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The Causes and Effects of the United States “Long Goodbye” to the Middle East

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A glance at a world map reveals one great reason why the Middle East (ME) claims the attention of great power centres of the world.  A roughly rectangular area stretching from the Adriatic Sea, East to the black sea ,and south to the Indus River.   The ME is a joining point of three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa and one of the most vital crossroads on the planet.   It is the cradle of world civilization and the birth place of the three monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.    Further, it is rich in oil, gas, and other commodities.   According to British Petroleum 2019 (BP) Statistical review of World Energy, the Middle East holds 836 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, which constitutes 48% of world total.   In comparison to other regions of the world, it holds 3X the proven oil reserves of the U.S, Canada and Mexico combined, and 58X the proven oil reserves of Europe.   Likewise, the Middle East has the world’s largest proven reserves of Natural Gas (NG); standing at 38.3% of the world’s total, while the Common wealth of Independent States (CIS) holds the second largest reserves at 31.9%.

Historically, the strategic foundation for the U.S. involvement in the Middle East was shaped by several policy objectives reflecting both regional dynamics and U.S. interests.  These strategic interests centred primarily around protecting the reliable free flow of commodities and commercial activity through well known checkpoints in the Arabian Peninsula, especially the strait of Hormoz and Suez canal; supporting the security, stability, and prosperity of U.S. partners in the region, including the State of Israel; preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, countering Jihadist movements, and terrorism.  Since 2011, geopolitical tensions, trade disputes, and changes in the international security landscape have tested the US-ME relationship, and have caused the strategic pillars of the U.S. Involvement in the region to undergo a state of transition, hastened by three major factors: 

First; In a speech by former Secretary of Defence James Mattes at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies, January 19, 2018, he asserted” Great Power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security”.  Further, according to President Obama’s June 2015 National Military Strategy and also President Trump’s January 2018 National Defence Strategy  (NDS), they both acknowledged that the shift in U.S. strategic direction is driven by a return to great power competition with China and Russia, underlined by a rising trend in strategic cooperation between two countries on many issues across many regions of the world, In fact; this strategic cooperation can be seen taking shape in the economic and military spheres.  For example, according to various press reports, in September of 2019, Chinese and Russian troops took part in joint military manoeuvres; dubbed, “Tsentr-2019” to strengthen their military readiness.  Further, direct trade between the two countries is increasing.  According to data from statista, trade between Russia and China reached a record level, exceeding $100 billion compared to previous years.  Likewise, China’s natural gas imports from Russia more than doubled in 2019 subsequent to operating the “Power of Siberia”  gas pipeline with a total initial capacity of 5 Billion Cubic meters (BCM) of gas, and a targeted capacity of 38 BCM by 2025, which constitutes 13% of China’s 2018 demand.  Equally important; China’s expanding major economic development project, the Belt and Road (BRI) initiative.  The BRI initiative is an ambitious plan to build an open and balanced regional economic architecture connecting dozens of countries in Asia, Eurasia, and Europe by constructing six international economic corridors and an extensive rail network linking China to Europe through a “new Eurasian Land Bridge”.  In the same way, the project aims to construct economic corridors linking China, Mongolia, and Russia; also, China to west, central, and South Asia. 

The evolving dynamics of economic corridors connecting all sub-regions in Asia, and between Asia, Europe, and Africa is consistent with the ideas of the Eurasianist Aleksandr  Dugin’s, and the ideas advanced in his book published in 1997 titled “Foundations of Geopolitics”, in which he calls for the realization of a Unified Economic Landscape called Greater Eurasia.  Greater Eurasia refers to countries that are on the territory of the Eurasian continent across Asia, Europe and the Middle East.  It consists of two regions of energy consumption (Europe & Asia Pacific) and three regions of energy production (Russia and Arctic & Caspian & Middle East) in between.  It includes 91 countries, which represents two-thirds of the world population, exports of goods and services and GDP.

These evolving and developing geographic and economic integration projects based on strategic cooperation between Russia and China create a geographic mass of countries across, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East that are increasingly interdependent, and their interests are more closely intertwined than ever before.  Consequently; shifting geopolitics in Greater Eurasia driving the strategic convergence in economic power between Russia and China is posing challenges to U.S. leadership in the region and the world.   These interactions between Russia and China in the military and economic spheres demonstrate a growing trend in strategic cooperation between the two countries and may be driven by an ideological denominator, where both countries view the U.S. as the “Glavny Protivnik”.

