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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.”

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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The economic summit in Bahrain won’t be about Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Ksenia Svetlova

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In less than two weeks Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt will present in Manama the first part of the long-awaited “deal of the century”, the peace initiative of president Donald Trump designed to find an ultimate solution for the prolonged Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Iraq and Lebanon will not take part in the event, while Tehran had already accused the participants, mainly Saudi Arabia of “betrayal of the Palestinian struggle”. Following the massive pressure on Arab leaders and promises of significant economic development, the American administration was finally able to secure the participation of Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states, and probably Morocco. Israel didn’t receive an official invitation for this event yet. It is, however, clear that it will be invited, and some rumors imply that PM Netanyahu himself might come to Bahrain, a country with which Israel doesn’t have any diplomatic relations.

Yet, it seems that this odd event in Manama will resemble a wedding without the bride. The groom will be there, so are the loving parents who will provide the dowry and the guests, but the bride, i.e. the Palestinian autonomy had already declared that it will not send any official or unofficial delegation to the upcoming economic conference.

The relations between the White House and the Palestinian administration had gone sour since President’s Trump decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. The Palestinians are suspicious of Trump’s attempts to promote “a deal” that might not include a reference to a two-state solution. For the last two years, the sole connection between Washington and Ramallah has been maintained by the respective security agencies.  Recent remarks made by the U.S. Ambassador to Israel on Israeli territorial claims in Judea and Samaria and the hints of Israel’s annexation plans intensified Palestinian concerns towards the unveiling of the first part of “the deal”. Palestinian officials had harshly criticized the participation of Arab countries in Bahrain conference, expressing hope that they will send low-key representation, while the Jordanian Kind explained that he decided to send a delegation to the summit “to listen and remain knowledgeable of what is taking place”.

Yet, the most fascinating thing about the economic conference is that it’s not at all about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict despite its title. With only one year left prior to the US presidential elections and considering the political turmoil in Israel and the unwillingness of the Palestinian partner to engage in any plan presented by Trump’s administration, there is little hope in Jerusalem, Ramallah or Washington that the “deal of the Century” will accumulate in peaceful solution in the current century.

Why, then, the American administration is investing time and energy in the upcoming Bahrain summit? The answer is clear: mostly, to consolidate the alliance of the “moderate Arab states”.  Considering the recent dramatic events at the sea of Oman and the attack on two oil-tankers, it will not be far-fetched to imagine that the growing tensions in Iran will overshadow the official reason for the gathering. In the same fashion, the “anti-terror” conference in Warsaw that took place in February this year, was solely about Iran, while all other aspects of anti-terrorism activities were left behind. The deterioration of the situation in the Persian Gulf is crucial for the hosts and their allies – the Arab countries in the Gulf. Egypt and Jordan were required to be there because they are key American allies in the region who also maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. The plan that is envisaged by Kushner and Greenblatt will include economic benefits and development programs for both Amman and Cairo who are dealing with pressing economic hardships. Would they prefer to stay away from the conference that is being shunned by the Palestinians? Probably. Could these two countries, who receive significant economic help from the US say no to the invitation and not show up at the wedding of the century? Highly unlikely.

Ironically, some 52 years ago in Khartoum, it was the Arab league that had unanimously voted on the famous “three no’s” resolution in Khartoum, declining any possibility of dialogue with Israel. Today, when the Arab states are weakened by the “Arab spring” and preoccupied with growing tensions in the Persian Gulf while the focus has shifted from the Palestinian question elsewhere, they are more prone than ever to go along with practically any American plan, while the only ones who refuse to cooperate with Trump and obediently fulfil his orders are the Palestinians who will be absent from Manama gathering. The support of the Palestinian struggle and its importance in Arab politics had dwindled, while other regional affairs had moved center stage. Considering this dramatic change of circumstances, the odd wedding in Bahrain doesn’t seem so odd anymore. It can be seen as yet another step in American attempts to consolidate an Arab alliance against Iran. The Palestinian-Israel conflict that will keep simmering after the conference just as it did before has nothing to do with it.

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Who benefits most of suspicious attacks on oil tankers, tensions in the Gulf?

Payman Yazdani

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The events roiling the Persian Gulf in recent weeks and days have the potential to affect everything from the price of gas to the fate of small regional states.

A look at the tensions going on around the world including the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, East Europe, Venezuela all indicate that these tensions originate from the US administration’s unilateral unlawful measures.

