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Middle East

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

Justice delayed is justice denied. I lost my family to Iran Regime’s barbarity

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Mohammad Shafaei’s family- The toddler in his mother’s arm is Mohammad Shafaei

On May 4, over 1,100 families of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Iran wrote a letter to the international community. We called on the United Nations and European and American governments to take immediate action in preventing the regime from further destruction of their loved ones’ graves.

I was one of the signatories. I have lost six of my relatives to the regime’s cruelty. I was seven years old when my parents were arrested for their democratic ideals and activism.

My father, Dr. Morteza Shafaei, was a well-respected and popular physician in Isfahan. He was admired by people because he was extremely compassionate and giving to others. He was brutally executed by the regime in 1981 simply because he sought a democratic future for his family and his compatriots. The mullahs also killed my mother, two brothers, Majid (only 16) and Javad, and one of my sisters, Maryam, along with her husband.

By the age of 8, I had lost my entire family, save for one sister, as a result of the regime’s executions and crimes against humanity.

Mohammad Shafaei

The 1988 massacre stands as one of the most horrendous crimes against humanity after World War II. In the summer of that year, based on a religious decree issued by Khomeini, then-Supreme Leader of the theocratic regime in Iran, tens of thousands of political prisoners were liquidated. Most of the victims belonged to the principal democratic opposition movement Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).

It is believed that the regime massacred at least 30,000 political dissidents that year in the span of a few months. This much was confirmed by the designated heir to the regime’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri both in his published memoires and leaked audiotape in 2016, in which he condemned the ongoing crime against humanity in August 1988 during a meeting with high-ranking regime officials.

Those officials continue to serve the regime today in high-ranking positions. Ebrahim Raisi, for example, who was a member of the “death committees” in charge of rounding up and killing the political prisoners, is currently occupying the highly sensitive post of the Judiciary Chief. He is expected to announce his candidacy to run for President during the June election. After the June 2009 uprising, he said, “Moharebeh (waging war on God) is sometimes an organization, like the hypocrites (MEK). Anyone who helps the MEK in any way and under any circumstances, because it is an organized movement, the title of Moharebeh applies.” According the Islamic Punishment Act, the punishment for Moharebeh is death.

For years, the clerical regime has been systematically and gradually destroying the graves of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Tehran and other cities. As the world learns more about the killings and the international outrage grows, Tehran’s mullahs are scrambling to clear all traces of their crimes against humanity.

Most of us have forgotten where exactly our loved ones are buried, many of them in mass graves. The campaign for justice for victims of 1988 has gained greater prominence and broader scope. International human rights organizations and experts have described the massacre as a crime against humanity and called for holding the perpetrators of this heinous crime to account.

Paranoid of the repercussions of international scrutiny into this horrific atrocity, the Iranian regime has embarked on erasing the traces of the evidence on the massacre by destroying the mass graves where they are buried. The regime has tried to destroy the mass graves of massacred political prisoners in Tehran’s Khavaran Cemetery in the latest attempt. Previously, it destroyed or damaged the mass graves of the 1988 victims in Ahvaz, Tabriz, Mashhad, and elsewhere.

These actions constitute the collective torture of thousands of survivors and families of martyrs. It is another manifest case of crime against humanity.  

The UN and international human rights organizations must prevent the regime from destroying the mass graves, eliminating the evidence of their crime, and inflicting psychological torture upon thousands of families of the victims throughout Iran. 

Moreover, the Iranian public and all human rights defenders expect the United Nations, particularly the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet, to launch an international commission of inquiry to investigate the massacre of political prisoners and summon the perpetrators of this heinous crime before the International Court of Justice.

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Middle East

Can Biden Bring Peace to the Middle East?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

As the fierce fighting between Israel and the Palestinians rages on, the Biden administration’s Middle East policy has been criticized for its relatively aloof, “stand back” approach that has resulted in the absence of any pressure on Israel to re-think its harsh mistreatment of the Palestinians, vividly demonstrated in the recent police attack at al-Aqsa mosque and the attempted eviction of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, viewed by the Palestinians as part of Israel’s “ethnic cleansing.”

Consequently, a UN Security Council draft resolution on the crisis has been reportedly held up by US, which has prioritized the familiar narrative of “Israel’s right to self-defense” ad nauseam, without the benefit any nuances that would reveal any fresh thinking on the problem on the part of the Biden administration.  As in the past, the new crisis in Israel-Palestinian relations has sharpened the loyalties and alliances, in effect binding the US government closer to its Middle East ally under the rainstorm of Palestinian rocket attacks, highlighting Israel’s security vulnerabilities in today’s missile age.  Determined to crush the Palestinian resistance, the mighty Israeli army has been pulverizing Gaza while, simultaneously, declaring state of emergency in the Arab sections of Israel, as if there is a military solution to an inherently political problem.  What Israel may gain from its current military campaign is, by all indications, bound to be elusive of a perpetual peace and will likely sow the seed of the next chapter in the ‘intractable’ conflict in the future.  

Both sides are in violation of the international humanitarian laws that forbid the indiscriminate targeting of civilian population and, no matter how justified the Palestinian grievances, they too need to abide by international law and consider the alternative Gandhian path of non-violent resistance, notwithstanding the colossal power of Israeli army.

