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Iran, CPEC and regional connectivity

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Ever since taking over as President, Donald Trump’s approach towards Iran has been excessively rash and lacked nuance. US withdrawal from JCPOA (Joint Comprehension for Plan of Action) imposition of sanctions and brash statements by Trump have heightened tensions between both countries. Allies of the US, including EU member states (especially Germany and France) expressed their disapproval of Trump’s Iran policy on numerous occasions.

 In August 2019, during the G7 Summit at Biarritz (France) it seemed, that Trump may change his approach towards Iran.  The US President expressed his openness to engaging with Iran and dubbed it as a country of immense potential. After the attack on Saudi Oil facilities, there has been a visible shift in the approach of Germany, France and UK towards Iran. All three countries blamed Iran for the attacks. In a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) these three countries issued a statement condemning the attack. They also held Iran squarely responsible for the attack. Said the joint statement, issued by three countries:

‘It is clear to us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack,’

Why China is giving importance to Iran

The fact, that Tehran is rich in natural resources, and its geographical location which makes it important in the context of connectivity in South Asia and Central Asia (especially in the context of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor – CPEC).

This is one of the main reasons for Beijing seeking to strengthen ties in spite of US withdrawal from JCPOA and imposition of sanctions by the Trump administration. The importance of Iran in China’s strategic goals is reiterated from the fact, that it is part of the ‘home affairs region’.

China-Iran ties

In January 2016 (months after the JCPOA was signed), Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Iran. During his visit, it was decided, that China and Iran would expand their bilateral trade to 600 Billion USD over a period of 10 years. Iran also welcomed, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

According to the joint statement, ‘The Iranian side welcomes “the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” initiative introduced by China’. As Iran-US ties have gone downhill under Donald Trump, Beijing has continued to strengthen ties with Tehran.

Both sides also a document which outlined the  strategic vision for a period of 25 years.

 In September 2019, China made a commitment of 400 Billion USD during Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif’s visit to China. While China will invest $280bn USD in Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemicals sectors, 120 Billion USD would be invested in Iran’s infrastructure.

In the energy sector, so far the key projects China is involved are phase 11 of the supergiant South Pars natural gas project and West Karoun.

China’s State-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), one of the country’s “big three” producers, holds an 80% stake in Phase 11 of the supergiant South Pars gas field ( CNPC stepped in after France’s Total withdrew in 2018 after the imposition of sanctions by the US). So far China has been slow in the development of Phase 11, but it is likely to accelerate the pace of the project. Similarly, Beijing has assured Iran, that it will increase production from the West Karoun Oil fields (from 5% to 25% by 2021)

China is financing some important infrastructural projects in Iran. This includes, the electrification of theTehran-Masshad railway line (a contract between both countries was signed in 2017, and the cost of this project is estimated at 1.5Billion USD). The other key project, where China will be involved is the Qom-Isfahan high-speed train line, and to extend this upgraded network up to the north-west through Tabriz (which is the starting point of the Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline). Tabriz is also home to a number of energy projects. This project is especially important in the context of China’s connectivity goals, as it will connect Urumqi (Xinjiang) to Tehran, Central Asia and Europe.

At a recent meeting of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), which has 10 member states (Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyz Republic) reviewed studies pertaining to a number of important projects pertaining to Iran, including the Iran-Turkey-Pakistan economic corridor (such a corridor will help in facilitation of hard and soft infrastructure).

Iran-Pakistan relations

Islamabad with has had an unpredictable relationship with Tehran has also begun to warm up. In February 2019, after the killing of 27 revolutionary guards,  Chief, of Revolutionary Guards Major General Mohammad Ali Jafar issued a stern warning to Pakistan:

“Why do Pakistan‘s army and security body … give refuge to these anti-revolutionary groups? Pakistan will no doubt pay a high price,”

In 2017, after the killing of 10 Border guards, head of the Iranian armed forces, Major-General Mohammad Baqeri, had warned Pakistan, that it should take action against the Jaishal Adl group lest it will be forced to strike the terror camps in Pakistan.

A visit to Iran by Pakistan Army Chief, Qamar JavedBajwa in November 2017 (it was the first visit by a Pakistan army chief to Iran in 2 decades). During his visit, Bajwa met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, Defense Minister Amir Hatami, apart from senior military officials.

Some high level exchanges in 2018, also sought to mend ties and address misgivings between both countries.

