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Russia and Iran in Syria

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The world media is abuzz with news about the presidential elections in the United States, the fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh and the upcoming second wave of the COVID-19 epidemic. That being said, the situation in Syria remains very much in the focus of attention of analysts and political scientists.

Recently, against the backcloth of the developments in Syria, media outlets have increasingly been discussing issues pertaining to relations between Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI).

It is no secret that Iran was the first country to join the civil war in Syria that erupted in 2011. It was Tehran that provided emergency assistance to President Bashar Assad, preventing his overthrow by the opposition forces. What happened next did not unfold in a way Tehran expected though.

By the summer of 2014, The Islamic State terrorist organization (aka IS, ISIS, Daesh – all banned in Russia) had taken control of the eastern part of the country, announcing the creation of a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq with its capital in Raqqa.

In 2015, the Syrian government forces, the military contingent of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), led by General Qasem Soleimani, the Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as the pro-Iranian multinational Shiite formations suffered a series of serious setbacks putting in question the very existence of President Assad’s regime

Trying to save the situation, General Soleimani pays two visits to Moscow in late July and early August 2015, to discuss the situation in Syria.

Shortly after, Russia receives an official request for assistance from Damascus, and on September 30, the Russian Aerospace Forces launch military operations against ISIS terrorists, and ultimately crush the terrorist groups in Syria and preserve the country’s sovereign status.

In view of the anti-terrorist forces’ successes in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin said it was now time to withdraw all foreign armed forces from Syria.

“We believe that after the Syrian armed forces’ significant victories in the fight against terrorism, and with the start of a more active phase of the political process there, foreign armed forces will be withdrawn from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic,” President Putin said when meeting with Bashar Assad in Sochi on May 17, 2018.

Putin’s statement caused a mixed reaction in Tehran, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stating that Iranian forces were in Syria with the official permission of the authorities, and hinted that Tehran was not going to leave the Syrian territory, adding that it was too important for Iran geopolitically.

Russia views Syria as a multinational, multi-confessional, and at the same time a secular state, which maintains friendly relations with Moscow and respects its interests both in that country and in the Middle East as a whole (including the Russian air force base in Khmeimim and the naval station in Tartus.) Equally important for Russia is the fact that Syria has normal relations with its neighbors, primarily Israel and Turkey. With the destruction of the Islamic State organization, Moscow believes that the formation of a “new Syria” can only be ensured by peaceful means through activating the constitutional process that would involve all interested parties, including those opposed to Bashar Assad, whose continued stay in power is not something Russia will necessarily insist on in the future. 

Meanwhile, with the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee facing serious hurdles due to the deep divisions among its members, President Assad remains the only symbol of Syrian statehood. Moscow is fully aware of this and despite various views about Bashar Assad’s political future, is making every effort possible to strengthen Syria’s sovereign status. Armed forces subordinate to a legitimate leadership are a very important factor of sovereignty and statehood, and in this sense Russia has done a lot for Syria and its future.

During the five years of its presence in Syria, Russia has been working hard to reorganize, modernize and equip the Syrian army, improving its professional level, restoring the chain of command and combat readiness. Russia also helped with the formation, training and equipment of the 4th and 5th corps of the Syrian army, helped reorganize the “Power of the Tigers” elite unit, which scored numerous victories over the terrorists. This means that by reviving the armed forces subordinate exclusively to the Syrian state, Russia strengthened not the regime of Bashar Assad, but the Syrian statehood.

Iran, for its part, sees Syria as an outpost in its strategic struggle against Israel and “misguided Muslim regimes that have sold themselves out to world Zionism and American imperialism.” Tehran has made huge human and material sacrifices to erect this “fortress,” losing during its the nine-year participation in the Syrian war thousands of its fighters, including 11 generals. In addition, since 2011, Tehran has reportedly spent between $5 billion and $20 billion annually in assistance to Damascus.

