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Why Iran Is Turning East

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Beijing and Tehran are preparing a whopping 25-year economic and security deal according to which China would invest up to $400 billion in Iran. We need not go into details on the proposed agreement as it has already been discussed at length, but it is worthwhile to delve into the geopolitical and historical background that drives the two countries toward one another.

When the provisional document was leaked, many analysts expressed the opinion that China and Iran are now more closely aligned because of increased US pressure. This is an understandable assumption, but there is much more going on. Iran’s turn to China did not appear out of the blue; it has been in preparation for years. The deal represents a logical reaction of the Iranian political elite to the changing geopolitical order in Eurasia, namely the rise of China.

Like most states in the world, Iran is interested in engaging with the emerging Eurasian powerhouse. China was Iran’s major trading partner during the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who initiated the Islamic Republic’s “Look to the East” program.

Iran is being opportunistic, as the center of global energy consumption is shifting from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. Between 2017 and 2040, oil and gas demand is projected to grow significantly and Iran quite naturally wants a share of that market.

Tehran’s shift to the East is also driven by a lack of options. The regime’s relations with Russia are generally described as close, but their mutual distrust in a number of geopolitical theaters prevents Tehran from “going north” to seek Russia’s Eurasian alternative. Nor is the collective West an option as pressure from the US continues to mount. That leaves China as the only viable alternative through which to alleviate Iran’s difficult economic situation.

But the proposed deal is not only about the evolving geopolitical order in Eurasia. China and Iran have much in common historically. Both are continuous, millennia-old civilizations that precede the Western Westphalian concept of state-to-state relations and indeed effectively oppose that notion. A strong sense of history in both China and Iran makes their political elites particularly sensitive to a Western military or economic presence near or inside their home countries. Both detest Western colonialism and have spent decades trying to neutralize the last vestiges of that bygone era.

But the distrust China and Iran share toward the collective West (we would include Russia as well) is also driven by the states’ similar geography. Iran and China are both effectively closed in. Deserts, mountains, steppes, and seas surround the densely populated Iranian and Chinese heartlands. Historically this has helped both to be better defended against invaders, but it also created a fear of foreign encirclement that is deeply ingrained in the psyches of both political elites. This common anxiety drives the two states closer to one another as Western pressure ramps up.

Both states also find common ground with regard to connectivity across the Eurasian landmass and see themselves as central to any large-scale infrastructure projects or trade routes spanning the continent. This centrality on the ancient or modern Silk Road is a foundational block in the Chinese and Iranian geopolitical self-perceptions. It is no wonder that one of the key clauses in the proposed deal deepens Iran’s integration into China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This also explains Iran’s vision of the BRI as a geo-economic rather than an imperialist initiative. This perspective contrasts with that of the West, which often calls the BRI a “neo-colonialist” project.

Beyond their common perception of the Silk Road, there is much inherent in Persian and Chinese historical and ideological ideas that pulls the two states toward one another. Tehran and Beijing both support the concept of a multipolar world, seek limits on US power, and try to pursue independent foreign policies.

Thus what Iran and China are trying to achieve—while motivated to an extent by immediate geopolitical developments—reflects long-term civilizational and ideological motives.

It can even be argued that Iran’s agreement with China fits into its historical strategy of hedging against larger geopolitical rivals. Today it is the US; in the 16th century it was the Ottoman Empire against which the Persians tried to create coalitions with Europeans. In the early 19th century the Persians allied with Napoleon’s France ostensibly against the British Empire, but on the ground, the move was more against the Russians and their gains in the South Caucasus—lands traditionally regarded by the Persians as part of their imperial domain. In the 1820s the Persians worked with London to halt Russia’s onslaught. This pattern of hedging continued into the 20th century, when the powerful Soviet Union drew Iran closer to the US. The playing of the “Chinese card” is thus a traditional Iranian diplomatic method rooted in the country’s history and perception of changing regional or global balances of power.