Second; according to the U.S Energy Information Administration (EIA), the United States became the world’s largest producer of petroleum hydrocarbons and the largest producer of oil with a total production capacity of 12.7 million barrels of oil per day as of March 2020, surpassing the daily production capacity of both Russia and Saudi-Arabia.  In the same manner; according to BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy report, the U.S. is still the world leader when it comes to natural gas production, averaging approximately 920 billion cubic meters of gas in 2019, followed by Russia, Iran, and Qatar.  As a result, the United States is undergoing an oil and natural gas production renaissance that will likely continue to change the global energy landscape, and lead to wide-ranging regional and global geopolitical implications.   The Age of Abundance for the U.S is driving the change in relations with regional allies, which, in part, will be redefined based on relations that are built around competition in the global gas market, and the supply of cleaner energy sources, especially, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).

Third; according to the CIA’s Global Threats Report  2019.  The ME region is highly vulnerable to changes in the frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, and floods, and that combined with Poor Governance – leads to increased food and water insecurity.    As a result, it is very likely that there will be an increased risk of social unrest, migration and tension between regional State, and non-State actors.

It stands to reason that the U.S. views the strategic benefits derived from maintaining the  historical strategic pillars, and policy objectives in the ME vis-à-vis the strategic risks associated with such policy as costly and no longer viable because of the greater strategic threats posed by both Russia’s aggression towards its neighbours in Europe in consequence of Russia’s own economic, political, and social agenda, which opposes the international liberal order promoted, and protected by the U.S. since the second world war., and China’s expanding financial and economic influence, and strategic cooperation with Russia in multiple domains to amass political and strategic advantage through improved economic and energy connectivity projects in Europe, Eurasia, Middle East, and Asia pacific.  Therefore; U.S vital strategic interests lay elsewhere and the U.S. views Russia and China as a greater strategic risk than Iran and Al-Qaeda, and that requires the U.S. to “do less” in the Middle East.  In consequence, from U.S perspective the Middle East region is no longer a priority for the United States.  

The strategic implications of the ongoing U.S. long goodbye to the M.E. region over the past decade have shifted the regional geopolitical environment and caused the formation of a power vacuum where state and non-state actors competing in a multi-level and proxy executed competition to gain diplomatic, economic, and strategic advantage.  As a result, three regional spheres of influence emerged vying for control and power in the region, including the conservative wing, comprising Saudi Arabia (GCC, less Qatar), Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. The anti-American wing includes Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.  Lastly the Islamist wing includes Turkey, and Qatar.  Add to this complex geopolitical landscape, Russian and Chinese inroads through military, economic, and weapons sales to regional actors to increase their regional influence.  In fact; in recent years, Moscow has strengthened its military foothold in Syria and secured access to military bases on the Mediterranean Sea, in order to expand its regional political, military, and economic influence.  Moscow’s regional engagement has solidified since 2015 Russian intervention in Syria.  Moreover, Russia’s expanding military exercises and weapons sales with Egypt selling 2$ billion worth of aircrafts to Cairo.  Further, Moscow support and expanded ties with Khalifa Haftar in Libya,  talks to sell S-400 Missile Defence System to Qatar, cooperation with Saudi Arabia to stabilize global oil markets, and strengthening relations with Israel and Iran are clear indications of Moscow’s increasing influence in the Middle East region.

In the same way, China’s strategic cooperation with Middle Eastern countries is on the rise.  For instance, the region is China’s No.1 source of imported petroleum products.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, over 50% of Chinese Oil imports come from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iraq, and Iran, with Saudi Arabia providing 16% of Oil imports.  Further; Qatar, is the one of largest LNG suppliers to China.  Moreover, In July 2018, China and the UAE announced an upgrade to their 2012 strategic partnership to a “comprehensive Strategic Partnership”- China’s highest level of diplomatic relations, outlining cooperation in wide range of fields such as politics, economics, trade, technology, energy, renewable energy, and security.   Likewise, In Egypt, in September 2018 President Sisi visited Beijing and signed 18$ billion worth of deals with China including projects covering rail, real estate, and energy.  Again, Chinese construction firms are heavily engaged in constructing Egypt’s new administrative capital outside of Cairo and developing the Red Sea port and industrial zone.  Likewise, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt are important to China’s expanding BRI initiative.   The majority of Chinese trade with Europe passes through the Suez Canal, and China is expanding the cooperative zone around the canal by expanding the port and shipping facilities.   Finally, Jordan joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015, and Israel high speed rail project with China that will connect Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean to Eilat on the Red Sea.  Clearly, the multitude of Chinese driven infrastructure projects in the region are an indication that countries in the Middle East are welcoming China’s economic investments, and if history is a gauge of future developments, then it is reasonable to conclude that China is likely to increase its political engagement and expand its military presence in the region to protect and secure its economic interest.

