In the current Iranian economic and political system there are many old and new geopolitical and economic tensions.
At a time when many countries, including China, but not the United States, are adopting the criteria of the Paris Climate Agreement- signed, however, by 196 countries – it is obvious that oil will see its economic and technological importance decrease, while the role of alternative energy resources and, above all, natural gas will increase.
This is the first aspect to be studied: Saudi Arabia does not possess significant reserves of natural gas which, however, is much more “environmental-friendly” than oil, while Iran and Qatar have plenty of it.
Incidentally, the two countries which were accused of “sponsoring terrorism” during the meeting gathering 13 countries in Riyadh in May 2017 to establish the “Sunni Arab NATO” – a meeting where President Trump-led America which, however, is supposed to have some intelligence, had to say only yes.
This is exactly the reason why Saudi Arabia wants to immediately double its gas production up to 23 million cubic feet per day, while the country is also thinking about an OPEC oil reduction of 1.8 million barrels per day until the end of 2018.
This situation has nothing to do with the situation prevailing in the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has 18% of all natural gas reserves in the world, the second in size after the Russian Federation’s.
Another political problem in the use of natural gas, as can be easily imagined.
Conversely, Qatar has “only” 14% of global natural gas reserves, the third largest region in the world in terms of oil and gas.
This is the reason why, for example, the issue of renewables is at the core of Vision 2030, the great Saudi reform project.
Saudi Arabia still ranks sixth in terms of natural gas reserves, and the new leader of the Saudi Kingdom, Mohammed bin Salman, wants to expand gas extraction in the country by approximately 4% or at most 6% on a yearly basis – with savings currently estimated at 71 US dollars for each oil barrel “replaced” by an equivalent amount of gas for the same energy production.
Hence the Saudi natural gas is mainly used at domestic level so as to avoid the energy additional cost of using national oil, which must be sold in huge quantities, while for Iran and Qatar gas is the only great economic and geopolitical opportunity of the future.
Moreover, Prince Muhammad wants to increase the production of solar energy, again to be sold to Europe, considering the obvious difference in sun exposure of Saudi lands compared to the European ones.
Hence new formulas for exporting oil and gas require different strategic configurations compared to the current ones, which arise from the now old invention of petrodollars after the Yom Kippur War but, above all, are unavoidable after the transformation of power potentials within the OPEC system.
Even today Iran often sells oil barrels in euros – Saddam Hussein’s original sin.
New energy routes to be established and defended towards Western markets and hence new distribution of satellite or enemy countries in the very long passage from the origin of energy sources up to European end consumers.
Also the United States relies on said consumers. I am afraid that, in the near future, it will try to sell us its shale oil and gas.
This explains the “materialistic” root of the Iran-Saudi Arabia tension in Yemen for the Shi’ite and Zaydist rebels of the Fifth Imam, the Houthis – officially called Ansar Allah – who should be supported by Iran, Eritrea and other Iran’s friendly countries.
Who controls Yemen controls the Suez Canal.
On the contrary, Saudi Arabia is helped there – although softly – by the United States and the United Kingdom.
I have not yet well understood the reason why the United States and Great Britain have long put all their eggs in the Saudi basket, thus relinquishing a more balanced action for hegemony over the Greater Middle East.
Obviously Mohammed Bin Salman still wants to sell significant shares of ARAMCO – the state-owned Saudi oil company – to major foreign investors and later diversify the Saudi economy.
The deal of the century for many US investment bankers.
The Saudi Prince has also planned to spend tens of billion US dollars on US armaments, mainly to support the Saudi invasion of Yemen and, again, to fight the Houthis, who inflicted heavy losses on Saudi Arabia itself and finally to strengthen the strategic friendly relationship with the United States, the primary axis of Saudi Arabia also after Mohammed Bin Salman’s “purges”.
Therefore, if Iran’s economic potential is released, the strategic potentials inside the Greater Middle East and relating to the link between Shi’ites and Sunnis are placed on an equal footing and, indeed, change in favour of Iran.
This is the real problem underlying the “reform” or the termination of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program, signed on July 14, 2015 between the P5 + 1 (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States, plus Germany) and later by the EU and the Shi’ite Republic of Iran.
