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How Academics and Educational Institutions help the realisation of BRI in the Gulf



The roles of academics and educational institutions in the implementation of China’s Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) should not be neglected. From the time the initiative was introduced, academic intellectuals and institutions have indeed played a crucial role in promoting and socialising the BRI.

When drawing up the plan for the BRI and the AIIB, Xi and his teams seemed to acknowledge the importance of intellectuals and academic establishments in the implementation of the project. Vision and Action of the BRI states that the initiative will involve academic efforts, such as sending “more students to each other’s countries”, granting “government scholarships”, and establishing “cooperation in jointly running schools”. Such objectives have manifested in the implementation of the BRI in the Gulf as a means to create legitimacy for the initiative.

One important institution is the Qatar-PKU Chair in Middle Eastern Studies, which was established during the Emir of Qatar’s visit to Beijing in mid-2014, between the Qatar government and Peking University (PKU). The most noticeable initiative by the centre was a public lecture entitled: “China’s Foreign Policy and the GCC” at Qatar University. The main topic of the discussion was the BRI; one of the speakers, Professor Wu, talked about the BRI, and how the initiative would benefit Qatar and the Gulf.

Shanghai University also played a role in inciting public debate about the initiative in the Gulf. In March 2016, the university cooperated with the Centre for Turkish Studies, the Maltepe University, and Sociology of Islam Journal to organised a conference titled: “Neoliberalism with Chinese Characteristics in the Middle East” at Qatar University  where topics related to the BRI, the AIIB, and the Chinese Dream were discussed, including the Chinese model of development and the implications of the BRI in the Gulf.

Academic institutions are also crucial in forming moral and intellectual legitimacy for the financial aspect of the BRI. For example, the China-UAE Conference on Islamic Banking has been held in China since 2015. The conference, which is organised by various Chinese and Gulf institutions, such as China Islamic Finance Club as well as the Dubai Centre for Islamic Banking and Finance, discusses issues such as ways to enhance the Islamic finance aspect of the BRI’s implementation in the Gulf.

Confucius Institutes

The Confucius Institute is another academic institution that plays an important role in the consensus-building efforts behind the initiative. At a conference in summer 2015, the Confucius Institutes’ Chief Executive proclaimed that the Institutes, which are the Chinese Ministry of Education-affiliated institutions founded to teach Chinese language and other China-related courses globally, involve themselves in the implementation of the BRI and the AIIB.

Internationally, the Confucius Institutes have organised several training programs for the construction of infrastructures related to the BRI. Additionally, the institutes have held public

conferences and seminars on the initiative as an effort to socialise the project.

In the Gulf, such efforts have also been increasingly apparent. It is vital to note that several

branches of the Confucius Institute have been established in the Gulf since the beginning of China’s internationalisation in the region. The first branch was established at Zayed University in 2010 and was followed by the second at the University of Dubai in 2011. The third branch of the Confucius Institute in the region is located at the University of Bahrain, and was founded in 2014.

One notable BRI-related activity of Confucius Institutes in the Gulf was a conference held at the Abu Dhabi branch in March 2017, in cooperation with the Emirates Policy Centre. It was entitled “Prospects of Partnership between China and the UAE under the One Belt, One Road Initiative”. In May of the same year, the Confucius Institute in Bahrain held the first “Belt and Road” International Seminar, attended by over 500 scholars from seven countries. At such events, topics related to how the BRI and the AIIB are being implemented in the region were presented, such as the importance of energy in the initiative and the various projects that are currently being pursued in the Gulf.

Another role of the Confucius Institutes in the implementation of the BRI in the Gulf is through promoting the Chinese language across the region. Such language efforts have taken the

form of offering Chinese language classes to the Gulf’s peoples, who in recent years have experienced an increase in the number of students. Other institutes have also become involved in this effort. For instance, in 2015 the Chinese Embassy in Qatar signed a MoU with the Translation and Interpreting Studies Faculty at Qatar’s Education City to collaborate in language teaching and cultural activities. The deal has manifested in Chinese language classes being offered to the Qatari public.

