John Bolton, the current national security adviser of Trump’s Presidency who has replaced the already dismissed Gen. McMaster, believes that the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is a “strategic defeat” for the United States.
Bolton also believes that it would always be better to follow the example of the Osirak attack on June 7, 1981 with the Israeli Operation “Opera” (or Babylon) or the Israeli attack of 2007 on the alleged Syrian nuclear reactor in the Deir-ez-Zor area.
A reactor, however, manufactured by North Korea.
That was the operation Israel named “Outside the Box”.
Hence, to quote again Bolton, “to stop Iran, bomb it”.
Not so long ago, the idea of the US national security adviser was also to bomb North Korea just to stop its nuclear activity.
How can the activities of immediate revenge on the South Korean territory be considered in the US strategic equation?
“Collateral damage”, i.e. the destruction of the only credible ally, apart from Japan, throughout Southeast Asia.
Now the agreement between the two Koreas and Kim Jong Un’s request for direct talks with President Trump have materialized – certainly not for fear of Bolton’s simplistic bomb religion.
Arms, however, never make politics.
Nevertheless they can be used, as little as possible, if you still have a political strategy in mind vis-à-vis countries, such as Iran and North Korea, which have never been afraid of the US carpet bombing.
If, however, the most reluctant countries with respect to Bolton’s brilliant ideas are destroyed, what would be the political result?
It would simply be the total loss of value of the US word towards all and each of the other members of the P5 + 1; the likely and relevant residual counteraction by both North Korea and Iran on South Korea, the Lebanon and (obviously) Israel; finally, the almost inevitable trigger of a chain of actions and reactions that would set fire to the whole Greater Middle East.
What is the first goal? Just think about it for a moment.
It is obviously the total insularization of Europe, which still believes that its union and its single currency are not against US long-term interests.
The EU and Great Britain will soon realize that the strategic automatism inherited from the end of the Second World War has no longer value in the relations between the two shores of the Atlantic.
However, what could the rational goal of this military action against North Korea and Iran be, apart from Doctor Strangelove-style libido of some US decision makers?
Very probably no goal at all or the worst possible one, i.e. the closure of the whole system between Suez and the Persian Gulf, and finally the strategic non-viability of the entire Islamic Shi’ite or Sunni world, as well as the total block of the energy, political, strategic and defensive link between the European Union and the Koranic universe.
This would not be good even for the United States.
The fact is that, strangely, the well-known and very old mistakes of the US intelligence on the North Korean, Syrian, Iraqi or even Libyan arsenals, make most of the US defense establishment even think that it is necessary to bomb more, and not less, the Axis of Evil- as Bolton clearly says.
The less we know about Syria, Iran and North Korea, the more we destroy them. A very logical idea. Hence also the wrong places would be bombed.
Let us also imagine to what extent a tactical bombing on North Korean positions would weigh and be impactful, just now that North Korea is starting a meaningful, verifiable and useful dialogue with South Korea and its strategic allies, namely Japan and the United States.
The logical consequence would be at least the US abandonment on the part of South Korea and Japan.
All this while President Trump is declaring from the rooftops he wants to leave Syria and thus make his Sunni allies engage on the ground – although we can easily predict they will refuse flatly.
Hence they are all very dangerous options for the United States and the whole West, which would find themselves to no longer have credibility, clout and role throughout Asia.
For a power like the United States the fact of losing face and the value of its word, as well as always and often unreasonably choosing to resort to weapons, even when this is not devoid of dangers, are satanic temptations that the United States must avoid throughout the Middle East and Asia.
Hence the counter-arguments relating to Bolton’s “carpet bombing” are even obvious.
Firstly, as shown by the data provided in the last meeting (held around March 20, 2018) of the P5 + 1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, Great Britain, United Kingdom and the United States), i.e. the group that reached the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, the Shi’ite Republic of Iran has so far fully implemented the rules enshrined in the eaty – as evidenced by the IAEA official data.
The IAEA report of February 22 was also accepted by all the JCPOA members, including the United States, who took note of Iran’s “continued adherence” to the letter and spirit of the 2015 deal.
What is the meaning of destroying with bombs – if they ever succeed in doing so without setting fire to its borders -a country that all signatories (including the United States) consider officially compliant with the implementation of the rules enshrined in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action?
To possibly achieve Syria’s cantonization?
Paraphrasing Voltaire, a great evil for a little good.
If anything, with a view to putting an end to the Sunni jihad on the Syrian territory, the E3 -i.e. the group of the three European countries belonging to the P5 + 1 – immediately pointed out, in a confidential report, that we could sanction other new people and entities – already identified -that collaborated in the Iranian (conventional) missile tests, in the framework of the seven-year cooperation between Iran and Syria.