As the editors of Israel’s liberal paper, Haaretz, have rightly pointed out, the problem is the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is highly unpopular, unable to form a government, afflicted with a corruption case, and who has been appeasing the extremist elements in Israeli politics who have no qualm about the illegal expropriation of Palestinian lands.  Israeli politics for its own sake needs to move to the center, otherwise the Israeli society as a whole will suffer, as more and more educated Israelis will leave the country, Israel’s recent gains through the Abrahams accord with the conservative Arab states will be essentially wiped out, as these states will need to cater to the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiments at home or face serious legitimation problems, and Israel’s regional rivals led by Iran will continue to harvest from the present crisis.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any political will in Washington to spur a political shift in Israel that would secure better results in terms of the elusive Middle East peace and both President Biden and the Democratic Party establishment are concerned that their Republican opponents will seize on any tangible US pressure applied on Israel.  In other words, domestic US priorities will continue for the foreseeable future to hamper a much-needed corrective Washington influence on an ally that receives 4 billion dollar military aid annually and, yet, is unwilling to allow the White House to have any input on its handling of the Palestinians at home and the West Bank and Gaza.  

But, assuming for a moment that the Biden administration would somehow muster the will to stand up to Netanyahu and pressure him to cease its massive attacks on Gaza, then such a bold move would need to be coordinated with a deep Arab outreach that would, simultaneously, persuade the Palestinian groups led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to go along with a US-initiated cease-fire, followed by related efforts at UN and regional level to bring about the groundwork for a more enduring peace, such as by holding a new international peace conference, similar to the Oslo process.  

At the moment, of course, this is wishful thinking and the protagonists of both sides in this terrible conflict are more focused on scoring against each other than to partake in a meaningful peace process.  In other words, an important prerequisite for peace, that is the inclination for peaceful resolution of the conflict instead of resorting to arms, is clearly missing and can and should be brought about by, first and foremost, a capable US leadership, sadly hitherto missing.

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Middle East

Israel-Palestine Conflict Enters into Dangerous Zone

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Palestinians react as Israeli police fire a stun grenade during clashes at Damascus Gate on Laylat al-Qadr during the holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem's Old City, May 9, 2021. /Reuters

Since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in mid-April 2021, tension has escalated, with frequent clashes between police and Palestinians. The threatened eviction of some Palestinian families in East Jerusalem has also caused rising anger. But when Israeli security forces entered and attacked the unarmed Muslim worshipers, damaged the property, and humiliated the families, the situation turned into conflict.

Since the irrational and illogical creation of the Jewish State in the middle of the Muslim World, the tension started and emerged into few full-fledged armed conflicts and wars like; 1948–49, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2006 wars/ conflicts. Tensions are often high between Israel and Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Gaza is ruled by a Palestinian group called Hamas, which has fought Israel many times. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank complain that they’re suffering because of Zionists’ expansionist actions. Israel’s severe violations of human rights and extreme atrocities against Palestinians left Palestinians with no option other than protest and agitate. But Israel suppresses them and uses all dirty tricks to keep them silent.

It is worth mentioning that the United Nations Security Council has passed several resolutions to settle the Israel-Palestine issue peacefully. But Israel has not implemented either of them and kept using force to push them out and settle Jews in their land.

The State of Israel has been enjoying undue supported by the US, irrespective of who is president, but all of them support Israel unconditionally. Israel is the most favored nation of the US and the largest beneficiary of American aid, assistance, and support.

Ex-President Donald Trump helped Israel establish diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Donald Trump favored Netanyahu, dramatically moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His daughter and son-in-law were the facilitators for his support to Israel.

Till last news, at least 56 Palestinians have died under an array of aerial bombardments of the Gaza Strip. Five Israelis were killed too. Rockets, bullets, and rocks are flying around Israel and the Palestinian territories with catastrophic intensity in the latest wave of violence that periodically marks the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Palestinian protesters run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli security forces amid clashes at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound on May 10, 2021, ahead of a planned march to commemorate Israel’s takeover of Jerusalem in 1967 Six-Day War.  Security forces have set on fire the centuries-old holy Mosque. Serious communal violence has broken out within Israel between Arab citizens and Jews. Fires were lit, a synagogue burned, a Muslim cemetery trashed, police cars set aflame, and an Arab-Israeli man killed. The mayor of Lod termed it a “civil war.”

The ferocity of the fast-escalating conflict might be extremely dangerous as Israel uses hi-tech, advanced, lethal weapons. A week ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed close to losing power after the climax of four inconclusive elections. The outbreak of hostilities has allowed him the opportunity to make his latest appearance as a tough guy and ended coalition talks by rival politicians. He might politicize the conflict in his favor.

There is a severe danger of spreading this conflict to a large-scale war, which might engulf the regional countries. There already exists tension among Israel and few regional powers. The recent Israeli attacks on Russian bases in Syrian may also widen the conflict.

Any war in the middle-East will have dire consequences globally. It is appealed to the UN and all peace-loving nations and individuals to speed up all-out efforts to stop the conflict at this initial stage and avert further bloodshed. It is demanded that the Israel-Palestine issue must be settled according to the resolutions passed by UNSC. Wish immediate peace, sustainable peace, and permanent peace in the Middle East and globally.

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