The increasing interest in the Chinese language among the Gulf society not only helps the implementation of the BRI and the AIIB in the Gulf by raising people’s awareness of China. It has also improved communications among relevant stakeholders in the implementation of the initiative.


In addition to academic institutions, the role of academics should also be noted. In most cases, these intellectuals contribute to the promotion of the BRI through their publications. For example, Wang Jinglie published an article for Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (in Asia), in which he asserts that the Chinese “wish that when we realise the ‘Chinese Dream,’ the Arab countries will not only be happy for us, but will also achieve their own ‘Arab Dream’”. Sun Degang of the Shanghai International Studies University and Yahia Zoubir of Kedge Business School in France also wrote an article in the same journal, where they stated that “Chinese and Arabs share similar dreams of achieving their respective national rejuvenation in the 21st century. As two great civilizations, the ‘Chinese Dream’ and the ‘Arab Dream’ share similarities”.


The growing efforts by educational institutions and academics have not been without

consequence. In the recent years, there has been a rise of individuals from within the region, who, directly or indirectly, are involved in the promotion of the BRI.

Academic institutions in the Gulf have increasingly published studies and held seminars on the BRI, the AIIB, and the Chinese Dream. In May 2016, for example, the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Qatar held a conference: “The Arab World and China: Future Prospects of Relations with a Rising Power”. 

Aside from publishing studies and organising conferences about the BRI and the AIIB, these regional institutions have also become interested in bolstering partnerships with Chinese institutions. In September 2017, the UAE University concluded an agreement with Zhejiang University to cooperate in student exchanges and collaborative research, and in academic activities such as courses and seminars. 

Academics and public intellectuals in the Gulf have also increasingly engaged in promoting public debates on the BRI and the AIIB. For example, the GCC’s Assistant General Secretary, Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg, wrote an article on the BRI for Saudi-based newspaper Arab News, whereby he stated that: “the initiatives could usher in a new economic and political alliance between China and the rest of Asia, including the Middle East” .

The rise of the pro-China intellectuals from within Gulf society is also rooted in the offering of scholarships to regional intellectuals.

Since the beginning of China’s entry to the Gulf, many intellectuals from the Gulf have been given scholarships to study in China. These scholarships are offered mainly by the China Scholarship Council (CSC), which is the Chinese Ministry of Education’s non-profit organisation that offers financial aid and scholarship to both Chinese and non-Chinese to study overseas or in China. The CSC has worked with different Gulf universities and ministries, and funded students from the region to study in China since the early years of China’s presence in the Gulf.

Such efforts have been complemented by Chinese academic institutions which participate annually in educational exhibitions across the region. These include the International Education

and Conference on Higher Education in Riyadh and the Dubai International Education Exhibition, which have led to Gulf students becoming interested in studying in China.

When the BRI and the AIIB were introduced, Xi also pledged to increase the number of scholarships to students from the countries along the routes. Gulf students are included as recipients of this scholarship. As Xi announced in his speech at the Arab League headquarters, his government intended to provide 10,000 scholarships and 10,000 training opportunities to Middle Eastern students.

The China-Oman Industrial Park at Duqm has also cooperated with the Omani government

to offer scholarships to Omani students to study in China with funding from the park. In the last few years, many of the scholarship recipients have returned to the Gulf. As an example, in June 2018, the first batch of 39 Omani students returned, following completing vocational training at Ningxia Polytechnic, to work at the Duqm park.

This has resulted in the emergence of intellectuals from within the Gulf who are acquainted with Chinese politics, economics, and cultures, and are well-versed in the Chinese language. Even though not all of them are pursuing careers as academics, the experiences of living and studying in China have made these scholarship recipients not only very interested in imitating the Chinese way of life, but also in educating the public about China and what they have learnt there.

Due to the increasing interest in China among politicians, intellectuals, and the general public, numerous universities in the Gulf have begun to offer China-related courses. Qatar University, for example, now teaches classes on Chinese politics and philosophy in Arabic. China-related courses are also offered by several regional universities, such as at Kuwait University, the American University of Sharjah, and the University of Sharjah.