Furthermore, obviously the post-1979/1981 sanctions against Iran had already seriously harmed Iran’s economy, which began to recover after 2015.
At the time, the cost of international sanctions for the Shi’ite Republic had been calculated at 100 million US dollars per day.
Pursuant to the JCPOA agreements, 1.3 billion US dollars have so far been returned to Iran for interest on frozen assets, while approximately 53.8 million dollars of “frozen” funds have not yet been returned to their legitimate owners.
The United States is keeping on indicating Iran’s persona non grata.
There are still other unresolved issues between Iran and the United States – many years after signing the JCPOA – but, as always happens in these cases, negotiations are very complex.
Iran has many advantages over Saudi Arabia: it has a more developed and diversified industrial structure; a lower fertility rate, as well as a less exploited oil production – and this precisely because of sanctions.
Nevertheless, for the time being Iran and the Caspian gas-producing countries can meet the energy demands of two major global players, namely Europe and China.
Both regions signed the Paris Climate Agreement.
Furthermore, within three years, Iran will have 24.6 billion cubic meters of gas available for being transferred to the pipelines, which can be calculated in addition to the current level of Iranian gas sales to both Europe and China.
What is the connection between this new Iranian geo-energy system and the probable US withdrawal from the JCPOA?
Let us consider the most important data: pursuant to the agreement, the IAEA can check every phase of the process for enriching Iranian uranium and plutonium – to an extent never experienced before in such international agreements.
Iran, however, must explain to the IAEA the relationship existing between the reprocessing of its uranium-plutonium and the probable military applications.
Again controlled by the IAEA, Iran shall certify it does no longer produce High-Enriched Uranium (HEU) or maintain reserves of such material. Furthermore, Iran must convert its heavy-water reactors (HWR) into research centres that can no longer produce plutonium suitable for nuclear weapons, under penalty of termination of the Treaty.
This is still enshrined in the JCPOA and in the IAEA’s practice.
Hence, since July 2015, the International Atomic Energy Agency based in Vienna has been monitoring every phase of the Iranian fuel cycle.
Nevertheless, the strictly military aspects of the Iranian nuclear system are not explicitly dealt with by the P5 + 1 agreement of 2015, but have been tackled in a separate document signed by both Iran and the IAEA, which defines a mechanism through which Iran replies directly to the questions put by the IAEA.
Iran, however, has currently no interest in manipulating or rejecting the 2015 agreement. Nevertheless, it is equally evident that the JCPOA has so far had no noticeable effects on the transformation of the Iranian support to Assad in Syria; to the Houthis in Yemen, who were initially attacked by Saudi Arabia, and to Iran’s operations on Saudi Arabia’s peripheral interests in the Middle East.
In short, the JCPOA works well in itself, but it is not politically useful to influence and condition Iran.
The agreement that President Trump wants to reject alone, possibly in contrast with his European allies, technically counteracts both ways through which nuclear weapons can be achieved, namely enriched uranium and plutonium.
However, with specific reference to uranium, pursuant to the P5 + 1 agreement, Iran must remove all the IR-2 centrifuges – developed from an old and now inefficient Pakistani model – and must also make the IAEA monitor the most modern IR-4 ones. According to the IAEA agreements and checks, they are fewer than thirty.
In the agreement already signed, it is also clear that for 15 years Iran cannot enrich uranium over 3.76% – a level that is very different from the previous 20%.
25 kilos of 20%-enriched uranium are needed to make a nuclear weapon.
Before signing the JCPOA, however, Iran possessed as many as 10,000 kilos of low-enriched uranium, which were enough to make ten nuclear weapons if the material had been further enriched.
With specific reference to plutonium, again pursuant to the P5 + 1 agreement, Iran accepts to immediately stop the construction of the Arak reactor and later turn it into a “normal” heavy-water reactor.
In 2016 Iran even made the Arak system unusable, by cementing the internal pipes.
In accordance with the JCPOA, the IAEA can carry out very intrusive checks.
The Vienna-based Agency can have free access to all Iranian nuclear facilities for the next 20 years.
An arbitration is also envisaged if the IAEA and the Iranian government disagreed with checking a site deemed “suspicious” by the Agency.
The arbitration time is approximately one month, but it is enough to check whether activities not permitted by the agreement have been carried out in that site.