Iran is paying such a high price in Syria for a reason, however, since it views the Arab country as a “golden link” – a term proposed by Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader – in a Shiite chain stretching from Iran westward across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea. This chain is also called the “Shiite belt” or “axis of resistance” (apparently to the United States and Israel). As Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, Commander of the Aerospace Forces of the IRGC, explained very frankly, “all members of the ‘Axis of Resistance’ are united, and we must join together to withdraw the American forces from the region and destroy the Zionist regime … Iran stretches from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and from Ansar Allah in Yemen to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

For Iran, the loss of Syria would mean a rupture of this “axis of resistance,” the loss of land routes to Lebanon and to its creation, Hezbollah, it would mean the loss of control over the Syrian-Israeli border, a serious loss of  credibility among Shiite groups in the Middle East, and, in general, a weakening of Tehran’s positions in the region.

Tehran intensified its activity in Syria following the destruction of the main terrorist forces, working on several tracks.

First, Iran has deployed in Syria the elite units of the Quds Special Forces, which are part of the IRGC and are fighting on the ground. Their officers also act as commanders of Shiite groups , as well as instructors and advisers to pro-Iranian armed formations subordinate to Damascus.

The Iranian-controlled Lebanese Hezbollah is the largest and most combat-ready of the Shiite organizations, boasting significant resources, including its own army, financial structures, and a large network of representative offices in the region. Hezbollah is one of the most powerful actors in the Syrian conflict.

In Syria, the Iranians are establishing their military bases in the most strategic areas and building warehouses with weapons, ammunition and material and technical means.

The IRGC is setting up all kinds of staging posts and warehouses for Hezbollah, which accumulate and store weapons and ammunition, including for further transportation to Lebanon. This is often done close to Russian military installations in order to secure against military strikes by Israel, which is also active in the region against Iranian military units, primarily  Hezbollah. Tehran knows that the Israelis will not launch missile and airstrikes on Russian servicemen and thus ensures the security of its facilities.

In its efforts to rebuild the Syrian armed forces, Iran, unlike Russia, is creating parallel non-state military structures not directly subordinate to Damascus, but answering to “pro-Iranian” Syrians or directly to IRGC officers. The Iranians are also trying to establish closest possible contacts with the Syrian army by offering the services of their commanders. The 4th Division is exactly one such formation.

Secondly, Iran is exercising a large-scale economic expansion in Syria, with its representatives actively buying real estate, various industrial enterprises (even those damaged by war), and land.

Deals are made either for Iranians or Syrians, representing Tehran’s interests in Syria – primarily Shiites and, to a lesser extent, Alawites. For example, in the capital Damascus, one can see a lot of advertisements and shop signs in Persian (Farsi). Iran is most actively expanding its presence in many of Syria’s economic sectors.

Thirdly, this is certainly an ideological expansion. The Iranians are actively promoting Shia principles among the Syrian population. Converting Sunnis to Shiites may not be easy, but in principle, it is possible. Before the events of 2010-2011, Syria was not a very religious country. Therefore, Syrians without any clear religious affiliation are the primary objects of Shiite proselytizing. Moreover, the Iranians are actively handing out various economic and financial privileges to many Syrian demographics, above all Alawites and Shiites, in the form of humanitarian aid, and carry out large-scale propaganda and PR work, and with good results too.

The Iranians enjoy strong positions in the highest echelons of the country’s military-political establishment, including members of President Assad’s inner circle and his security services. A prominent role here is played by Assad’s younger brother, Maher, a pro-Iranian politician, who commands many in Syria’s security forces.

As for Turkey, Sunni Arab countries, the United States and Israel, they are all wary of Tehran’s policy towards Syria.

Iran and its satellites see Israel as their main adversary in the region. For Russia, Israel is a reliable partner with the two countries having shared views on many aspects of the Syrian problem. So, shortly before the start of the Russian aerial campaign in Syria (September 30, 2015), Russia and Israel set up a special coordination center to ensure interaction between their militaries in this region.

Russia and Israel maintain close political and economic ties, including permanent contacts at the very top, interaction in the war on terror, in the field of security and intelligence, in the military-technical sphere and in space exploration. In 2019, Russia’s trade with the Jewish State stood at $2.25 billion, while with Iran – only $ 1.59 billion. Incidentally, Israel has a population of just 9.1 million, compared to 83.1 million in Iran.

