Discussions about a country’s soft power are generally triggered by foreign policy crises or an urgent need to renew the institutions responsible for projecting such power. The recent controversy in expert and journalistic circles about the effectiveness of Russian soft power in the Middle East is an example of both. As it turns out, the theoretical achievements of domestic and foreign researchers in this field do not always work in practice. Many of those with an interest in soft influence and public diplomacy understand how all these things should work theoretically in foreign affairs and even often provide competent recommendations to relevant agencies. But Russian soft power, if its critics are to be believed, is still more soft than powerful.
A “silver bullet” often proposed for resolving Russia’s problems in this area is an appeal to the American experience. Indeed, American practices are often seen as being rather successful in promoting US national interests and a positive image of America. Yet this is only partially true: not everything the Americans are doing (especially in the Middle East) is effective, and not everything is accessible to or appropriate for Russia. At the same time, if Russia wants to conduct a quality audit of its own approaches, it would benefit from reflecting critically on the US experience of projecting soft power in the Middle East.
Dialectics of Country and State: US Soft Power in the Middle East
The soft power tools used by the United States in the Middle East are not that different from their activity in other regions: Westernisation of elites, educational and cultural exchange programmes, support for civil society and some media, and promotion of the English language and American mass culture. Given the diverse regional specifics of the Middle East, the US has to vary how it approaches each subregion and specific country.
A concept the Americans have had to consider over their many years of working in the region is the “dialectics of country and state”: while rejecting American government policy, the locals readily accept American education, culture and commercial products. In practice, of course, there are many shades to this formula: the anti-Americanism of the ordinary people in many Middle Eastern societies is generally boosted by US-led military campaigns or exacerbation of Arab-Israeli tensions. In such situations, rejection of state policy is projected on to associated cultural images, and then those dissatisfied with American politics break windows at McDonald’s, burn the “stars and stripes” or defiantly boycott American pop products (though not for long).
In the same dialectics, the effects of America’s soft power are offset by US hard power. The United States government and state-affiliated funds invest billions in public diplomacy and educational exchanges, in development of civil society and the media, but Washington’s military actions often negate its own efforts to win public sympathy in the region.
The goal of US public diplomacy in the Middle East is to project an appealing image of the United States as an open, free and democratic society of equal opportunity. The US seeks to convince the target groups that they are not the enemy but rather contributors to strengthening regional peace and security. Given the region’s demographic and socio-cultural characteristics, the United States focuses on working with young people. It is important for America to create, if not a whole generation, then at least a thick stratum of US sympathisers among intellectuals in various fields and professions who might become public opinion leaders in the future. Plus, they do not necessarily have to be pro-American. It is enough for them to have empathy for the US, which could ensure less resistance by the “social material.” There is no direct correlation, of course, between “empathy” and “non-resistance” and this can be more complicated in practice. Yet this is the aim of the techniques used; how well they work will depend on the particular recipient.
All these features of American soft power policy were more relevant before Donald Trump came to the Oval Office, even though his predecessors had already highlighted a few flaws in the effectiveness of American soft power.
The question “Why do they hate us?” was seriously discussed by experts in the United States after the tragedy on 11 September 2001. The main reasons identified at that time were “intrusive missionary work” and “persistent imposition of ideals.” Less than two years later, the George Bush Jr. administration decided to invade Iraq. Seventeen years passed and it took a few more military adventures, unsuccessful for America and disastrous for the region, to finally make sure that such approaches trigger only rejection and resistance.
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 gave the United States a chance to conquer the Middle East — especially its youth — by non-military methods. The image of Barack Obama as “the opposite of Bush” and his famous Cairo speech, among other things, gave hope for a change in US politics in the region. However, all these hopes were destroyed by the Arab Spring, the NATO military campaign in Libya, and the zigzags of US politics in Syria and Iraq. Some felt that Obama was unable to resist the American tradition of replacing “bad guys” by force. The trick of leading from behind in Libya did not help in this respect either: the United States, along with France and Great Britain, was considered equally involved in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. Others, on the contrary, were disappointed by what they thought was Obama’s insufficient determination to support opposition groups and rebels.
One way or another, the US position in the region has been shaken, as the trust in Washington and the perception of its “reliability” have been undermined. Disappointment intensified during the Democratic President’s second term, when the traditional US allies in the region, Israel and the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, also became dissatisfied with Obama’s policies, including his attitude toward Iran.