Iran-Pakistan connectivity

In spite of bilateral tensions, Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif while speaking at a prominent Islamabad based think tank Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad invited Pakistan to join the Chabahar Project. The Iranian Foreign Minister also made the point, that Tehran was exploring participation in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). In May 2019, Iran had mooted the idea of connecting Chabahar Port with Gwadar.

 Interestingly, India has taken over operations of part of the 1stphase of Chabahar in 2018. A statement, issued by the Ministry of Shipping stated:

The Government of India took over the operations of a part of Shahid Beheshti Port, Chabahar, in Iranduring the Chabahar Trilateral Agreement meeting held there on December 24, 2018,”

Initially Chabahar was perceived as a counter to Gwadar Port (Baluchistan). Both ports are 70 kilometres apart. New Delhi had invested in Chabahar with a view to get access to Afghanistan and Central Asia (Pakistan for long has refused to grant India transit rights to Afghanistan).

India-Iran relations

Ever since the removal of exemptions from US, Tehran and New Delhi ties have been witness to some differences. Iran has complained of New Delhi toeing US line, and failing to stand up to Washington unlike Beijing. Senior Iranian diplomats have complained on numerous occasions, about the slow progress on Chabahar Port, and the trilateral connectivity. The Iranian Foreign Minister’s proposal to connect Chabahar with Gwadar, needs to be viewed in this context.

More recently, Iranian Foreign Minister made a similar point echoing these views. He also said that Tehran would have expected India to be more ‘resilient’.

Indian PM Modi did however, meet Iranian President on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2019

While New Delhi-Iran ties have witnessed a slight deterioration. Iran-Pakistan ties have witnessed an upswing. In his first speech, after his party’s triumph Khan had said that he would seek to improve ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. In his first telephonic conversation with Rouhani, Khan stated that he wanted to build special trade relations with Iran.

In his first few months after taking over, Khan due to economic constraints, focused more on Saudi Arabia (Riyadh promised 6 Billion USD in assistance)

Pakistan-Iran ties

In recent months, Imran Khan has sought to play peacemaker between Iran and Saudi Arabia, after the attack on a Saudi Oil facility. Imran Khan visited both Riyadh and Tehran in October 2019. Khan also stated, that he was entrusted with this responsibility by US President Donald Trump.

Significantly, Iran praised Imran Khan for his efforts in trying to bring about peace in the Middle East. At a joint press conference, the Iranian President said:

“I told Prime Minster Imran [Khan] we welcome any gesture by Pakistan for peace in the region and appreciate his visit to our country,”

Pakistan Army Chief Qamar JavedBajwa also visited Tehran in November 2019,  and sought to strengthen defence ties between both countries. Apart from meeting with the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri and Army Commander Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi the Pakistan Army Chief also met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Iran-Pakistan connectivity

There have also been some interesting developments in the context of Iran-Pakistan relations in the context of connectivity and economic relations. Another interesting development is Pakistan’s recent idea of getting Iran on board the CPEC project.

Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, the prime minister’s adviser on finance, in an interaction with media stated that Pakistan was looking at a CPEC+ arrangement, where other countries get on board.

He also stated, that CPEC needed to be projected, as a potential connector between China and Iran and Saudi Arabia, and it

Islamabad’s decision to invite Iran to join CPEC, clearly reiterates Iran’s crucial location. It remains to be seen, how the Tehran-Islamabad-New Delhi trilateral will work out in the near future.

Need to look beyond a zero-sum approach

While it is easy to look at connectivity from a zero-sum perspective, a change in Pakistan’s approach and statesmanship from the Indian side, could pave the way for a fresh approach towards connectivity. India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran can join hands. Such connectivity need not be under the rubric of CPEC, but could be driven by Pakistan providing land access to India to Afghanistan and Central Asia. At the inaugural function of the Kartarpur Religious Corridor, the need for re-examining bilateral ties, as well as regional connectivity was alluded to. Former Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh had also spoken of trilateral cooperation between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Said Manmohan Singh:

“I dream of a day, while retaining our respective national identities, one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. That is how my forefathers lived. That is how I want our grandchildren to live”

Conclusion

In conclusion, Tehran may be facing domestic challenges, but it is crucial not just in the strategic context, but also connectivity in South Asia. It also remains to be seen, whether India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran can set aside their differences, and can work towards an inclusive ‘New Silk Road’.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India

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Middle East

Post Trump Palestine

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Al-Walaja, a Palestinian village in the West Bank. Photo: UNRWA/Marwan Baghdadi

The unconditional United States’ political, financial and military support to Israel enabled the latter to occupy the Palestinian territories. The former became involved in Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an arbiter to resolve the issue. But the foreign policy of US has always remained tilt to Israeli interests. From recognizing Israel as sovereign state in 1947 to accepting Jerusalem as capital of Israel has clearly unearthed the biased attitude of US for Israel.

