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Thaw in Egypt-Iran Relations: A Flawed Interpretation

Bahauddin Foizee

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A number of analysts, columnists and Mideast watchers have been, for last couple of years, forecasting a thaw in Egypt-Iran relations. Citing a series of overtures from each of Iran and Egypt towards the other, many experts argue that closer and warmer cooperation between the two is underway.

Despite being an ally of Iranian regime’s arch rival Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s foreign policy towards Syria is similar to – but not in the same direction as – that of the Iranian regime. Furthermore, the regime in Tehran has recognised Egypt as a stabilising power in the Middle East through supporting for Egypt’s participation in Lausanne (Switzerland) conference on Syria.

However, Egypt’s closer cooperation with Iranian regime would neither eventually be given effect by current the Egyptian government nor Egypt would be allowed to go ahead with such a warmer cooperation with Iran by other regional players, proving wrong the aforesaid experts who forecast about a thaw in Egypt-Iran relations.

Despite Egyptian government’s overtures towards the Iranian regime, Egypt is bound – under President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi – to remain allied to the Iranian regime’s regional rivals, i.e. Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE), because:

Saudi Arabia and UAE had sent financial aid to and foreign direct investment in Egypt following Sisi’s accession to power, so that Sisi can consolidate his power. Besides being thankful for this generous help, Egypt’s falling economy has been pushing Sisi government to ask for continued aid and cash-inflows from these two Gulf governments, which are engaged in fierce rivalry with the Iranian regime.

The regime in Tehran is unable to stabilize the Iranian economy due to international sanctions. The withdrawal of sanctions by the U.S. administration under Barack Obama – followed by the re-imposition of even tougher sanctions under Donald Trump’s U.S. administration – has compelled the investors to conclude that Iran is, in the current circumstances, an inconsistent and risky market. Hence, this weaker Iranian economy and market do not have the possibility to reach in any stable and strong position soon enough to provide Egypt with sufficient cash or foreign direct investments – something that can only be guaranteed by the Gulf duo – i.e. Saudi Arabia and UAE.

Egypt’s administration – under Sisi – is largely dependent on the Gulf duo’s financial, diplomatic and political support in order to tackle Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which is Sisi’s major opposition at home. Furthermore, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE are the contributors to the ongoing diplomatic and economic blockade on Qatar. The blockade has been imposed with the purpose of compelling Qatar to abandon its policy of supporting terrorism as well as to abandon its support for Muslim Brotherhood’s campaigns throughout the region, including Egypt. This new dimension made Egypt’s dependence on the Gulf duo ever deeper.

Egyptian premier Abdel Fatah al-Sisi understands very well that for the sake of a closer cooperation with the Iranian regime, his government cannot risk antagonizing the Gulf duo, which not only finance Egypt’s shaky economy, but also backs Sisi’s fight against Muslim Brotherhood.

At the same time, the Gulf duo cannot, and will not, let Egypt fall out of its political orbit, since Egypt is the duo’s best insurance against the regional foes – Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian regime.

Egypt – under Sisi – has been maintaining good relations and deep cooperation with the Gulf duo. The duo prefers to keep Muslim Brotherhood – an organization that professes a ‘so called’ Islamic democracy across the region – largely ineffective inside their borders by making sure that the Sisi government is neutralizing the organization inside Egypt, from where the organization allegedly runs its regional campaigns. Muslim Brotherhood is banned in the Gulf duo.

The Gulf duo fears that if Muslim Brotherhood comes to power in Egypt (though a Muslim Brotherhood backed government came to power in recent past and was overthrown a year later), the organization will certainly try to patronise Muslim Brotherhood-like organizations inside the Gulf duo and elsewhere in the region, threatening the region’s stability. As Egypt’s current premier Abdul Fatah al-Sisi came to power by overthrowing the Muslim-Brotherhood-backed government of Mohammad Morsi, the Gulf duo perceive him as the right person to curb the organization’s campaign in Egypt.

Besides keeping Muslim Brotherhood under check in the region, the Gulf duo needs Egypt for the overall balance of power in the region. Availing an ally like Egypt – which is a Sunni-majority regional military power – gives the Gulf duo a boost against another regional foe, the Iranian regime.

Thus, despite the recent positive overtures from Sisi government and the Iranian regime towards each other, Sisi cannot afford to proceed with a closer cooperation with Iran and risk losing the friendship of Saudi Arabia, UAE and other like-minded Arab allies.

Bahauddin Foizee is an international affairs analyst and columnist, and regularly writes on greater Asia-Pacific, Indian Oceanic region and greater Middle East geopolitics. He also - infrequently - writes on environment & climate change and the global refugee crisis. Besides Modern Diplomacy, his articles have appeared at The Diplomat, Global New Light of Myanmar, Asia Times, Eurasia Review, Middle East Monitor, International Policy Digest and a number of other international publications. His columns also appear in the Dhaka-based national newspapers, including Daily Observer, Daily Sun, Daily Star, The Independent, The New Nation, Financial Express, New age and bdnews24com. He previously taught law at Dhaka Centre for Law & Economics and worked at Bangladesh Institute of Legal Development.