The proposed Iran-China deal is huge and might well have a defining influence on the regional balance of power and China’s economic expansion in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. However, the widely held assumption that the deal will be completely fulfilled is debatable.

Contrary to what many argue, China’s and Iran’s past economic involvement with one another was less than uniformly positive. Iranians remember how Chinese companies tried to exploit their lack of economic alternatives by demanding tougher trade terms, setting high prices, and bringing little economic results for the local workforce and budget. In 2012, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) stopped operations at the South Pars natural gas field when Iran moved to abrogate the company’s contract. CNPC was later substituted with Petropars. In 2014, another of CNPC’s contracts—the Azadegan oil field—was canceled, and difficulties continued into the following years.

Moreover, it is not clear how effective the deal will be in light of existing US sanctions. The Chinese have been hesitant to undermine their international position over anti-Iranian sanctions. Similar behavior has been observed in China’s relations with sanctions-hit Russia.

In Iran there is also a general distrust toward greater powers. If all the points in the proposed deal are carried out, the Iranian political elite risks ceding a portion of state sovereignty to China. That is very much against the principles of the 1979 revolution and makes the likelihood of the complete success of the deal questionable at best.

Iran is entering a difficult point in its history. Regional and wider Eurasian geopolitics are driving the country toward the Indo-Pacific and specifically China. But the regime’s engagement with Beijing is fraught with problems. Past experience was not positive, and the Iranians are highly sensitive to foreign pressure—whether that be from the Americans or from Asian companies seeking to exploit Tehran’s weak bargaining position. This is bound to cause internal political tensions. Indeed, many from the Iranian political elite have already criticized the Iran-China deal. This means that despite its mammoth size and ambitions, it is far from guaranteed.

Author’s note: first published in BESA Center

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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Middle East

Qatar World Cup offers lessons for human rights struggles

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It’s a good time, almost 12 years after the world soccer body, FIFA, awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup hosting rights and five months before the tournament, to evaluate the campaign to reform the country’s erstwhile onerous labor system and accommodate fans whose lifestyles violate restrictive laws and/or go against deeply rooted cultural attitudes.

Ultimately the balance sheet shows a mixed bag even if one takes into account that Qatari autocracy has proven to be more responsive and flexible in responding to pressure by human rights and labour groups than its Gulf brothers in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

On the plus side, the initial wave of condemnation of the country’s repressive kafala labour system that put employees at the mercy of their employers persuaded Qatar to become the first Gulf state, if not the first Arab state, to engage with its critics.

Engagement meant giving human rights groups and trade unions access to the country, allowing them to operate and hold news conferences in Qatar, and involving them in drafting reforms and World Cup-related model labour contracts. This was unprecedented in a region where local activists are behind bars or worse and foreign critics don’t even make it onto an inbound flight.

The reforms were imperfect and not far-reaching enough, even if Qatar introduced significant improvements in the conditions for unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

Furthermore, on the plus side, the hosting rights sparked limited but nonetheless taboo-breaking discussions that touched on sensitive subjects such as LGBT rights and the granting of citizenship to non-nationals.

Qataris openly questioned the granting of citizenship to foreign athletes so they could be included in the Qatar national team for the 2016 Olympics rather than medical personnel and other professionals who had contributed to national welfare and development.

Hosting the World Cup has further forced Qatar, albeit in a limited fashion, to come to grips with issues like LGBT rights that do not simply violate the country’s laws but go against its social grain to produce an inclusive tournament.

In some ways, that may have been more difficult than reforming the labour regime if one considers the difference between standing up for democratic freedoms that may have broad public support and the recognition of LGBT rights. In contrast to democratic rights, opposition to LGBT rights is deeply engrained in Qatar and other Muslim societies. It would likely be socially rejected, even if they were enshrined in law.

The difference means that the defense of LGBT and other socially controversial rights forces activists and human and LGBT rights groups to rethink their strategies and adopt alternative, more long-term approaches.