In 2017, during a visit by president Trump to Saudi Arabia, the Riyadh declaration was announced.  The declaration is a U.S. proposal for a multilateral regional arrangement between Gulf Cooperation Council nations (GCC), including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to Jordan and Egypt, dubbed the Middle East Strategic alliance (MESA).  The proposal centres on the idea of a regional system with shared security, economic, and political architecture.   According to data from the World Bank Development Indicators (WBDI) (2018), the MESA boasts a combined GDP of $2.3 trillion and represents a market of 175 million consumers.  The proposal joins an increasing number of regional alliances that exist across the globe, such as the three seas initiative (3SI), the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), among others.  Since its announcement, an ongoing dispute among the competing, regional spheres of influence, due to differences in their respective interests, capabilities, and threat perceptions has caused little progress in the future trajectory of this multilateral arrangement.

Finally, the reality is that the U.S. should not fully extricate itself from the region due to the U.S. great power competition with China and Russia, which the Trump Administration has placed at the centre of its national security strategy.   Instead, the U.S. should invest in its regional network of allies and partners to work together to maximize their strengths and address common challenges that are vital to U.S. national security and geopolitical stability.  The U.S. should push for and hasten the strategic convergence of the MESA member States by promoting deeper coordination and interaction among participants through multilateral cooperation in the economic, political, security, and energy spheres by calling to build the tools and the governing institutions to govern MESA operations and decision making such as a Middle East Strategic Alliance Council with prime ministers as members, the Middle East Strategic Alliance Economic Commission to manage the organizations day to day decision making activity, the Middle East Strategic Alliance Court system, tasked with managing disputes among member States, and a Middle East Strategic Alliance development bank and stabilization fund to support and drive integration efforts through regional lending and investment programs to boost, along an East-West axis, cross-border economic development, energy, water, transportation, and digital infrastructure connectivity projects.

As noted above, the U.S. should reposition itself at the helm of key Middle East dynamics, while simultaneously working with regional partners to balance Russian and Chinese inroads and expanding patterns of influence in the region.  Else, a lack of a clear, unified strategy for the Middle East, will perpetuate the current Hobbesian state of a bellum omnium contra omnes, which renders the whole Middle East system in a quantum state of neither at peace, nor at war, but, entangled in a super position of both states simultaneously; waiting for an observer; to implement the wrong policy option, resulting in the collapse of the state function; into a wilderness of tempestuous combustion; likely, paving the way, to the last age of Pax Americana.

Lawrence Habahbeh is a geopolitical expert based in Amman, Jordan. He holds an MSc in Actuarial Science from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, and an executive certificate in geopolitical analysis from the Geneva institute of geopolitical studies (GISP). He chairs the resource and environment (R&E) member interest group at the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) and he is also a member of the COVID-19 action taskforce (ICAT) on investment impact for Life and Annuity insurers’ and enterprise risk management work streams at the IFoA, London, U.K.

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Middle East

First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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What Does China-Iran Relations mean for United States?

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What China wants in the Middle East

Although the recent China-Iran deal prompted extensive debates in international media, Iran is not the only country in the region to keep up a strategic partnership with China. The GCC states such as Saudi Arabia (since 2016) and the United Arab Emirates (since 2018) do as well. According to the China Global Investment Tracker, Beijing invested up to $62.55 billion in Saudi Arabia and the UAE between 2008 and 2019. (Julia Gurol & Jacopo Scita, 2020) Although due to the impacts of Washington’s maximum pressure strategy this new dimension of relationships looks more beneficial to Iran than to China, however, Beijing will now merge as one of the global powers to make sure the survival of the JCPOA presenting China with the opportunity to set the tone in the broader nuclear non-proliferation debates.

Economically, China needs to import its energy mostly from the Middle East and it also maintains a huge interest in exporting. China, in Iran’s Pivot to the East policy, will become now one of few formal buyers of Iran’s oil boosting its footprint in the Iranian market. Under the umbrella of the One Belt, One Road project, China is steadily expanding its political influence and investment plans in the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf, which has occurred as a new theatre of U.S.-Iran power competition. Moreover, China is keen to stabilise the security environment that will help its infrastructure investments in the region. (Global Times, 2017) According to China’s estimations, the growth opportunities through the One Belt, One Road project will reduce tensions in the Middle East. (Xinhua, 2017) Therefore, China has proceeded to invest in Iran. The latest example was a 538 million USD railway deal. (South China Morning Post, 2017)

Iran’s Look East Policy

Iran’s policy of a “Pivot to the East” involves developing robust ties with the giants of the Asian continent, namely, China and Russia. (Micha’elTanchum, 2020) China and Iran have now signed an agreement, a roadmap for 25 years. While the Iranian government spokesperson said that there was no legal obligation to publish it (Patrick Wintour, 2021), we can assume that the agreement entails political-strategic, economic and cultural components for improving and promoting relations between China and Iran in the long run. The present agreement emphasises the effective participation of Iran in the Chinese one belt one road project with extensive projects in infrastructure, financial and banking fields. In terms of the political-strategic dimension (military, defence and security), China and Iran will set up close positions and cooperation promoting exchanges, and consultations on issues of mutual interest, including strengthening the defence infrastructure, countering terrorism and holding regular military manoeuvres. (Hossein Amir Abdollahian, 2021) China and Iran have emphasised economic ties, including cooperation in the fields of oil, industry and mining, and energy-related fields. 

