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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

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

Dr.Alon Ben-Meir

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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Middle East

Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

Despite a relative calm that has been holding on the front lines of the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year, Syria had to face other equally – if not more – serious challenges. The spread of COVID-19 virus in the wake of a general economic collapse and a health care system battered by nine years of war threatened Syria with a death toll as a high as that of resumed military confrontation. However, the actual scale of the infection rate turned out to be less than it was expected considering the circumstances.

Although Syria did not have much in resources to mobilize, unlike some other countries that were slow to enforce restrictions or ignored them altogether, the Syrian authorities did not waste time to introduce basic measures that, as it became obvious in hindsight, proved to be the most effective. A quarantine was instituted in the areas controlled by the government, all transportation between the provinces was suspended, schools and universities were temporarily closed and face masks were made obligatory in public spaces.

As a result, official data puts the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the government areas at modest 4,457 while 192 people died of the infection. In turn, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 1,998 people contracted the virus. The data on the infection rate in the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo is incomplete, but the latest number is 1,072. Compared to the neighboring Turkey with  9,000 of deaths of COVID-19, Syria seems to be doing relatively well.

Tackling the virus put the already embattled health care system under enormous strain. Syrian doctors are dealing with an acute shortage of medicines and equipment, and even hospital beds are in short supply. Over 60 medical workers who treated COVID-19 patients died.

The situation is worsened even further by the economic hardships, not least due to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the U.S. and the European states. Syrian hospitals are unable to procure modern equipment necessary for adequate treatment of COVID-19, most importantly test kits and ventilators.

The economic collapse exposed and aggravated many vulnerabilities that could have been easily treated under more favorable circumstances. A grim, yet fitting example: long queues in front of bakeries selling bread at subsidised prices, that put people under the risk of catching the virus. Many Syrians are simply unable to avoid risking their health in these queues, as an average income is no longer enough to provide for a family.

Moreover, despite a nation-wide information campaign conducted with the goal of spreading awareness about means of protections against COVID-19 like social distancing and mask-wearing, for many Syrians the disease is still stigmatized, and those who contracted it are often too ashamed to go to a hospital or even confess to their friends. As consequence, a substantial number of cases goes unreported.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in sight, it is of utmost importance that the work of health care professionals is supported, not subverted by the citizens. Otherwise Syria – and the world – may pay too high a price.

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