It also means that they will have to embrace less Western-centric attitudes frequently prevalent in the campaign to reform Qatar’s labour system. Those attitudes were evident in debates that were also often skewed by bias, prejudice, bigotry, and sour grapes.

Moreover, the criticism often failed to consider the context. As a result, achieving results and pushing for reform was, to a degree, undermined by what appeared to be a ganging up on Qatar and a singling out of the Gulf state.

Labour is an example. Human rights groups and trade unions treated onerous labour conditions in Qatar, even if the World Cup turned it into a prime target, as uniquely Qatari rather than a global problem that manifests itself in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia and even Western democracies like Britain. Recent reporting by The Guardian showed that expatriate medical and caregiver personnel face similar curtailing of rights and abuse in Britain.

By the same token, Qatar was taken to task for being slow in implementing its reforms and ensuring that they were applied not only to World Cup projects but nationwide.

The fact is that lagging enforcement of policies and legal changes is a problem across the broad spectrum of Qatari policies and reform efforts, including the Gulf state’s high-profile, fast-paced, mediation-driven foreign policy.

Qatar’s handling of illegal recruitment fees paid by workers is a case in point.

The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, the Qatari organizer of the World Cup, has obliged companies it contracts to repay the fees without workers having to provide proof of payment. Companies have so far pledged to repay roughly USD$28.5 million to some 49,000 workers, $22 million of which have already been paid out.

It is a step the government could apply nationally with relative ease to demonstrate sincerity and, more fundamentally, counter the criticism.

Similarly, in response to complaints raised by human rights groups and others, the government could also offer to compensate families of workers who die on construction sites. Again, none of these measures would dent Qatari budgets but would earn the Gulf state immeasurable goodwill.

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Middle East

‘Effort and patience’ required to restore Iran nuclear agreement

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A view from the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant in Iran. (file) Photo: IAEA/Paolo Contri

Despite diplomatic engagements, restoring the so-called Iran nuclear agreement continues to be hindered by political and technical differences, the UN political and peacebuilding chief told the Security Council on Thursday.
 

In the landmark accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – reached in 2015 between Iran, the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom – Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear programme and open its facilities to international inspections in exchange for sanctions relief.

In 2018, then-President Trump withdrew the US from the agreement and reinstated the sanctions.

Achieving the landmark JCPOA took determined diplomacy. Restoring it will require additional effort and patience,” said UN political affairs chief, Rosemary DiCarlo.

Although the landmark Joint Commission to restore the Plan resumed in November 2021, she acknowledged that despite their determination to resolve the issues, the US and other participants are yet to return to “full and effective implementation of the Plan, and [Security Council] resolution 2231”.

Appealing to both

Together with the Secretary-General, she urged Iran and the US to “quickly mobilize” in “spirit and commitment” to resume cooperation under the JCPOA.

They welcomed the reinstatement by the US in February of waivers on nuclear non-proliferation projects and appealed to the country to lift its sanctions, as outlined in the Plan, and extend oil trade waivers.

Together they also called on on Iran to reverse the steps it has taken that are inconsistent with its nuclear-related commitments under the Plan.

Monitoring enrichment

While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been unable to verify the stockpile of enriched uranium in Iran, it estimates that there is currently more than 15 times the allowable amount under the JCPOA, including uranium enriched to 20 and 60 per cent, which Ms. DiCarlo called “extremely worrying”.

Moreover, on 8 and 20 June, IAEA reported that Iran had started to install additional advanced centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz and began feeding uranium into advanced centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Fordow.

In his latest report, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, informed the Council that the UN agency’s ability to verify and confirm the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities are key to the JCPOA’s full and effective implementation.

Iran’s decision to remove site cameras and place them and the data they collected under Agency seals, “could have detrimental implications”.

Improved relationships ‘key’

Bilateral and regional initiatives to improve relationships with Iran remain “key” and should be encouraged and built upon, according to Ms. DiCarlo.

Additionally, Member States and the private sector are urged to use available trade instruments to engage with Iran and Tehran is requested to address their concerns in relation to resolution 2231 (2015) on its nuclear issues.