Similarly, since mid-2016, Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) in Oman has been teaching Chinese language courses. It was also reported in mid-2014 that SQU planned to establish a Confucius Institute. In July 2018, the UAE Ministry of Education announced that it began offering Chinese classes in 100 schools.

Overall, in the realisation of the BRI in the Gulf, the roles of the academics and educational institutions has not only contributed to the growing creation of consent for the initiative, but has also resulted in the rise of pro-China intellectuals and institutions who have been directly or indirectly involved in not only socialising the initiative but also in gathering support from the people.

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s heady days



These are heady days for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

With King Salman home after a week in hospital during which he had a colonoscopy, rumours are rife that succession in the kingdom may not be far off.

Speculation is not limited to a possible succession. Media reports suggest that US President Joe Biden may visit Saudi Arabia next month for a first meeting with the crown prince.

Mr. Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah state during his presidential election campaign. He has since effectively boycotted Mr. Bin Salman because of the crown prince’s alleged involvement in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Mr. Bin Salman has denied any involvement but said he accepted responsibility for the killing as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

Mr. Bin Salman waited for his 86-year-old father to return from the hospital before travelling to Abu Dhabi to offer his condolences for the death of United Arab Emirates President Khaled bin Zayed and congratulations to his successor, Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince’s one-time mentor.

Mr. Bin Salman used the composition of his delegation to underline his grip on Saudi Arabia’s ruling family. In doing so, he was messaging the international community at large, and particularly Mr. Biden, that he is in control of the kingdom no matter what happens.

The delegation was made up of representatives of different branches of the ruling Al Saud family, including Prince Abdulaziz bin Ahmed, the eldest son of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the detained brother of King Salman.

Even though he holds no official post, Mr. Abdulaziz’s name topped the Saudi state media’s list of delegates accompanying Mr. Bin Salman.

His father, Mr. Ahmed, was one of three members of the Allegiance Council not to support Mr. Bin Salman’s appointment as crown prince in 2017. The 34-member Council, populated by parts of the Al-Saud family, was established by King Abdullah in 2009 to determine succession to the throne in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Bin Salman has detained Mr. Ahmed as well as Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef, the two men he considers his foremost rivals, partly because they are popular among US officials.

Mr. Ahmed was detained in 2020 but never charged, while Mr. Bin Nayef stands accused of corruption. Mr. Ahmed returned to the kingdomn in 2018 from London, where he told protesters against the war in Yemen to address those responsible, the king and the crown prince.

Mr. Abdulaziz’s inclusion in the Abu Dhabi delegation fits a pattern of Mr. Bin Salman appointing to office younger relatives of people detained since his rise in 2015. Many were arrested in a mass anti-corruption campaign that often seemed to camouflage a power grab that replaced consultative government among members of the ruling family with one-man rule.

Mr. Bin Salman likely takes pleasure in driving the point home as Mr. Biden mulls a pilgrimage to Riyadh to persuade the crown prince to drop his opposition to increasing the kingdom’s oil production and convince him that the United States remains committed to regional security.

The crown prince not only rejected US requests to help lower oil prices and assist Europe in reducing its dependency on Russian oil as part of the campaign to force Moscow to end its invasion of Ukraine but also refused to take a phone call from Mr. Biden.

Asked a month later whether Mr. Biden may have misunderstood him, Mr. Bin Salman told an interviewer: “Simply, I do not care.”

Striking a less belligerent tone, Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a Hudson Institute visiting fellow and former editor-in-chief of Saudi-owned Al Arabiya English, noted this month that “Saudi Arabia laments what it sees as America’s wilful dismantling of an international order that it established and led for the better part of a century.”

Mr. Alyahya quoted a senior Saudi official as saying: “A strong, dependable America is the greatest friend Saudi Arabia can have. It stands to reason, then, that US weakness and confusion is a grave threat not just to America, but to us as well.”

