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Mounting tension with Iran sheds a light on dynamics of US geopolitics

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Mounting tension between the Trump administration and Iran are likely to shed light on US dynamics shaping today’s geopolitical environment.

Looming large is the figure of US national security advisor John Bolton, a proponent of a muscular US foreign policy in which the United States employs military force to impose its will and fortify its superpower status as the playground shifts from a unipolar to a multipolar world.

At first glance, President Donald J. Trump, viscerally opposed to the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, appears to be allowing Mr. Bolton to drive the administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran.

In the latest unprecedented move, it was Mr. Bolton rather than the Pentagon who announced the accelerated deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group to the Gulf in what the national security advisor framed as a warning to Iran.

In many respects, Messrs. Trump and Bolton share a common worldview that is aligned with the way men like Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, define their countries’ national interests.

In a book acclaimed by conservatives, Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony provided the tacit theoretical underpinnings of what goes beyond the worldview of Mr. Trump, his associates and Middle Eastern leaders.

Arguing that nationalism is a defense against imperialism redefined as the tyranny of universal values and liberal international organizations like the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the International Criminal Court, Mr. Hazony provides the basis for what amounts to a tacit agreement on shared values by autocrats, authoritarians and illiberals that also include the presidents of Russia, China and Turkey, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the prime ministers of India and Hungary, Narendra Modi and Victor Orban.

Mr. Hazony’s theory, fuelled by mounting international criticism of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, resonated because it harked back to right-wing anti-imperialism and rejection of universal values and standard-setting international institutions that restrict what can countries do, primarily within their own borders.

Embracing Mr. Hazony’s theory, however, does not stop men like Messrs. Trump, Bolton, Xi, Bin Salman, Bin Zayed and Erdogan from imposing their will on others as part of what they see as a national interest.

In America’s case, columnist Gideon Rahman argues that Messrs. Trump and Bolton are harking back to an era when the United States brutally pursued its interests without regard for others.

Theirs is an understanding that the United States is in the longer term unlikely to be able to compete against a China that eventually outstrips it economically and militarily.

“The Trumpian view is that the US has gone soft and risks ruin if it is too scrupulous when dealing with ruthless adversaries such as ISIS (the Islamic State) – or, even, with Russia and China,” Mr. Rahman said. He could just as well have included Iran as an example.

If there is a silver lining in all of this, it is that the jury is out in answering the question of who ultimately drives US policy towards Iran or for that matter Venezuela: Mr. Trump, who despite his bluster is perceived to want to avoid military entanglements, or Mr. Bolton to whom the military appears to be a magic wand.

The question is also whether the evolution of the North Korea crisis suggests that other crises like Iran could evolve similarly even if there are no indications as yet of that potentially being the case and despite the fact that Mr. Trump at one point declared his willingness to meet with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani.

Mr. Trump appeared to initially follow Mr. Bolton’s inclinations when he threatened North Korea to respond with “fire and fury” if it did not denuclearize and mocked North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “Little Rocket Man.”

Just months before joining Mr. Trump’s administration, Mr. Bolton had argued in favour of military strikes against North Korea in a Wall Street Journal oped.

“Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea, we should not wait until the very last minute. That would risk striking after the North has deliverable nuclear weapons, a much more dangerous situation,” Mr. Bolton said.

Yet, Mr. Trump has since held two inconclusive, if not failed summits with Mr. Kim, declared that “we fell in love,” and rejected Mr. Bolton’s advice to tighten the North Korean sanctions regime.

Similarly, Mr. Trump, frustrated that US efforts led by Mr. Bolton to oust Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, has privately half-joked that his national security advisor is seeking to drag him “into a war.”

For now, Mr. Trump appears to be more on board with Mr. Bolton’s hard line towards Iran than his approach towards Venezuela and North Korea.

While it is unclear whether Iran could prove to be the exception to the president’s anti-war inclinations, it could, in a twist of irony, be Saudi Arabia that proves to be a moderating influence.

Despite being a proponent of regime change in Tehran, Prince Mohammed’s interest in the short and medium term is likely to be destabilization of the Iranian regime rather than immediate replacement with a government capable of returning the Islamic republic to the international fold and quickly reclaiming its place in global oil and gas markets.

The sanctions on Iran give the kingdom the time to in the short-term establish itself as a major gas trader and within six years as a key gas exporter.

If that Saudi interest prevails, it would jell with Mr. Trump’s aversion towards war.

Iranian journalist Ahmad Hashemi argues that ‘Venezuelization’ or destabilization of Iran may prove to be Mr. Trump’s compromise formula.

“Donald Trump is anything but a warmonger. He doesn’t want Iraq and Afghanistan-style regime change because another costly war in the Middle East goes against his “America First” policy,” Mr. Hashemi said.

The failure of Mr. Bolton’s effort to overthrow Mr. Maduro could prove to be a watershed and, possibly, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

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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Middle East

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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