Trump has managed to reverse this trend somewhat: his campaign against Iran made the Israelis and the Saudis more optimistic. This American president is very popular in Israel, and the Gulf has also found a business-like approach to negotiating with him. Today the US prefers to “strangle” objectionable Middle Eastern regimes with sanctions instead of overthrowing their rulers by striking with the dagger of the military. This process is more time-consuming but less painful in terms of public perception, which means it combines more harmoniously with soft influence. To a certain extent, Donald Trump’s attitude to the projection of soft power resembles the philosophy of the Green Berets during the Vietnam War: those in the military who disagreed with President Lyndon Johnson’s directive to “win the hearts and minds” of the enemy came up with their own half-joking slogan: “If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”
At the same time, the picture of “Trump’s America” created every day by liberal mainstream publications in the United States, the behaviour and decisions of the president himself, his anti-Muslim bans, and his image as an enemy of Muslims and a friend of Israel have done a lot to undermine those elements of a favourable perception that had persisted among the region’s population for decades.
Together with the political vacillations, the United States has demonstrated in the region in recent years, this cocktail has amplified the very same anti-American sentiments. Even so — and this is the fruit of decades of painstaking soft influence work by America — they have not completely turned their backs on the United States. For many in the region, the US is still the most coveted partner. They simply expect more from America itself, even if they do not always clearly articulate what “more” means and America is not sure whether it wants to provide this “more.”
Today, the United States is redefining where the Middle East lies among its foreign policy priorities and rethinking its global role in general. Many soft-power programmes that have worked for decades are now being phased out. Traditional US soft power instruments are being “weaponised.” American authorities increasingly do not bother to camouflage certain initiatives with considerations of “building an open society.” One specific example from 2018 is when Congress required the US-funded Voice of America to make its coverage of Iranian politics more aggressive and critical. In this sense, we are witnessing the emergence of a new era in US public diplomacy, including in the Middle East. As is usual in public diplomacy, the results of what the Americans are doing (or not doing) now will only become apparent in several years’ time.
The “Post-Syria” Middle East: A Chance for Russia?
The erosion of the regional elites’ confidence in the Obama administration and in the USA’s ability to protect them has caused many governments in the region to change their perception of America as omnipotent, even though it remains the most influential external player. Russia’s “return” to the Middle East has boosted but did not trigger this trend.
Russia has not supplanted the United States in the region, though this might be the perception following the success of Russia’s campaign in Syria. Moscow’s current presence in the region often affords a more rapid and convincing response, building the image of a “smoother operator.” Even so, the heady illusions in the wake of the triumph could throw Russia back to square one. Many regional governments are trying to use the opposition between Russia and the United States to pull ahead in their own games, often playing the Russia card at the table with Washington.
Russia’s participation in the Syrian conflict provides a vivid backdrop against which the American soft power agenda in the region is being assessed today. By engaging in a critical discussion of the growing role of Russia in the Middle East compared with the “withering” of American influence, Western political circles are reflecting on the crisis of their own American model and the image of the US in recent years and sending an implicit appeal to American elites to do what is needed to update this model.
In turn, Russia is gradually moving toward a “post-Syria” foreign policy phase in the Middle East and to a “post-military” phase in Syria itself. Questions like “Moscow has won the war in Syria but can it win the world?” have become commonplace on all western and many Russian discussion platforms. Indeed, it is one thing to monetise the image of a “strong player” yet quite another to convert it into the image of a “caring power.”
In the former area, some strategy contours are visible: increasing the number of weapons supply contracts, establishing military and technical cooperation with a number of states in the Middle East and North Africa, posing as a mediator in key conflict areas, etc. As for the latter, there are individual campaigns, such as the delivery of humanitarian aid to states in a difficult COVID-19 situation, but a more systemic approach is needed to organise soft power efforts.
In the meantime, it most important to demonstrate equal ability in waging war and building peace. In the broader sense, this is a test of avoiding the very trap of the “dialectics of state and country,” where the image of a “cruel Russia bombing hospitals” cultivated by geopolitical competitors nullifies any efforts made to project soft power.
“Be with Us — and Remain Yourself”: the Principles of Russian Soft Power
An inventory of soft power goals in foreign policy and of the tools for achieving them should begin with at least two things. First, we should set a relatively low bar for expectations, especially in the short term. Second, we need to recognise the objective limitations.
Russia obviously lacks the ability to organise exchange programmes comparable to those offered by the United States. Yet, Russia is able — and has the relevant experience — to open up its education market, especially in specific strategic specialties, to promising young people from the Middle East. This could involve various forms of assistance for their studies in Russia, followed by career support at home. Tomorrow’s elites in the region are not always formed from among graduates of Western universities.