However, every nuclear processing, operation and activity, even the hidden ones, leaves signs and traces that are very evident for the IAEA.
Furthermore, if Iran decided to organize a new production line of nuclear weapons on its own, it should at first build a new series of reactors and centrifuges, by using the scarce uranium it could find both internally and in covert international trade.
Nothing could be easier to discover.
Certainly the JCPOA lacks the immediate and selective procedures to carry out checks, where needed, without limits from the Iranian government but, once again, any deviation from the rule would be easily and quickly discovered by both the IAEA and any intelligence service operating on site.
With regard to the above stated matter of sanctions, it is worth recalling that Europe lifted its sanctions, including the 2012 oil embargo, on the day when the Treaty was signed.
Other sanctions were lifted by the European Union on trade in precious materials and gold, as well as on shipping and insurance.
As already mentioned, after signing the Treaty, the United States lifted sanctions on the Iranian funds frozen in their banks and on the financial assets of the Shi’ite Republic, as well as on part of the oil ones.
Nevertheless, currently President Trump does not want to maintain the agreement reached with Iran in 2015, unless it includes “expanded” safeguards.
Is it a way to favour Saudi Arabia unilaterally? Why? What does the United States get for it? Would it be more useful than a peaceful Iran entering the world market and, consequently, also abandoning dangerous anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli positions?
The US President essentially wants in-depth international inspections for Iran’s specifically military facilities, be they nuclear or not, besides additional sanctions if the Islamic Republic exceeds specific levels of missile tests, be they nuclear or not.
Certainly if President Trump participated in the talks on the North Korean nuclear system with a tough and isolated position, at least as far as the JCPOA is concerned–which many US analysts predict will “be dead and gone in May” – it would be impossible for Kim Jong-Un, for example, to take him very seriously.
Moreover, a few days ago the US President announced an increase in tariffs and duties on Chinese products to the tune of 60 billion dollars.
Obviously President Trump is putting pressures on China for North Korea to make less military investment, but China has well-known and powerful commercial countermeasures to take and it will certainly not leave North Korea alone, especially in a situation of exacerbated Sino-American relations.
Finally, the US President threatened to withdraw a substantial amount of US troops from South Korea.
This makes the traditional US ally in the Korean peninsula, namely South Korea, less loyal and provides to Kim Jong-Un additional cards to play during the negotiations – and the North Korean leader has already proved to be an excellent poker player.
The strategic aim underlying President Trump’s operation is obvious. He wants to favour- far too much – the old circle of interests between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which is connected with economic assessments (the military and non-military Saudi investment in the United States) or with the maintenance of the petrodollar system – which is essential for the whole Sunni and US horizon – so as to later isolate Iran as a “rogue state” and only terrorist country, thus forgetting the well-known ties existing between the Gulf petromonarchies and the Salafist, Qaedist and neo-Caliphate Middle East jihadism.
In simpler terms, “withdrawing” from the Treaty means that the United States wants to return to the pre-JCPOA sanction regime, which implies the return to stricter regimes for both the UN and the ever more reluctant European allies, who have already much business in place with Iran.
Germany is already lobbying in the EU for new sanctions against Iran, which, in its opinion, would convince President Trump not to withdraw from the JCPOA.
As Voltaire used to say, “a little evil is often necessary for obtaining a great good”, but in this case it is unlikely that the mechanism will work.
In this case President Trump would say that sanctions are fine with the EU and would add new ones.
To the delight of Saudi Arabia which, if deprived of geopolitical and military control east of the Middle East, would become much less tractable than it currently is.
Fighting each other – “Befriend a distant State and strike a neighbouring one”, as taught by the everlasting Chinese 36 Stratagems of the Art of War (and not only applying to war and military strategy).
This holds true also for Israel.
Certainly the pressure on the border with Syria must be relieved and Israel is right in conveying harsh signs of its presence. However, are we sure that an all-powerful Saudi Arabia throughout the Middle East still remains friendly to the Jewish State, albeit secretly? What about Palestine?
If, on May 12, President Trump reintroduces sanctions, Iran will no longer be able to export oil or anything else, since it would incur US “secondary sanctions” and any bank acting as a broker in Iran’s transactions would be excluded from the North American circuit, which is certainly no small thing.