Humanitarian ties between Russians and Israelis are also developing fast. And with good reason too, since there are around one million Jews currently living in Russia, while in Israel, Russian-speakers (immigrants from the former Soviet Union), according to various estimates, account for between 15 percent to 25 percent of the country’s 9.1-million-strong  population.  The countries also have a visa-free regime.

For several years now, Israeli warplanes have been striking Iranian and Hezbollah installations in Syria about once a week. When this happens, Russian air defenses do not fire at Israeli combat aircraft because Moscow wants to avoid an escalation of the conflict.

Russia is contributing heavily to the reduction of tensions between Israel on the one side and Iran and its satellites on the other. In September, Lebanese Hezbollah units were said to be leaving Syria in what observers said was the result of tacit agreements between Moscow, Tehran, Damascus and Ankara. There were objective reasons – mainly the tense political situation in Lebanon – that necessitated Hezbollah’s pullout from Syria, of course, but there is no denying Russia’s positive role in this.

Moscow also negotiated with Damascus and Tehran the withdrawal of pro-Iranian militias and armed units from southern Syria from the border with Israel and their replacement with pro-Russian units. In practice, this never happened though.

The Iranians and their supporters regard their presence in southern Syria near the Israeli border as a strategic asset in their standoff with the Jewish State since the Syrian-Israeli border is a very important psychological barrier in the Iranian-Israeli confrontation.

Even though there is no serious confrontation between Moscow and Tehran in Syria, of course, the past few years have seen occasional clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Iranian security forces there. However, this certainly can’t lead to a direct regional confrontation between Russia and Iran.

Many factors of Iran’s presence in Syria raise a lot of questions. This is clearly demonstrated by the interview that the former head of the Russian Reconciliation Center (2016), retired Lieutenant General Sergei Chvarkov, gave to RIA Novosti.

“In August 2018, Damascus and Tehran signed an agreement on military cooperation, which provides for Iran’s assistance in rebuilding the Syrian defense industry and the country’s infrastructure,” Sergei Chvarkov pointed out. “When implemented, the agreement can, on the one hand, strengthen the Iranians’ positions in Syria and further Assad regime’s dependence on Tehran. On the other hand, Iranian financing of Shiite groups and attempts to spread Shiism in originally Sunni territories can stoke up tensions with the Sunnis and Kurds inside Syria. Any further large-scale Iranian penetration into Syria will create a number of serious obstacles to the advancement of reforms and the development of the political process in Syria, and complicate relations with Israel, the United States, Turkey and the Sunni Arab countries. This will complicate the task of finding alternative foreign sources for rebuilding the country, since the efforts by Iran and Russia will clearly not be enough.”

Here we will interrupt General Chvarkov and recall the words of President Assad, who said that the restoration of the infrastructure of the Syrian Arab Republic would cost around $400 billion, which, according to his estimates, will take from 10 to 15 years.  Experts put the cost of rebuilding the country at $1.2 trillion.  A colossal amount of money that will prove hard to line up even by joint efforts of many countries.

“And the lack of funds will prevent achieving any visible success in restoring the country’s infrastructure, moving forward the political process, bringing back the refugees and reforming the army and special services,” General Chvarkov continues. “Moreover, the expansion of Iran’s influence in Syria will rule out the lifting of the US-imposed sanctions and prevent the supply of modern technologies and equipment needed to restore the economy and virtually all other spheres of state activity in Syria.”

Talking about the future, experts on Syria and Iran argue that Tehran is unlikely to exit Syria anytime soon. As General Chvarkov emphasized, “the fact that Iran has come to Syria to stay is evidenced by the treaties that have recently been signed between Syria and Iran.

Well, Iran could possibly withdraw from Syria in case of a serious deterioration in the socio-economic situation back home. Tehran could  indeed pull out some of its units – primarily Shiite ones, but in any case, Iran’s political, military, economic and ideological influence in Syria will not go anywhere.

From our partner International Affairs

Senior research assistant at RAS Institute of Oriental Studies, candidate of historical sciences

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Middle East

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

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From our partner RIAC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Does China-Iran Relations mean for United States?

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china iran

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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