It is hardly worth counting seriously on the cultural “Russification” of considerable parts of third country populations. Russian culture is, by nature, more “elitist” than American mass culture. Products of the latter are a priori targeted on diverse segments of the population and are almost universally digestible. In addition, Americans use other tools, such as their influence in the international economy and ability to market brands properly and appealingly either by offering accessibility and simplicity or, if appropriate, pushing others aside. Perhaps it would make sense to adopt some of these tricks?
A change is needed in the very approach to organising Russian centres of science and culture abroad. The notorious “Soviet touch” cannot compete with what the Americans, Europeans, or even Turks offer to the region’s population. Assuming the traditional specifics are a projection of nostalgia for the Soviet past on the part of some of Russian officials and diplomats, we cannot expect third country populations to share this nostalgia. Soft power is not a way to maintain historical inertia but an opportunity to direct passionate young people, tomorrow’s public opinion leaders in their own countries, to follow the right imperatives.
Discussions of soft power resources generally avoid the obvious: the basis of soft power is, first of all, how well things are going in your own house. It is difficult to call to combat lawlessness and injustice in international relations until there are clear victories over similar social ills on the domestic front. It is not easy to get nations and societies to embrace your culture, language and education, while you are condoning their decline at home, be it deliberately or through negligence. You cannot expect a third party to adopt your “thought codes” if your predominant attitude is to “chase the moment”, when what matters is that the budget is spent and an event ticked off the list. One reason “balalaika diplomacy” has been replicated so much in foreign policy is because it is stereotypical and therefore understandable, so seen as a quick, lazy and supposedly effective (though not always cheap) way of doing things.
It is important to understand that most elites and the ordinary populace in the Middle East base their impressions of Russia and assessments of its foreign policy on reporting in the Western media and materials from British and American think tanks. Since the collapse of the USSR, foreign policy information support has become one of the most flawed areas. Only in recent years have institutions started appearing in Russia that are at least somehow capable of making up for Moscow’s political and reputational losses over the past decades, telling about Russian politics directly, presenting the Russian narrative without distortions introduced by foreign propaganda, and attracting an increasing number of people in the Middle East who are interested in Russia.
In this work, among other things, it is crucial to make the right choice of communication strategy in each specific case: sometimes, Russia needs to create and consolidate its positive image (Syria, Egypt), at other times it has to improve it (Syria, the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf), and at yet others, it has still to “repackage” Soviet or imperial “codes” (Iraq, Iran, Algeria).
The humanitarian area is another complex and emotionally taxing way to the hearts of the target audience. It is hardly worth the effort if the country’s public diplomacy is focused primarily on quick and short-term public relations. Yet, in a situation where some powers are depriving important international organisations of financing while others are using the economic difficulties faced by states to buy up their assets in order to penetrate deeper into their economic and political structure, work in this direction can cultivate the image of a “caring power.” This is an opportunity to literally saturate the human dimension of the relations between the donor country and the population of the recipient country. There is already an understanding of how to build humanitarian policy in this direction correctly. It is important to preserve and direct this impulse in the right direction in practice.
Finally, a frequent criticism leveled at the Russian projection of soft power is the lack of any pronounced ideology in Russia’s foreign policy. Those who disagree believe that Russia does have a quasi-ideology for these purposes: for some, it is “conservatism,” for others “pure pragmatism,” both of which can work in the Middle East. Others, in contrast, are convinced that ideology confounds unnecessarily the freedom of foreign policy manoeuvre. They talk rather about the need for “one big idea” that can “anchor” the entire foreign policy strategy. Russia supposedly lacks such an idea, while each of the US, the European Union, China, Turkey and Iran do have one. And if the United States’ soft power policy seems to say: “do as we do — and become us,” then the EU’s logic is “do as we do — and be with us.” Russia’s several years of activity in the Middle East might allow us to formulate such an idea today: “be with us — and remain yourself.” This idea reflects the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of the Middle East states, on the one hand, and an orientation on cooperation, on the other; that is, without encroachment on the traditions, values, culture and political systems of these countries.
In general, soft power is often less costly than “hard” power and depends largely on the quality of local agents. Unlike military contracts, it does not bring quick profit, but investment in soft power is denominated in a different currency: people, their loyalty and gratitude (even if not expressed), their acceptance of your narrative, your vision of the future (if any) and the “thought code” of how to make this future real. If all these are available, the projection of soft power can be a valuable long-term investment.
From our partner RIAC
First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib
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
Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed
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.
What Does China-Iran Relations mean for United States?
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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