The US President, however, can reduce the financial isolation of any country by declaring that one of its banks “has significantly reduced Iranian oil imports”, which provides further room for political autonomy for President Trump.
In fact, the EU is studying mechanisms to shield against US secondary sanctions, but May 12 is very close.
There is also the concrete possibility that President Trump may want to “make an agreement to have another agreement”: the US President may want to make a new JCPOA, with more sanctions, to force the Europeans to follow him in this adventure.
This would be the US President’s real goal, i.e. a EU economy again ancillary to the US cycle – as at the time of Kissinger’s “Year of Europe”.
This would be currently impossible.
The EU Member States also know that the sanctions on Iran increase the oil barrel price by one or two dollars.
And these sanctions against Iran cost to the United States over 272 million US dollars a year.
Approximately 315,000-420,000 fewer jobs for the US rednecks.
What are the possible solutions? A proposal for a new JCPOA to be redrafted immediately, with a specific note in addition to those already present in relation to the IAEA checks on any nuclear weapon systems that could be installed on ICBM carriers.
Abolition – after a three-month standby period – of any secondary sanction procedure, after Iran declaring the size and structures of its missile program which may be used with very unlikely nuclear warheads.
Apart from the technical work carried out by the Vienna-based Agency, political control powers should be granted to a joint committee including JCPOA members and representatives appointed by the UN Security Council, without fearing any possible overlap, which can only do good.
We should make President Trump understand that, while it is true that the EU is the largest commercial region imposing import duties, repeating this model in the United States is not at all useful, neither for America, nor for Europe, nor for the Middle East countries which must let be developed in peace.
It is our primary interest for three main reasons.
Firstly to avoid being tied up, hand and foot, to Saudi Arabia alone; secondly to avoid financial transfers from the Sunni Middle East in one direction only and thirdly to avoid having to cover up, indefinitely, some countries which pay lip service to the fight against “terrorism” and, indeed, finance terrorists massively.
Iran Gives Russia Two and a Half Cheers
Iran’s rulers enthusiastically seek to destroy the liberal world order and therefore support Russia’s aggression. But they can’t manage full-throated support.
For Iran, the invasion of Ukraine is closely related to the very essence of the present world order. Much like Russia, Iran has been voicing its discontent at the way the international system has operated since the end of the Cold War. More broadly, Iran and Russia see the world through strikingly similar lenses. Both keenly anticipate the end of the multipolar world and the end of the West’s geopolitical preponderance.
Iran had its reasons to think this way. The US unipolar moment after 1991 provoked a deep fear of imminent encirclement, with American bases in Afghanistan and Iraq cited as evidence. Like Russia, the Islamic Republic views itself as a separate civilization that needs to be not only acknowledged by outside players, but also to be given ana suitable geopolitical space to project influence.
Both Russia and Iran are very clear about their respective spheres of influence. For Russia, it is the territories that once constituted the Soviet empire. For Iran, it is the contiguous states reaching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon — plus Yemen. When the two former imperial powers have overlapping strategic interests such as, for instance, in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, they apply the concept of regionalism. This implies the blocking out of non-regional powers from exercising outsize economic and military influence, and mostly revolves around an order dominated by the powers which border on a region.
This largely explains why Iran sees the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity that, if successful, could hasten the end of the liberal world order. This is why it has largely toed the Russian line and explained what it describes as legitimate motives behind the invasion. Thus the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe was cited as having provoked Russian moves. “The root of the crisis in Ukraine is the US policies that create the crisis, and Ukraine is one victim of these policies,” argued Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following the invasion.
To a certain degree, Iran’s approach to Ukraine has been also influenced by mishaps in bilateral relations which largely began with the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian surface-to-air missiles in January 2020, killing 176 people. The regime first denied responsibility, and later blamed human error.
Iran, like several other of Russia’s friends and defenders, the ideal scenario would have been a quick war in which the Kremlin achieved its major goals.
Protracted war, however, sends a bad signal. It signals that the liberal order was not in such steep decline after all, and that Russia’s calls for a new era in international relations have been far from realistic. The unsuccessful war also shows Iran that the collective West still has very significant power and — despite well-aired differences — an ability to rapidly coalesce to defend the existing rules-based order. Worse, for these countries, the sanctions imposed on Russia go further; demonstrating the West’s ability to make significant economic sacrifices to make its anger felt. In other words, Russia’s failure in Ukraine actually strengthened the West and made it more united than at any point since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.