A German idea immediately supported by France, which fears the disruption of its positions in Syria and elsewhere.
Germany has already made clear that it will not participate in any military operation in Syria jointly with the other Western powers.
Moreover, in Bolton’s mind – following his statements to the letter – the only alternative to the so-called Syrian-Iraqi Caliphate would be a new Sunni State in Syria.
However, how could we be sure that this new Sunni State would not soon be turned into a safe haven for the Caliphate’s jihad, which has not yet been defeated between Syria and Iraq?
Nevertheless Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have always had quite different ideas on how this new Sunni State should be, which would probably still be at the mercy of jihadist extremism.
Said extremism would immediately expand to Iraq and Jordan, thus undermining the lopsided strategic equation left on the ground by the United States after the hasty and ambiguous victories against Saddam Hussein.
What operational option would the United States choose, if Syria were destroyed to cantonizeit ethnically and according to religious fault lines?
A divided Syria and, indeed, cantonized as a Swiss valley is of no use to anyone, certainly not to Assad, but not to the various participants in the war against him, including the Caliphate’s jihad.
But not even to the United States, if you think about it.
In the first phase of the war against Assad, Saudi Arabia had placed all its eggs in the basket of a Lebanese Shi’ite, namely Okab Sakr, an old client of the Hariri family.
As is well-known, however, this family does not currently enjoy the favour of the new master of Saudi Arabia, namely Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
In the Syrian theater, Qatar operated with a defector from Assad’s regime and two other aides with minor roles and the new Qatari acquisition was Abdulrahman Suwais.
Nevertheless the geopolitical (and economic) clash between Saudi Arabia and Qatar immediately moved to the local Syrian clients of the various Arab powers, with Qatar using forces linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia using Sakr, its broker and intermediary for the war against Assad, that – however – collected battalions of jihadists not yet linked to the so-called Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate.
But in a quite haphazard way.
Moreover, all the three Arab and Muslim countries that supported Assad’ Sunni enemies have always thought that – apart from their rivalries – sooner or later the United States would have arrived to solve the Syrian issue for them.
This perception is the only rational factor we can note in President Trump’s current positions.
Former President Obama, however, did not claim the criterion of his “red line” in September 2013, after Bashar al-Assad allegedly using chemical weapons against a “rebellious” – i.e. Sunni and para-jihadist – part of his population.
Only in the summer of 2014 – immediately after Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s resignation as Head of the Saudi intelligence-did real collaboration begin on the Syrian territory between Saudi Arabia, CIA and the US State Department.
Before the closure of the Syrian-Iraqi border, carried out by the so-called Caliphate in the summer of 2014, the many Sunni groups operated only with the huge resources provided by the various private donors, without much support from the Saudi government.
However, after the expansion of the Caliphate, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey agreed to support one single Sunni-jihadist movement, namely Jaysh-al Fatah(the “Army of Conquest”).
Nevertheless, some money still reached the multifarious and chaotic Sunni opposition to Assad’s Alawite and pluralist regime.
The “Conquest” movement was coordinated by the Saudi Koranic scholar, Abdullah Al Muhaysini, and the Jaysh forces operated mainly in Idlib and in Hama and Latakia.
Hence the jugular veins of the Russian-Syrian system.
In an interview of early April 2018 released to Time, however, Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman said: “Bashar can stay”.
The Saudi Prince’s reasoning is obvious: Saudi Arabia wants to fund (possibly with a trillion US dollars) Bashar al-Assad’s regime, even if he considers it takfir (apostate) so as to avoid Iran’s further penetration into Syria.
A Saudi strategic flexibility going as far as even creating a new relationship with the Jewish State.
What about the United States? Has it the same fantasy and creativity as Saudi Arabia?
However , the new “Sunni military alliance” – also created in 2015 around the Saudi forces – cannot replace the US military and strategic clout in the region.
Hence, according to Bolton and many of his aides, the United States should foot the bill and pay the price of the Islamic Military Alliance, an Arab NATO aimed against the Shi’ites and designed to favour the current oil balance of the OPEC Sunni system.
Hence why should the United States bring all this grist to the Saudi mill, just when the shale oil and gas make the United States autonomous from an energy viewpoint?
Moreover, during the last meeting of the “Sunni NATO” held at Manama in October 2017, the Head of this Alliance, namely Pakistani General Raheel Sharif, did not mention any ongoing operation between Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
Therefore the limit of the Sunni engagement in Syria has already been tacitly achieved.
Hence if the United States commits itself to fighting Iran – passively and in vain – after the manipulated destruction of the JCPOA, it will only serve the Saudi interest and not its own.