Similarly, Trump also adopted the traditional stance of Washington on Palestine, i.e. outright support for Israel. Trump’s policy regarding Israeli-Palestinian conflict was more aggressive but not in contradiction with his predecessors’. For instance, he brought into reality the law passed by US congress in 1995 that recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, shifted US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closed office of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington DC in Sept 2018 and closed US consulate in East Jerusalem the area under Palestinian control. His bigotry against Palestinians unveiled more distinctly when he announced defunding of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), the UN agency that provides food, education and healthcare to the refugees. Moreover during his regime in November 2018 the state department of US proclaimed that the construction of Israeli settlements in West Bank does not come under the ambit of violation of international humanitarian laws. Certainly, the belligerent policies in last four years of trump era paved the way for the colonization of Palestine by Israel and helped the latter to put unlawful restrictions on Palestinians making them deprived of all civil liberties and peace.

As per world report-2020by Human Rights Watch HRW, Palestinian citizens are restrained from all basic necessities of life such that, education, basic healthcare, clean water and electricity. The movement of people and goods to and from Gaza strip is also inhibited. According to World Health Organization WHO 34 percent of applications by Palestinians, for medical appointments outside Gaza strip, were not addressed by Israeli army. Moreover, HRW report states that the Israeli government destroyed 504 homes of Palestinians in West Bank during 2019 and facilitated 5995 housing settlements for Israelis. The country is trying at utmost to eradicate indigenous Palestinians from their home land. According to United Nations’ Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs UNOCHA, the demolitions of Palestinian homes displaced 642 people in 2019 and 472 in 2018.Moreover, the illicit attacks by Israeli side have killed hundreds of innocent citizens in the same years. According to UNOCHA on November 11, 2020, 71 innocent Palestinian citizens were killed by Israeli forces while 11,453 were lethally injured in a single day. Furthermore, UN secretary general exhorted that Israeli armed forces have infringed the children’s rights during the conflict as in 2018, 56 Palestinian children were killed by Israeli armed forces.

While, other international actors criticized the Israeli annexations of the region and declared it as violation of international humanitarian laws, US supported the Israeli escalations in West Bank. The former also stopped aid support through USAID for Gaza strip where eighty percent of population depends upon aid. Such partial attitude of US has put the country outside the international consensus on the issue. Apparently, US pretend its position as arbiter but her policies accredited the colonization of Palestine by Israel.

Thus, it seems futile to expect any big change in US policies regarding Israeli-Palestinian issue during forthcoming administrations. However, the president-elect Joe Bidden may alter some of the trump’s decisions such as reopening of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington, resuming funding of UNRWA and reopening of US consulate in East Jerusalem.  But his policies will not contradict the congress’ stance on the issue. As, he and his team have clearly mentioned prior to elections that they will not shift back the US embassy to Tel Aviv as it seems politically and practically insensible to them. Moreover, Blinken, the candidate for secretary of state in Joe’s upcoming regime, made it clear through his controversial statements, that the imminent president will inherit historic US position on Palestine-Israel dispute. Further, Chinese expansionism, Russian intervention in American and European affairs and Iran nuclear deal issue would remain the main concerns of foreign affairs of US during initial period of Joe Biden’s regime. He is likely to favor the status quo in Palestine and remain focused on other foreign interests. In addition to this the inclination of Arabian Gulf to develop relations with Israel will also hinder the adherence for Palestinians from the gulf countries. Subsequently, it will enable Israelis to continue seizing the Palestinian territories into Israel and leave indigenous Palestinians stateless in their own land.

Summing up, it is significant for Palestinians to continue their struggle for the homeland and seek support from other international actors to marginalize Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territories. As well as, the peace accord of 1993 signed in between both nations, to share the holy land, should also be revoked by both countries.  Both nations should try to resolve the issue on equitable grounds by negotiations so that either side could not be deprived of its interests.