A reinvigorated liberal order is the last thing that Iran wants, given its own troubled relations with the collective West. The continuing negotiations on a revived nuclear deal will be heavily impacted by how Russia’s war proceeds, and how the US and EU continue to respond to the aggression. Iran fears that a defeated Russia might be so angered as to use its critical position to endanger the talks, vital to the lifting of the West’s crippling sanctions.
And despite rhetorical support for Russia, Iran has been careful not to overestimate Russia’s power. It is now far from clear that the Kremlin has achieved its long-term goal of “safeguarding” its western frontier. Indeed, the Putin regime may have done the opposite now that it has driven Finland and Sweden into the NATO fold. Western sanctions on Russia are likely to remain for a long time, threatening long-term Russian economic (and possible regime) stability.
Moreover, Russia’s fostering of separatist entities (following the recognition of the so called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” and other breakaway entities in Georgia and Moldova) is a highly polarizing subject in Iran. True there has been a shift toward embracing Russia’s position over Ukraine, but Iran remains deeply committed to the “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the affairs of other states and territorial integrity. This is hardly surprising given its own struggles against potential separatism in the peripheries of the country.
Many Iranians also sympathize with Ukraine’s plight, which for some evokes Iran’s defeats in the early 19th century wars when Qajars had to cede the eastern part of the South Caucasus to Russia. This forms part of a historically deeply rooted, anti-imperialist sentiment in Iran.
Iran is therefore likely to largely abstain from endorsing Russia’s separatist ambitions in Eastern Ukraine. It will also eschew, where possible, support for Russia in international forums. Emblematic of this policy was the March 2 meeting in the United Nations General Assembly when Iran, rather than siding with Russia, abstained from the vote which condemned the invasion.
Russia’s poor military performance, and the West’s ability to act unanimously, serve as a warning for the Islamic Republic that it may one day have to soak up even more Western pressure if Europe, the US, and other democracies act in union.
In the meantime, like China, Iran will hope to benefit from the magnetic pull of the Ukraine war. With so much governmental, military and diplomatic attention demanded by the conflict, it will for the time being serve as a distraction from Iran’s ambitions elsewhere.
Author’s note: first published in cepa
Ignoring the Middle East at one’s peril: Turkey plays games in NATO
Amid speculation about a reduced US military commitment to security in the Middle East, Turkey has spotlighted the region’s ability to act as a disruptive force if its interests are neglected.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan set off alarm bells this week, declaring that he was not “positive” about possible Finnish and Swedish applications for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
NATO membership is contingent on a unanimous vote in favour by the organisation’s 30 members. Turkey has NATO’s second-largest standing army.
The vast majority of NATO members appear to endorse Finnish and Swedish membership. NATO members hope to approve the applications at a summit next month.
A potential Turkish veto would complicate efforts to maintain trans-Atlantic unity in the face of the Russian invasion.
Mr. Erdogan’s pressure tactics mirror the maneuvers of his fellow strongman, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban. Mr. Orban threatens European Union unity by resisting a bloc-wide boycott of Russian energy.
Earlier, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia rejected US requests to raise oil production in an effort to lower prices and help Europe reduce its dependence on Russian energy.
The two Gulf states appear to have since sought to quietly backtrack on their refusal.
In late April, France’s TotalEnergies chartered a tanker to load Abu Dhabi crude in early May for Europe, the first such shipment in two years.
Saudi Arabia has quietly used its regional pricing mechanisms to redirect from Asia to Europe Arab “medium,” the Saudi crude that is the closest substitute for the main Russian export blend, Urals, for which European refineries are configured.
Mr. Erdogan linked his NATO objection to alleged Finnish and Swedish support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States, and the EU.
The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency in southeast Turkey in support of Kurds’ national, ethnic, and cultural rights. Kurds account for up to 20 per cent of the country’s 84 million population.
Turkey has recently pounded PKK positions in northern Iraq in a military operation named Operation Claw Lock.
