. The United States can revisit Iran policy to avoid a major crisis with Iran and pave the way for a new round of negotiations with Iran. Otherwise, under the current conditions, we can expect Chinese players to create and widen influence and ties to keep up ties with Tehran without overly provoking Washington. 

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