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Middle East

An Enemy Among Us

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The upcoming talks regarding the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, that are due to take place on January 25, should not disillusion us from the dangers of Turkey’s unilateral aggression on all fronts. Erdogan has made no real efforts to improve ties with the EU, except for the occasional vain promise of turning over a new leaf. Since October, he has urged the Muslim world to boycott French products, continued gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, blatantly ignored the arms embargo in Libya and has aided Azerbaijan in committing war crimes in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Despite the numerous warnings issued by the EU and the many failed attempts at resolving the crisis in the East Med diplomatically, the latest EU summit concluded with an anti-climactic promise to sanction certain Turkish officials regarding the East Med. This minimally symbolic promise could only be described as a mere slap on the wrist that will prove unsuccessful in deterring Turkey’s belligerent tendencies. Turkey’s increasingly hostile attitude, its callous use of the refugee crisis and its clear violation of international law in the East Med, Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh represent a danger to European values, identity and security.

We are witnessing before our eyes a dictator in the making who dreams of a return of the Ottoman empire and seeks to destroy the democratic and secular legacy of Atatürk. He is a fervent supporter of political islam – particularly the muslim brotherhood – and he relentlessly accuses the West of wanting to ‘relaunch the crusades’ against Islam. In fact, since 2014, Erdogan and the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) have continuously facilitated cross-border movement into Syria and shipped illegal arms to a number of radical jihadist groups. The Turkish government also uses SADAT Defense, an islamist paramilitary group loyal to Erdogan, to aid groups that can be considered as terrorist organizations such as Sultan Murad Division and Ahrar al-Sham in Northern Syria and use their jihadi fighters to send to Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and, most recently, Kashmir in order to bolster Turkey’s foreign policy.

Erdogan uses a mixture of islamism and nationalism to expand Turkey’s influence around the world and to consolidate power within. The two most influential factions in Turkey are the radical islamists and secular neo-nationalists, who despise each other but share a deep disdain for the west. Courtesy of neo-nationalist and former Maoist terrorist leader Dogu Perinçek, the NATO member has also enjoyed warmer ties with Russia and China over the past 5 years. As a result of these shifts in alliances and growing anti-western sentiments, Turkey is becoming increasingly at odds with the West. 

Furthermore, the growing discontent at home pushes him to adopt more aggressive tactics, divisive policies and his behavior mirrors that of a panicked authoritarian leader. Erdogan is desperately looking for a conflict to distract the Turkish population from the fall of the lira, the spread and mishandling of COVID-19, and the overall declining economy that predates the pandemic. Turkey’s future will most likely be determined by the upcoming general election that is set to take place within the next three years. If Erdogan wins the next election, it will solidify his power and bring him one step closer in turning Turkey into a dictatorship. During his stay in power, he has already conducted a series of purges to weaken and silence dissidents. Turkey now has the most imprisoned journalists in the world. 

Yet, the loss of Istanbul and Ankara in the last municipal election of 2019 demonstrate his declining popularity, and offer a glimmer of hope for the opposition. Political figures like the new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, or the new mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, represent a brighter future for Turkey. Erdogan currently finds himself in a position of weakness, which represents a rare window of opportunity for the EU to strike. Unfortunately, the EU remains deeply divided on how to handle a situation that continues to deteriorate. It seems that some member states, particularly Germany, are holding on to the naive belief that Erdogan can still be reasoned with. 

Our reluctance to impose the slightest sanctions against Turkey demonstrates our division and weakness, which emboldens the neo-sultan. A strong and united response from the European Union is the only way to curb Erdogan’s expansionist agenda. This should include renegotiating the migrant pact, imposing targeted sanctions against SADAT Defense and its leader Adnan Tanrıverdi, imposing an arms embargo, suspending the EU-Turkey customs union and finally suspending Turkey’s membership in NATO. 

Ultimately, Erdogan’s bellicose foreign policy and his contentious nationalist-islamist rhetoric makes it impossible to consider Erdogan’s Turkey as our ally. As the EU reaches out yet another olive branch, Erdogan has his eye on the wars to come. 

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Middle East

Is Erdogan’s Obsession with Demirtas a Personal Vendetta or a Calculated Strategy?

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Grand Chamber ruled that the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş must be immediately released. The Court ruled that his years-long detention “had pursued the ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate”. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swiftly reacted to the ECHR’s ruling and characterized the decision as hypocritical’ and accused the Court of defending a ‘terrorist.’