Turkey is at odds with the United States over American support for Syrian Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey asserts that America’s Syrian Kurdish allies are aligned with the PKK.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that Turkey opposes a US decision this week to exempt from sanctions against Syria regions controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“This is a selective and discriminatory move,” Mr. Cavusoglu said, noting that the exemption did not include Kurdish areas of Syria controlled by Turkey and its Syrian proxies.
Referring to the NATO membership applications, Mr. Erdogan charged that “Scandinavian countries are like some kind of guest house for terrorist organisations. They’re even in parliament.”
Mr. Erdogan’s objections relate primarily to Sweden, with Finland risking becoming collateral damage.
Sweden is home to a significant Kurdish community and hosts Europe’s top Kurdish soccer team that empathises with the PKK and Turkish Kurdish aspirations. In addition, six Swedish members of parliament are ethnic Kurds.
Turkey scholar Howard Eissenstat suggested that Turkey’s NATO objection may be a turning point. “Much of Turkey’s strategic flexibility has come from the fact that its priorities are seen as peripheral issues for its most important Western allies. Finnish and Swedish entry into NATO, in the current context, absolutely not peripheral,” Mr. Eissenstat tweeted.
The Turkish objection demonstrates the Middle East’s potential to derail US and European policy in other parts of the world.
Middle Eastern states walk a fine line when using their potential to disrupt to achieve political goals of their own. The cautious backtracking on Ukraine-related oil supplies demonstrates the limits and/or risks of Middle Eastern brinkmanship.
So does the fact that Ukraine has moved NATO’s center of gravity to northern Europe and away from its southern flank, which Turkey anchors.
Moreover, Turkey risks endangering significant improvements in its long-strained relations with the United States.
Turkish mediation in the Ukraine crisis and military support for Ukraine prompted US President Joe Biden to move ahead with plans to upgrade Turkey’s fleet of F-16 fighter planes and discuss selling it newer, advanced F-16 models even though Turkey has neither condemned Russia nor imposed sanctions.
Some analysts suggest Turkey may use its objection to regain access to the United States’ F-35 fighter jet program. The US cancelled in 2019 a sale of the jet to Turkey after the NATO member acquired Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defence system.
Mr. Erdogan has “done this kind of tactic before. He will use it as leverage to get a good deal for Turkey,” said retired US Navy Admiral James Foggo, dean of the Center for Maritime Strategy.
A top aide to Mr. Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, appeared to confirm Mr. Foggo’s analysis.
“We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey,” Mr. Kalin said, referring to the Turkish leader’s NATO remarks. “Of course, we want to have a discussion, a negotiation with Swedish counterparts.”
Spelling out Turkish demands, Mr. Kalin went on to say that “what needs to be done is clear: they have to stop allowing PKK outlets, activities, organisations, individuals and other types of presence to…exist in those countries.”
Mr. Erdogan’s brinkmanship may have its limits, but it illustrates that one ignores the Middle East at one’s peril.
However, engaging Middle Eastern autocrats does not necessarily mean ignoring their rampant violations of human rights and repression of freedoms.
For the United States and Europe, the trick will be developing a policy that balances accommodating autocrats’, at times, disruptive demands, often aimed at ensuring regime survival, with the need to remain loyal to democratic values amid a struggle over whose values will underwrite a 21st-century world order.
However, that would require a degree of creative policymaking and diplomacy that seems to be a rare commodity.
Health Silk Route: China and the Middle East
While China’s economic interests in the Middle East are well-known, China’s intrinsic involvement in the Middle East for increased political and cultural influence is a nascent development. For example, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, China has attempted to increase its footprint in the Middle East through its new ‘Health Silk Route’ (HSR) project which should be viewed as an extension of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) in the Middle East. Through the new HSR project, China is trying to gain diplomatic bandwidth in the Middle East by spreading its soft power influence in the region.
China has traditionally maintained a cautious approach in foreign policy towards the Middle East to ensure that its energy needs are consistently fulfilled by Middle Eastern states like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Simultaneously, it has opted for a strong economic relationship with most Middle Eastern states (Dorsey, 2017) as China views the Middle East as a lucrative market for its goods. (Shambaugh, 2014: 87) However, this non-interventionist approach of China towards the Middle East is now on its way out as a ‘rising China’ is approaching the Middle East with new found vigour with the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) making a mark across the region.