The White House’s unlawful withdrawal from the Iran’s nuclear deal (JCPOA), designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group, reimposing sanctions on Iran and trying to drive Iran’s oil export to zero all are provocative and suspicious moves of the US that have fueled the regional tensions.

The US and its regional allies including Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s suspicious and provocative move to accuse Iran of being behind the attacks on two ships at Fujairah in the UAE without presenting any document was also foiled by Iran’s vigilant approach and reduced tensions to some extent.

While the Japanese Prime Minister is visiting Iran after 4 decades and many expected even more reduction of the tensions in the region due his visit, in another suspicious and provocative move two oil tankers were targeted in Sea of Oman, a move that can intensify the tensions more than before.

Undoubtedly the US and its proxies in the region as usual will accuse of Iran being behind the incident without any document in hours once again, but the main question is that who is benefiting the most of the tensions in the Persian Gulf region?

Pondering the following reasons one can realize that the number one beneficiary of the tensions and attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East is the USA and respectively Tel Aviv and the undemocratically  appointed rulers of some regional Arab states seeking their survival in following the US policies.

– Contrary to decades ago the US is now one of the biggest oil and gas producers in the world seeking to grab the market share of the other countries in the world. Following US unlawful withdrawal from the JCPOA and its efforts to drive Iran’s oil export to zero under the pretext of different accusations, in fact the US is making efforts not only to grab Iran’s share of the energy market but also to limit Iran’s income to reduce Iran’s regional influence. The US move to create tensions in Venezuela and East Europe and slapping sanctions against Caracas and Moscow can also be interpreted in this line.

– Any tension in the Persian Gulf not only will increase the energy price in global market but also will create enough pretexts for Washington to boost its military presence in the region. This means control of energy routes by the US in order to contain its rivals like China, EU, Japan and new rising economies like India which their economies are heavily dependent on the energy coming from the Persian Gulf and Middle East.

– Tensions in the region besides Iranophobia project will guarantee continuation of purchase of American weapons by some regional countries such as Saudi Arabia. By continuation of selling weapons to Saudi Arabia the US not only creates thousands of jobs for Americans but also keeps its rivals like China and Russia out of Middle East weapon market.

– Tensions and conflicts created by the US in Middle East has resulted in great rifts and divergence among regional states which is vital for Tel Aviv’s security and its expansionist policies.

From our partner MNA

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The odds of success for Japanese PM’s visit to Iran

Payman Yazdani

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US President’s recent retreat from his previous rhetoric stances towards Iran should not be misinterpreted as the White House’s retreat from its policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran.

In line with its maximum pressure on Iran policy, on Friday the United States imposed new sanctions on Iran that target the country’s petrochemical industry, including its largest petrochemical holding group, the Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company (PGPIC).

The main reason behind the changes to Trump administration’s tone against Iran in fact is internal pressure on him. Americans are against a new war in the region. Also opposition from the US allies which will suffer from great losses in case of any war in the region is another reason behind change to Trump’s tone.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is slated to visit Tehran on Wednesday June 12. He hopes to use his warm relation with Iran and the US to mediate between the countries.

Besides Abe’s warm relations with Iranian and the US leaders there are others reasons that potentially make him a proper mediator including Japan’s efforts to have independent Middle East policy and not having imperialistic record in the region which is a good trust building factor for Iran.

Above all, as the third largest economy of the world Japan is very dependent on the energy importing from the region. Japan imports 80 percent of its consuming energy from the Middle East which passes through Hormuz strait, so any war and confrontation in the region will inflict great losses and damages to the country’s economy and consequently to the world economy.

To answer the question that how Mr. Abe’s efforts will be effective to settle the tensions depends on two factors.

First on the ‘real will’ and determination of the US and Iran to solve the ongoing problems especially the US ‘real will’. One cannot ask for talk and at the same time further undermine the trust between the two sides by taking some hostile measures like new sanctions that the US slapped against Iran’s petrochemical section last night on the eve of Mr. Abe’s visit to Tehran. If there is a real will, even no need to mediator.

Second we have to wait to see that how the Japanese PM will be able to affect the US’ decisions. Iran’s Keivan Khosravi spokesman for the Supreme National Security Council said efforts to remove US extraterritorial sanctions against Iran could guarantee the success of Japanese PM’s visit to the Islamic Republic.

From our partner MNA

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