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US Economic Sanctions are Pushing Iran into a Closer Relationship with Russia and China

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The Trump Administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the unanimous United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the “Iran nuclear deal”—and the enactment of an unprecedented “maximum pressure” sanctions regime on the Islamic Republic, has amounted to a strategic-level strike on the economy of this country of 80 million.

These severest of sanctions were intended to usher in a quick counterrevolution by more secular and relatively benign elements, or at least force the regime into more concessions in a revised nuclear deal, have instead been characterised by their unintended consequences. The sanctions have rapidly reversed the trends of Iranian political culture in favor of the Islamist hardliners, and otherwise forced Iran to become self-sufficient across all industries, including arms, and less reliant on oil rentier element of its economy—a transition that tends to stabilise a country. 

But, that’s not all; reeling from what amounts to an economic blockade, Iranian foreign policy has shifted away from its traditional habitus of strategic isolation—the “neither East nor West” political predisposition established by the Islamic revolution’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. Necessity is the mother of all invention, and Iran has been forced to look to China and Russia for every national security need to avoid the impact of sanctions. China and Russia, ascendant in global geopolitics and locked in a reinvigorated cold war with the West, are in sort of the same boat. The main rivals of the US are cautiously weighing the costs of an informal economic and security bloc, in part to mitigate the impact of US sanctions and other economic pressures on them as well. 

For China, this careful strategy is in part reflected in the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” intent signed upon Xi Jinping’s visit to Tehran in January 2016, shortly after the

implementation of the Iran nuclear deal.  But, to carefully balance its power projection strategies with everyone in the region without appearing to take sides, China inked this strategic partnership at the same time that it signed a similar strategic partnership agreement with Saudi Arabia in Riyadh.  Rather than something truly unique that signaled a strategic shift in China’s geopolitical power-balancing strategy, its joint strategy vision with Iran was simply a boilerplate framework that the People’s Republic typically uses to structure many of its bilateral relations. It includes political, economic, and military security agreements, along with the strategic aim of advancing the “multi-polarisation process of the international system,” which is code for rolling back US hegemony. China has not yet even acted upon its strategic partnership plan in Iran as it has for the Islamic Republic’s regional rivals who enjoy even closer military, political, and economic ties with Beijing, and more Chinese investment on a per-capita basis. China’s cautious investment approach with Iran, for example, leaves it in a distant third, behind the Beijing’s investment with its neighbors, the UAE ($6.23 billion) and Pakistan ($4.24 billion).

Notwithstanding China’s cautious strategy to play all sides to advance its regional rise, the lure of a closer partnership with hydrocarbon-rich Iran was spelled out in a detailed study of the merits of an overland energy pipeline from Iran through Pakistan. Written by Chinese scholars Fei-fei Guo, Cheng-feng Huang, and Xiao-ling Wu, the study concluded that “China urgently needs to open up new energy channels to reduce the reliance on the Malacca Strait,” a strategic logistics corridor easily denied in a conflict with either the US or India. But, China’s reluctance to push for Iranian membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and China’s refusal thus far to implement the leaked draft strategic partnership with Iran, is pragmatic on two fronts:  First, the reluctance avoids souring its regional relations with the Eastward-turning and Iran arch-rival Saudi Arabia.  Second, the reluctance reflects Beijing’s apolitical, economically-safe, foreign policy culture that avoids inflaming tensions with the United States by blatantly violating the maximum pressure sanctions.  The far reach of the newest US sanctions in the construction, mining, manufacturing, and textile sectors established by Executive Order 13902has left Chinese investors wary of doing business with Iran, especially given that the People’s Republic signed the first phase of its trade deal with the US in January 2020.  That said, Middle East strategic analyst James Dorsey called our attention to a July 2020 op-ed in a Chinese Communist party newspaper written by Middle East scholar Fan Hongda that warned of a point in the deteriorating relations with the US that violating US sanctions against Iran would be viewed by China as a benefit outweighing the costs.  That possibility inched closer that same month when the US sanctioned eleven major Chinese corporations for alleged human rights violations.