China was essential to striking a nuclear deal between Iran and the West. First, the Chinese were a real (if occasionally reluctant) partner in building pressure on Tehran. Beijing voted for six UN Security Council resolutions targeting Iran between 2006 and 2010 (The Arms Control Association, 2017), and China’s oil imports from Iran fell by more than 20 per cent in 2012-2013 when the United States was rising its crippling sanctions campaign. (Middle East Institute, 2016) As Iran’s most considerable oil customer, Chinese cooperation was crucial to the effort. China was then important to designing the JCPOA.

For almost three years, the destiny of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) hung in the balance (Guardian News, 2018). However, the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, an international agreement between Iran and world powers endorsed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2231 seeking a “maximum pressure” strategy. (Hossein Mousavian, 2019) The maximum pressure strategy by the United States, if anything, sharpened Tehran’s wish to introduce Beijing as a reliable economic and political ally under the atmosphere of threats and sanctions. Thus, Iran’s policy of a Pivot to the East has achieved all the more credibility among Iranian officials after the United States withdrew from the JCPOA.

Thus, the relationship between the two countries is asymmetrical but highly pragmatic. Economic sanctions against Iran have driven the growth of China-Iran economic ties. Having been cut off from the West by sanctions, Iran has engaged in a Look East Policy. China is now Iran’s largest trade partner, its largest oil purchaser, and its largest foreign investor.

The US-Iran relations and Implications for China

A point of agreement between the United States and China is that both do not want a war in the region. China and Iran share the interests that they substantially oppose violent regime change policies. The existing U.S. sanctions and other bold moves will raise uncertainties to business and presumably postpone much of the economic engagements of China in Iran. But these policies may lead China and Iran to reduce imports and exports from each other and seek alternatives, but the policies imposed by Washington will not stop Sino-Iranian exchanges completely. Iran is not part of China’s immediate neighbourhood, but China is becoming an important part of the Iranian security calculations. 

The Trump Administration’s chaotic foreign policy offered a buffet of opportunities to Beijing. Given the absence of ties between Tehran and Washington, China steps in opportunistically. The United States’ maximum pressure campaign on Iran, combined with a confrontational approach from Saudi Arabia and Israel vis-à-vis Iran and the growth of tensions in the Strait of Hormuz are endangering both the freedom of navigation, energy security and flow of oil supplies through the Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, China seems quite reluctant to become bogged down in the regional tensions and attempts to avoid a military conflict. China’s reluctance to act as a security guarantor in the Persian Gulf indicates that Beijing does not want to pay any of the costs of possible military tensions in the Middle East and that its security strategy towards the Persian Gulf is not yet well-known. (Job B Alterman, 2013) Hence, Beijing seems unlikely to proclaim any peace initiatives for Iran and Persian Gulf security beyond broad calls for peace in the region, probably maintaining China’s existing policy of non-interference. (Camille Lons, Jonathan Fulton, Degang Sun, & Naser Al-Tamimi, 2019)

Although China would need to support cooperation with Iran on civil nuclear projects, China has been careful as Iran’s main partner in reconstructing nuclear facilities, not desiring to get ahead of the United States. Diplomatically, Beijing and Tehran stay together as long as Washington continues unilateral measures against them, although it’s unlikely that Tehran or Beijing use the alliance to confront Washington directly. Currently, with the Biden Administrations delay in recovering relations both with Iran and the failure to offer to substantially resolve the trade war with China, Beijing would be reluctant to help the United States to regain its footprint in the Middle East and certainly not dominance over the only country in the region with rich hydrocarbon resources in which Americans lack a foothold. 

Iran-China relations is also linked to the fate of their respective relations with Washington and Iran’s upcoming election in 2021. Although China and Iran now share many strategic interests, in the long run, Iran’s wish to build up good relations with Western powers may affect its relationship with China. It remains yet unclear how far United States commercial and banking sectors will be willing to ease sanctions and engage with Iran. The United States can revisit Iran policy to avoid a major crisis with Iran and pave the way for a new round of negotiations with Iran. Otherwise, under the current conditions, we can expect Chinese players to create and widen influence and ties to keep up ties with Tehran without overly provoking Washington. 

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