The senior UN official also drew attention to annex B of the resolution, updating ambassadors in the Council on nuclear-related provisions, ballistic missiles and asset freezing.

We hope that diplomacy will prevail – UN political chief

Triumph for multilateralism

The JCPOA was a triumph for non-proliferation and multilateralism,” said the UN political affairs head.

However, after many years of uncertainty, she warned that the Plan is now at “a critical juncture” and encouraged Iran and the US to build on recent momentum to resolve remaining issues.

“The Secretary-General is convinced there is only one path to lasting peace and security for all Member States, and that is the one based on dialogue and cooperation,” she said.  “We hope that diplomacy will prevail”. 

In Iran’s best interest

Olof Skoog, Head of the European Union Delegation to the UN, speaking in his capacity as the Coordinator of the Joint Commission established by the JCPOA, to the Security Council, recognized the negative economic consequences that the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA has had on Iran but affirmed that restoring the agreement is “the only way” for the country to reap its full benefits.

He reminded that the Plan would comprehensively lift sanctions, encourage greater international cooperation, and allow Iran to reach its “full economic potential”.  

“It is, therefore, important to show the necessary political will and pragmatism to restore the JCPOA,” said Ambassador Skoog who, while acknowledging the sense of urgency, counselled against “escalatory steps” and to preserve sufficient space for the diplomatic efforts to succeed.

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Middle East

Dynamic diplomacy: From SCO to BRICS

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Image source: Tehran Times

The tree of Iran’s balanced foreign policy approach is on the verge of being a one-year-old child. Stronger than before, Iran is pursuing dynamic diplomacy in a variety of cities such as Doha, Ashgabat, and other capitals. Baghdad will also join the list soon.

While Iran’s top negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani is engaged in intensive negotiations in Qatar with the United States through the European Union delegation, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and his oil and foreign ministers are in Ashgabat pursuing transit diplomacy as well as the legal regime of the Caspian Sea with the littoral states. 

Prior to his departure for Ashgabat on Wednesday, Raisi spoke to reporters about the purpose of his visit to Turkmenistan. 

“This visit is taking place at the invitation of the esteemed president of the brotherly and friendly country of Turkmenistan in order to attend the Caspian Sea littoral states summit,” he remarked.

The President called the Caspian Sea a common heritage and capital for the littoral states with more than 270 million people. 

“We have good relations with the littoral states of the Caspian Sea, but in addition to reviewing the legal regime of the Caspian Sea and peaceful use of the sea for the purpose of improving security at the sea, what will be discussed at the sixth summit of the Caspian Sea littoral states is cooperation between countries in the fields of transport, transit, trade, management of marine living resources, environment, as well as preventing the presence of outsiders in the sea, which is also agreed upon by all coastal countries.”

Prior to the beginning of the summit, Raisi met Serdar Berdimuhamedow, Turkmenistan’s President, as well as Chairman of the People’s Council of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.

During the meeting with the President of Turkmenistan, Raisi pointed out that the implementation of the memoranda of understanding and cooperation documents signed by the two countries during Berdimuhamedow’s recent visit to Tehran will accelerate promotion of cooperation between the two countries.

Later, Raisi met with the Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev. 

During the meeting, Raisi reminded Aliyev that the presence of the Israeli regime in any part of the world undermines security there.

The president also had a brief meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the summit. 

There’s little doubt that Tehran has not put all its eggs into the basket of the JCPOA revival, as it actively seeks to establish trade relations with the neighbors. It’s short-sighted thinking to assume that Iran has to wait for the United States to return to the JCPOA, while it can enjoy the benefits of regional alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), or BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). 

On Monday, Iran’s former Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, who was holding his last presser, told the Tehran Times correspondent that Tehran has submitted a membership request to the BRICS secretariat via Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian. While dynamically trailing balanced and active diplomacy with the neighbors, Tehran is awaiting Washington’s serious political decisions to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Source: Tehran Times

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