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Chinese purchases of Iranian oil raise tantalizing questions

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A fully loaded Chinese oil tanker ploughing its way eastwards from two Iranian oil terminals raises questions of how far Beijing is willing to go in defying US sanctions amid a mounting US military build-up in the Gulf and a US-China trade war.

The sailing from Iran of the Pacific Bravo takes on added significance with US strategy likely to remain focused on economic rather than military strangulation of the Iranian leadership, despite the deployment to the Gulf of an aircraft carrier strike group as well as B-52 bombers and a Patriot surface-to-air missile system.

As President Donald J. Trump, backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appears to be signalling that he is not seeking military confrontation, his administration is reportedly considering a third round of sanctions that would focus on Iran’s petrochemical industry. The administration earlier this month sanctioned the country’s metals and minerals trade.

The sailing raises the question whether China is reversing its policy that led in the last quarter of 2018 to it dramatically reducing its trade with Iran, possibly in response to a recent breakdown in US-Chinese trade talks.

“The question is whether non-oil trade remains depressed even if some oil sales resume, which I think it will. That’s the better indicator of where Chinese risk appetite has changed. Unfortunately Iran‘s reprieve will be limited—but better than zero perhaps,” tweeted Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, head of Bourse & Bazaar, a self-described media and business diplomacy company and the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum.

A Chinese analyst interviewed by Al Jazeera argued that “China is not in a position to have Iran’s back… For China, its best to stay out” of the fray.

The stakes for China go beyond the troubled trade talks. In Canada, a senior executive of controversial Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is fighting extradition to the United States on charges of violating US sanctions against Iran.

Reports that Western companies, including Kraft Heinz, Adidas and Gap, wittingly or unwittingly, were employing Turkic Muslims detained in re-education camps in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang, as part of opaque supply chains, could increase attention on a brutal crackdown that China is struggling to keep out of the limelight.

The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized the crackdown but has stopped short of sanctioning officials involved in the repressive measures.

Bourse & Bazaar’s disclosure of the sailing of the Pacific Bravo coincided with analysis showing that Iran was not among China’s top three investment targets in the Middle East even if Chinese investment in the region was on the rise.

The Pacific Bravo was steaming with its cargo officially toward Indonesia as Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was touring his country’s major oil clients, including China, in a bid to persuade them to ignore US sanctions.

A second tanker, the Marshal Z, was reported to have unloaded 130,000 tonnes of Iranian fuel oil into storage tanks near the Chinese city of Zhoushan.

The Marshall Z was one of four ships that, according to Reuters, allegedly helped Iran circumvent sanctions by using ship-to-ship transfers in January and forged documents that masked the cargoes as originating from Iraq.

The unloading put an end to a four-month odyssey at sea sparked by buyers’ reticence to touch a cargo that would put them in the US crosshairs.

“Somebody in China decided that the steep discount this cargo most likely availed … was a bargain too good to miss,” Matt Stanley, an oil broker at StarFuels in Dubai, told Reuters.

The Pacific Bravo, the first vessel to load Iranian oil since the Trump administration recently refused to extend sanction exemptions to eight countries, including China, was recently acquired by China’s Bank of Kunlun.

The acquisition and sailing suggested that Bank of Kunlun was reversing its decision last December to restrict its business with Iran to humanitarian trade, effectively excluding all other transactions.

The bank was the vehicle China used in the past for business with Iran because it had no exposure to the United States and as a result was not vulnerable to US sanctions that were in place prior to the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

China’s willingness to ignore, at least to some extent, US sanctions could also constitute an effort to persuade Iran to remain fully committed to the nuclear accord which it has so far upheld despite last year’s US withdrawal.

Iran recently warned Europe that it would reduce its compliance if Europe, which has struggled to create a credible vehicle that would allow non-US companies to circumvent the sanctions, failed to throw the Islamic republic an economic lifeline.

In a letter that was also sent to Russia and China, Iran said it was no longer committed to restrictions on the storage of enriched uranium and heavy water stocks, and could stop observing limits on uranium enrichment at a later stage.

Russian president Vladimir Putin warned in response to the Iranian threat that “as soon as Iran takes its first reciprocal steps and says that it is leaving, everyone will forget by tomorrow that the US was the initiator of this collapse. Iran will be held responsible, and the global public opinion will be intentionally changed in this direction.”

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The Iran Question

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Will there be war with Iran?  Will there not be war with Iran?  The questions are being asked repeatedly in the media even though a single carrier task force is steaming up there.  The expression is old for the latest carriers are nuclear powered.  Imagine the mess if it was blown up.