Yet another long war that will lead to nothing, but only to an increase in the US military budget – the now well-known North American military Keynesianism.
Real interests of the United States – no longer servants to the House of Al Saud – which would be the interest of stabilizing the Middle East system to the lowest possible nuclear and conventional potential, possibly with a Conference between the P5 + 1 and Iran also meant for the new strategic redesign of the whole region, to be agreed also with Israel.
Nevertheless the European sanctions against Iran – the substitute for the US break with the JCPOA which, in all likelihood, will take place after May 12 – should anyway be supported by all 28 EU Member States.
This would be the project of the E3, the EU countries of P5 + 1.
This is clearly just a way to avoid the May 12 deadline proposed by President Trump – a snack of good European cuisine offered to the United States with a view to preventing it from reaching the bad military lunch against Iran.
However, how would the other non-European signatories of the 2015 deal react, when seeing that the United States increasingly behaves as a semi-legal actor and as a fully selfish element in the international geopolitical concert?
Obviously if the United States unilaterally withdraws from the JCPOA, the chances of a war against Iran will increase significantly, but is it certain that the United States will win it quickly and without extensive damage? Not at all.
Moreover, are we sure that the future world is still unipolar like the one immediately after 1989, as some residual and naive theorists of US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan still think?
Should we not currently say that both the great operations for “exporting democracy” have been a clear military, strategic, economic and geopolitical failure?
Iraq was almost given away to Iran which, in fact,is already using the Shi’ite majority of the Iraqi population as leverage. Afghanistan is still a strategic void where nothing has been decided yet, after almost two decades of war, while China is building its own Beijing-Kabul railway.
Hence if the EU accepts President Trump’s diktat on Iran to limit or abolish Iran’s missile activities, including the conventional ones, and its support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime, it will not achieve any of its goals.
Not even in this case is it conceivable that the United States limits their demands on Iran.
Iran, however, could choose to remain in the perimeter of the July 2015 deal, by stopping any regional agreement with Western powers and reacting immediately to local threats.
Another option – already partially verified in the recent meetings between the Iranian Foreign Minister and the British government – could be to collaborate with the individual European countries of P5 + 1 on issues other than those pertaining to the nuclear deal as – in this case – for the resolution of the Houthis’ Shi’ite insurgency in Southern Yemen.
A further option could be President Trump’s walking out of the JCPOA agreement- without saying goodbye – but not preventing the European countries to keep on having economic relations with Iran, and avoiding secondary and non-territorial sanctions, especially in the financial and banking sector.
An unlikely scenario – the war in the Middle East is also a war against Europe, for its final disruption and destructing as a US ally that believed to be more important than the United States.
However, anything can happen. The instability and volatility of the current US Presidency bode well.
Furthermore, if China, Russia and the EU remain party to the 2015 deal, Iran will have every reason to stay within the JCPOA perimeter and thus remove any US justification for a military attack on Iran or for a further phase of US sanctions only.
Moreover, considering the unreasonable and never decisive US presence in Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, Iran could also play the card of further military pressure on US targets in all these regions, thus making the US actions extremely costly and, above all, harmful to one or more US Sunni allies.
Conversely, if President Trump re-imposes all sanctions, including the secondary ones, but walking out of the JCPOA, also Iran could withdraw from the July 2015 deal but remain in the nuclear non-proliferation system led by IAEA – and the two things are not connected at all.
Once again, what would be the rationale of a future US military attack on Iran?
In all likelihood, Russia and China would maintain relations with Iran, thus giving away the entire Shi’ite arc to Russia and China, which will use it excellently to ban all US presence beyond the Persian Gulf.
Hence the US strategic subjection to Saudi Arabia would be complete.
Moreover, Iran could make some surprise moves like the recent one by Kim Jong Un and inevitably make the United States sit at the bilateral table of talks on nuclear and even conventional weapons – and from a position of strength.
Having played all its cards on the fight against Iran, Saudi Arabia would be definitely taken aback and could not opt for a blind support to the United States during the new talks.
There is no guarantee it would be such as to serveall the Saudi regional interests.
Finally, the most unlikely scenario could be a EU that succeeds in convincing the United States to fully remain in the JCPOA, without any additional or already envisaged sanctions.
It is very unlikely and it is now clear that the US deep state wants to “bring democracy” also to Iran and, possibly, to the Shiite-Alawite part of Syria, thus destabilizing the most important Middle East buffer State and ultimately playing Russia’s and China’s game.
Clearly they will firmly keep the non-Sunni areas of the Syrian cantonization and will operate on them to reach the Arabian peninsula, thus heavily influencing the Sunni canton dreamed of by Bolton.
Obviously this will not happen with the war, but with the economic and infrastructural agreements we already see at work.
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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