But the near-term prospect of a formal Sino-Iranian strategic partnership aside, maximum pressure sanctions are helping China both economically and in the security arena.  Although the Chinese government officially reduced its purchases of Iranian oil to zero on 2020, it is still effectively defying US sanctions and purchasing Iranian oil via Malaysia.  China is doing this because it is receiving that oil from Iran at a discount of as much as 32 percent over what might be a promise of decades as a condition for defying the US over its sanctions on Iran’s oil. China’s interest in cornering the market on Iranian oil is part of its broader attempt to diversity its oil sources from the Persian Gulf, a volatile region which supplies half of its oil demand. The People’s Republic’s interest in Iranian oil despite the sanctions stems from its concern that the 2.16 barrels per day it imports from Saudi Arabia is a source that is in jeopardy if the US could pressure the Kingdom to cease its exports to China.

China’s roll out of Xi Jinping’s$124 billion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for market and trade expansion is also forcing Beijing to break out of 15-year pattern of low-level foreign direct investments  in Iran—investments that have averaged only $1.8 billion annually with a high of a mere $3.23 billion in 2018.  The pressure of sanctions on Iran, combined with the lure of joining China’s BRI, have forced Iran to give Chinese investors otherwise unattainable investment deals across various industries. Consequently, China is planning vast investments in Iran’s hydrocarbon industry, highways, high-speed rail, ports,and power plants, as well as integrating Iran into its 5G internet network and its GPS system. All of that will serve as the infrastructure for the BRI. And, the kinds of investments that China is making in Iran are those that will remain safe even if Iran’s political-economy does not appreciably improve or even worsens; they are the same kind of BRI-related investments it makes in every weak country.

               For Russia also, the US near-economic blockade on Iran is helpful on both the economic and security fronts. Expandingon the Iran-Russia joint commission began back in 2018, Russian Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodinled a senior parliamentary and governmental delegation to Iran in late January for this purpose of bringing Iran further into Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. Iran seems to have agreed to be a  key link in Russia and India’s sea and rail system known as the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC)—an intermodal international system that links India by a short sea distance to Iran’s port in the Gulf of Oman through Azerbaijan and into Russia and onto Northern Europe. This economic trade infrastructure would parallel and compete with both Egypt’s Suez Canal and with China’s BRI, cutting distance from India to Europe by 40 percent and costs by 30 percent. Already, Russia is boosting its strong trade and broader economic cooperation with Iran across fifteen sectors. Russia’s planned investment in Iran includes ferries and other transportation projects linking the two countries, infrastructure linking domestic banking networks, promoting mutual tourism, and research and investment in various industries such as aerospace, health, nuclear and conventional energy, mining, and higher education.

Economic interdependence tends to bring countries with similar political cultures closer in the security arena, and there is evidence that the US maximum pressure sanctions are hastening some sort of security axis between these three prominent countries that the US views as its chief enemies.  As the first step towards such a security axis,  Russia, and China included Iran in small-scale symbolic joint naval exercises at the end of 2019.  Then, in September 2020, Russia and China invited Iran (along with Pakistan) to join the major Caucasus 2020 (Kavkaz 2020) military drills, involving 80,000 personnel.Iran and China’s nascent strategic partnership agreement includes intelligence sharing, joint training and exercises, and joint research and weapons development, evidenced by the Chinese assistance with Iran’s missile program.Iran and Russia’s budding strategic security relations seem less restricted. Before the recently expired Iran arms embargo, the Islamic Republic was already the third largest purchaser of Russian military equipment, after China and India.  According to the 2019 unclassified report by the US Defense Intelligence Agency, “Iran’s potential acquisitions after the lifting of UNSCR 2231 restrictions include Russian Su-30 fighters, Yak-130 trainers and T-90 MBTs.” To that end, in late August 2020, Iranian Defence Minister Amir Hatami’s attended Russia’s International Military and Technical Forum Army-2020 in the Patriot Park near Moscow. This followed a post by Tehran’s ambassador to Russia, Kazem Jalali, on his Telegram account that the military partnership between Russia and Iran is “growing by the day” and that “We will soon open a new chapter in the Russia-Iran military-technical partnership.” 