There are two kinds of weapons in the world … offensive and defensive.  The latter are cheaper, a fighter plane compared to a bomber.  If a country does not (or cannot afford to) have offensive intent, it makes sense to focus on defense.  It is what Iran has done.  Moreover, its missile centered defense has a modern deadly twist — the missiles are precision-guided. 

As an Iranian general remarked when questioned about the carrier task force:  some years ago it would’ve been a threat he opined; now it’s a target.  Iran also has a large standing army of 350,000 plus a 120,000 strong Revolutionary Guard and Soviet style air defenses.  In 2016 Russia started installation of the S-300 system.  It has all kinds of variants, the most advanced, the S-300 PMU-3 has a range similar to the S-400 if equipped with 40N6E missiles, which are used also in the S-400.  Their range is 400 km, so the Iranian batteries are virtually S-400s.  The wily Putin has kept trump satisfied with the S-300 moniker without short-changing his and China’s strategic ally.  The latter continuing to buy Iranian oil.

Iran has friends in Europe also.  Angela Merkel in particular has pointed out that Iran has complied fully with the nuclear provisions of the UN Security Council backed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action i.e. the Iran nuclear deal.  She is mustering the major European powers.  Already alienated with Trump treating them as adversaries rather than friends, they find Trump’s bullying tiresome.  President Macron, his poll ratings hitting the lowest, is hardly likely to engage in Trump’s venture.  In Britain, Theresa May is barely able to hold on to her job.  In the latest thrust by senior members of her party, she has been asked to name the day she steps down.

So there we have it.  Nobody wants war with Iran.  Even Israel, so far without a post-election government does not want to be rained upon by missiles leaky as its Iron Dome was against homemade Palestinian rockets.

Topping all of this neither Trump nor Secretary of State Pompeo want war.  Trump is as usual trying to bully — now called maximum pressure — Iran into submission.  It won’t.  The wild card is National Security Adviser John Bolton.  He wants war.  A Gulf of Tonkin type false flag incident, or an Iranian misstep, or some accident can still set it off. 

In Iran itself, moderates like current President Hassan Rouhani are being weakened by Trump’s shenanigans.  The hard liners might well want to bleed America as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Iran’s game just started

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By announcing that Iran will begin keeping its excess uranium and heavy water, the Islamic Republic now sends a firm and clear message to the west, exactly one year after U.S. president, Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from its nuclear deal with Iran. 

At this point, it seems that Iran has made a wise decision. Over the last year, the European troika has not only done anything to revive the nuclear deal or bring any kind of benefit to the Iranian nation, but they have actually backed up U.S. by developing new plans to undermine Iran’s “missile work”, and diminish its “power in the region” as well as its “nuclear technology”.  

As stated in clauses 26 and 36 of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if the other side fails to meet its obligations, Iran is entitled to partially or completely end its commitments as well. So, Iran’s recent decision could be analyzed both on legal and strategic terms. 
However, it seems that the strategic aspects of Iran’s decision are even more important than its legal aspects. This decision is strategically important because it stops Washington and European troika to carry out their anti-Iran scheme, a dangerous scheme that they actually started devising when Trump took the office in 2017.  

At the time, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, and Emmanuel Macron, the French president played a major part in carrying out the west scheme. A scheme based on enforcing Iran to keep its “nuclear promises” and stay committed to a “distorted nuclear deal” while “U.S. had abandoned the deal”, and at the same time, trying to “diminish Iran’s power in the region” and “reduce its missile activities”. 

All other actions of Europeans toward Iran were also simply targeted at carrying out this major plan, including how they constantly changed their strategies toward Tehran, and how Germany, U.K. and France intentionally delayed in launching the alternative trade mechanism (Instex) with Iran.  

Now, Iran’s decision to keep its Uranium and heavy water is definitely in compliance with JCPOA, and more importantly, it will seriously undermine the “American-European” joint plan against Iran. This also explains why French government was so distressed by Iran’s new nuclear strategy and had such a quick reaction, considering that Emmanuel Macron, the French president and Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister both have had important roles in carrying out the American-European anti-Iran scheme. 

At any rate, what is clear now is that the game has just started! And the Iranian political system and specially the foreign ministry have a great mission to run this game wisely.  

In following days, the European troika might want to force Iran into changing its decision by threats such as reviving the European Union sanctions against Iran or even taking Iran’s case to the United Nations Security Council (so that Trump administration can meddle in Iran’s affairs). But, it is time for Iran political system to be adamant in its decision.  

The Iranian Foreign Ministry should clearly ask the Europeans to choose one of these options, either Iran will “further reduce its commitments to the nuclear deal” or the Europeans should do something practical to “protect the rights of Iranian nation”. 

It is also necessary that the Iranian political system reveals the American-European joint anti-Iran scheme to the people so that the true nature of Europeans is showed to Iranians. In that case, Europe and specially the European troika will completely lose their reputation.    

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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