To many, Erdogan’s reaction to the Court’s ruling should not be a surprise,but his resentment and anger toward Demirtaş are quite shocking. So, why does Erdogan pursue a vendetta against him? Or is it a calculated political strategy? How could Demirtaş’s release affect the political landscape in Turkey? What could be the implications of releasing or not releasing him be on the US-Turkey relations during the Biden era?

Yes, the ECHR’s ruling is a significant and expected development. What is more significant is that Erdogan’s quick reaction shows his deeply rooted frustration with Demirtaş, which dates back to the pre-June 2015 elections. In March 2015,Demirtaş made a short but a spectacular speech at the Turkish Parliament when he said, “we will not make you the President.” He also said, “We are not a movement of bargaining, a party of bargaining. There has never been a dirty deal between us and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and there will never be…” His reference to ‘dirty deal’ was believed to be an offer from the AKP to HDP in exchange for support during the general election. In the June 2015 election, HDP managed to secure the electoral threshold with 13% vote for the first time in the pro-Kurdish parties’ history. Additionally, they secured 80 seats in parliament which made them the second biggest opposition party in Turkey. This was an unprecedented victory for the pro-Kurdish party and a breakthrough in Turkish political history. It is fair to say that, based on the author’s experience, Demirtaş’s rising charisma has become a liability, not only for Erdogan but also for Ocalan, PKK’s once unquestionable leader.  

Erdoğan’s hateful outburst towards the call for Demirtaş’s release is more about Erdoğan’s political self-interest and concerns than his personal vendetta. Demirtaş’s release could likely have far bigger implications on the political calculations in Turkey. They would primarily impact on the future of the People’s Alliance, the coalition between the Justice and Development Party (AK) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), where AKP focuses its efforts to maintain control over the Kurdish issue. For the AKP, having an alliance with the MHP has been beneficial so far but not without major tradeoffs. These includethe MHP’s stance against the Kurdish issue and its eroding voter support nationwide.

AKP’s strategy to maintain power partly relies on its ability to create factions within the existing political parties. The pro-Kurdish parties are no exception. Strategies include consolidating Kurdish votes around AKP or dividing them to create enough division as to not let the HDP run as one single dominant Kurdish party in the next elections.

Demirtaş’s release could pose risks for AKP’s three-fold strategy: Dominate, divide and maintain the status quo. First, by arresting MPs, local politicians, mayors, and activists, AKP aimed to paralyze and dominate the Kurdish voter base. So, preventing Demirtaş’s release could serve to kill the electoral enthusiasm at the party’s voting base and prevent unity among the Kurdish constituency. Demirtaş’s potential release could give rise to his popularity, not only among the Kurdish voters but also the left-wing secularists. Such a scenario could force the AKP towards more pro-Kurdish narratives and policies that could eventually weaken the AKP-MHP coalition.

Second, dividing and deepening fractions; and creating splinter parties would mean that the HDP could not consolidate the Kurdish constituency. Although having a smaller base, an Islamist Kurdish Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par)has supported Erdogan during the 2018 Presidential election. They are a group with alleged ties with the Kurdish Hezbollah, which has committed the atrocities in Turkey in the 1990s and early 2000s.Recently, the leader of Hüda-Par expressed his disappointment with ECHR’s ruling after he paid a visit to Erdogan in the Presidential Palace. Another example is establishing the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), allegedly politically in line with Barzani’s tradition, to divide HDP votes.

Third, by cutting new deals with Öcalan again, they aim to appeal to his supporters to maintain the status quo. Just like during the local elections in 2019, AKP might take another step to re-instrumentalize Öcalan despite his failed emissary role in the last Istanbul local re-run. Öcalan called for HDP’s neutrality, which meant not supporting the opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu. Öcalan’s message was contradicting with HDP’s former co-chair Selahattin Demirtas’s call for support for Imamoglu. Though AKP’s strategy of revitalizing Öcalan may not produce the desired outcome for AKP, it could buy some time by diverting public attention from the victimhood of Demirtaş and HDP.

While releasing Demirtas could pose challenges for the AKP and its leader Erdogan domestically, not releasing him could prove costly. As a pragmatic leader as anyone could be, to survive politically Erdogan has made several U-turns domestically and internationally. Facing an economic crisis and continuing decline in approval ratings Erdogan could, unwillingly, comply with the Court’s ruling. This could help him have a fresh start with President-elect Biden,  who called Erdogan an autocrat.

Regardless of whether he would be released or not, as a political leader, Demirtaş will dominate domestic politics in Turkey and continue to be a critical actor in the region vis-à-vis the Kurdish issue.

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