But, like China’s apolitical broad-based investment strategy, both the Russia government and business executives have good reasons to limit their strategic partnership with Iran so as not to threaten their relations and economic ties with other bigger prizes in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, and so as not to come under US sanctions. For this reason, in 2019, Russia refused to sell Iran the same S-400 air defence system that it sold to Turkey, one of the most powerful members of NATO in Europe.

So, despite China’s and Russia’s reluctance to publicly embrace closer ties with Iran, what seems clear is that the maximum pressure sanctions are bringing the three primary antagonists of the US closer, and that the sanctions are already benefitting China and Russia in both the economic and in the security arenas.  Given their permanent status with veto power on the UN Security Council, this closer relationship will no doubt result in two vetoes of any US initiatives within the UN framework to restrict Iranian power going forward. In addition to these reliable vetoes at the UN, the growing special strategic relationship with China and or Russia will—if sanctions continue to push it this way—provide the Islamic Republic both political and military cover, intelligence, and funding for any future nuclear weapons program or its destabilizing foreign policy in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Although it’s too late to reverse all of the unintended consequences of the shift in US policy toward Iran, a reduction in sanctions in exchange for a recommitment to the JCPOA could allow the Islamic Republic to reenact its strategic aversion to foreign entanglements with non-Islamic countries. Such a more geopolitically isolated Iran—with a new generation of more secular, globally connected youth and elite—would probably be far less of a threat than the one that is now pursuing a strategic alignment with the West’s other two primary rivals.

All statements of fact, analysis, or opinion are the author’s, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, Department of Defense or any of its components, or the US government.

Dr. David Belt leads the broader Middle East concentration at National Intelligence University, in Washington DC—the graduate institution of the 17 agencies of the US intelligence community.

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Middle East

What is the public sphere today in Turkey?

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The concept of public sphere, which was started to be examined in Europe in the 1960s, has different meanings according to different perspectives, as a definite definition cannot be made today, and this situation creates important discussion topics about the use of such spaces.

Long debated the definition of public space in Europe, in Turkey also began to affect 1980”l year. After the 1980 coup, some communities, which were kept out of sight, fearing that the Republic project would be harmed, demanded the recognition of their ethnic and cultural identities. Thus the concept of the public sphere in Turkey, especially since the early 1990s to be addressed in various academic publications, use and began to discuss political issues.

Especially in the past years, the public sphere debates on the headscarf issue were discussed from various angles. The debate started with Prime Minister Erdogan’s criticism of President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who did not invite his wife to a NATO dinner, saying “Dolmabahçe is not a public space”, and the President of the Council of Higher Education, Prof.Dr. Erdoğan Teziç; He responded by emphasizing that the public sphere is not a “ geographical definition ” but a functional concept.

Before defining the public sphere, the understanding that shows that the definition of space in the Ottoman Empire was shaped as less private, private, very private and very very private is still one of the biggest reasons for the definition of the public sphere. While expressing, it reminds that he entered the Ottoman literature in a different way in the 19th century. Thinkers who indicate the association of the public sphere with the state in general express it as the sphere that is related to the state, not the “public”. “When you say ‘public’, the state comes to mind immediately; We mean something like government administration, its organs, organizations, officials, or activities, an official domain that is owned or run under state control. However, as Habermas said, the public sphere is above all the sphere in which the public opinion is formed in our social life ”.

As citizens of the city, we observe that some projects have spread to the spaces defined as public space due to the fact that today’s public space and public space concepts have not been defined precisely and construction activities have increased due to the anxiety of rent.

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Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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