China views the Middle East as a region that can aid its ‘peaceful rise’ as China attempts to ‘strive for achievement’ (fenfayouwei) and achieve great power status in keeping with the principles of Tienxia (All Under Heavens) (French, 2017) after ‘keeping a low profile’ (taoguangyanghui) for years. (Xuetong, 2014) This new found Chinese interest in the Middle East is in keeping with the tenets of Chinese conception of ‘Moral Realism’, President Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ project and his clarion call for national rejuvenation and declining American presence in the region. (Xuetong, 2014)
While the region was initially viewed as ‘politically inaccessible’ by Chinese diplomats (Fuhr, 2021) due to the region being ‘America’s strategic headlight’, the region has become important for China today. In fact, China has come out with its ‘Arab Policy Paper’ that documented China’s approach towards the Arab states where China endorsed a “win-win partnership” with all 22 Arab (Middle Eastern) states. This was the first such policy paper published by China in several years. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PRC, 2021)
The Middle East is also an important region for growing Chinese investments. For example, in 2018, China invested $20 billion in infrastructure development alone and another $3 billion in loans for the banking sector in the region. These developments have brought China and the Middle East closer. (Elanggar, 2020)
COVID-19 & Mutual Reciprocity
The COVID-19 pandemic has further opened up the region for China. While China has opted for a more aggressive diplomatic line through the use of ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’ in regions like Europe and the Americas, to defend itself amidst the raging COVID pandemic, the ‘Chinese Middle Eastern discourse during the pandemic has seen an outpouring of mutual support paired with deliveries of medical aid’ (Wilson Centre, 2020) In the early days of the pandemic, when the pandemic took its roots in Wuhan in the heart of China, Middle Eastern states like Kuwait sent medical equipment worth $3 billion to China. (Kuwait Today, 2020) Similarly, Saudi Arabia through the King Salman Humanitarian RelIef Fund (KSRelief) provided medical devices and protective suits and surgical masks to China. (Xinhua, 2020) For the Middle East, the pandemic transformed China from just a business partner to a scientific benefactor and collaborator. (Bodetti, 2021)
China reciprocated these gestures and offered medical assistance to Middle Eastern states firstly by offering medical supplies and extending lines of credit in the first phase and through the provisions of vaccines. It also suggested that these initiatives were taken to ‘advance global public health’ under the rubric of the HSR. Firstly, China assisted Iran and Turkey by providing essential medical supplies like medical masks, test devices and Personal Protective Equipments (PPEs) (Xinhua, 2020: Singh & Gupta, 2020) China sent sterile and antiseptic masks and other medical equipments to states in the Maghreb like Algeria and Mauritania as well. (Chachiza, 2021) It also sent 50 boxes of medical supplies with surgical supplies nad masks to Oman. (Hoffman & Yelinek, 2020) However, the primary focus of China’s pandemic diplomacy was related to China’s provision of vaccines to the region. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was the first country to approve the Sinopharm vaccine and stated that its efficacy stood at 86%. Once the prerequisite approvals were in place, Bahrain, Egypt and Morocco also agreed to use the China-manufactured vaccines. (El Kadi & Zinser, 2021)
Impact of Chinese Health Diplomacy on HSR
These healthcare initiatives have allowed the widening and deepening of ties between China and the Middle Eastern states. For China, the HSR is an opportunity to resurrect its image in the Post COVID-19 era, where China has been blamed for the onset of the pandemic. Through the HSR initiative, China wants to portray itself as ‘benevolent healthcare provider’ to increase its soft power. It wants to take the lead in ‘perfecting global public health governance’ across the world. (Lancaster, Ruben & Rap-Hooper, 2020)
As far as the Middle East is concerned, China wants to use the HSR to increase its soft power in the region. China has traditionally been viewed favourably by Middle Eastern states like Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Tunisia (Silver, Devlin & Huang, 2019) and China wants to leverage these favourable ratings for its own benefit. While Chinese scholars have negated this line of argument and stated vociferously that the HSR is for “global public good” because the United States has abdicated global health leadership (Jiahan, 2021) It is certain that a diminishing U.S. presence in the Middle East will allow the rise of China in the region and initiatives like the HSR will aide this development.
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