The United States has signalled that it is shifting its focus away from the Middle East to Asia even though it has not rolled back its significant military presence.

Nonetheless, Middle Eastern states read a reduced US commitment to their security into a US failure to respond robustly to attacks by Iran and Iranian-backed Arab militias against targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the Biden administration’s efforts to revive a moribund 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran.

Several senior US officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and CIA director Bill Burns, met with the crown prince during trips to the kingdom last year. Separately, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called the crown prince.

In one instance, Mr. Bin Salman reportedly shouted at Mr. Sullivan after he raised Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. The crown prince was said to have told the US official that he never wanted to discuss the matter again and that the US could forget about its request to boost Saudi oil production.

Even so, leverage in the US-Saudi relationship goes both ways.

Mr. Biden may need Saudi Arabia’s oil to break Russia’s economic back. By the same token, Saudi Arabia, despite massive weapon acquisitions from the United States and Europe as well as arms from China that the United States is reluctant to sell, needs the US as its security guarantor.

Mr. Bin Salman knows that he has nowhere else to go. Russia has written itself out of the equation, and China is neither capable nor willing to step into the United States’ shoes any time soon.

Critics of Mr. Biden’s apparent willingness to bury the hatchet with Mr. Bin Salman argue that in the battle with Russia and China over a new 21st-century world order, the United States needs to talk the principled talk and walk the principled walk.

In an editorial, The Washington Post, for whom Mr. Khashoggi was a columnist, noted that “the contrast between professed US principles and US policy would be stark and undeniable” if Mr. Biden reengages with Saudi Arabia.

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Saudi religious moderation: the world’s foremost publisher of Qur’ans has yet to get the message



When the religious affairs minister of Guinea-Conakry visited Jeddah last week, his Saudi counterpart gifted him 50,000 Qur’ans.

Saudi Islamic affairs minister Abdullatif Bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh offered the holy books as part of his ministry’s efforts to print and distribute them and spread their teachings.

The Qur’ans were produced by the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an, which annually distributes millions of copies. Scholar Nora Derbal asserts that the Qur’ans “perpetuate a distinct Wahhabi reading of the scripture.”

Similarly, Saudi Arabia distributed in Afghanistan in the last years of the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani thousands of Qur’ans produced by the printing complex, according to Mr. Ghani’s former education minister, Mirwais Balkhi. Mr. Balkhi indicated that the Qur’ans were identical to those distributed by the kingdom for decades.

Mr. Ghani and Mr. Balkhi fled Afghanistan last year as US troops withdrew from the country and the Taliban took over.

Human Rights Watch and Impact-se, an education-focused Israeli research group, reported last year that Saudi Arabia, pressured for some two decades post-9/11 by the United States and others to remove supremacist references to Jews, Christian, and Shiites in its schoolbooks, had recently made significant progress in doing so.

However, the two groups noted that Saudi Arabia had kept in place fundamental concepts of an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.

The same appears true for the world’s largest printer and distributor of Qur’ans, the King Fahd Complex.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has, since his rise in 2015, been primarily focussed on social and economic rather than religious reform.

Mr. Bin Salman significantly enhanced professional and personal opportunities for women, including lifting the ban on women’s driving and loosening gender segregation and enabled the emergence of a Western-style entertainment sector in the once austere kingdom.

Nevertheless, Saudi Islam scholar Besnik Sinani suggests that “state pressure on Salafism in Saudi Arabia will primarily focus on social aspects of Salafi teaching, while doctrinal aspects will probably receive less attention.”

The continued production and distribution of Qur’ans that included unaltered ultra-conservative interpretations sits uneasily with Mr. Bin Salman’s effort to emphasize nationalism rather than religion as the core of Saudi identity and project a more moderate and tolerant image of the kingdom’s Islam.

The Saudi spin is not in the Arabic text of the Qur’an that is identical irrespective of who prints it, but in parenthetical additions, primarily in translated versions, that modify the meaning of specific Qur’anic passages.

Commenting in 2005 on the King Fahd Complex’s English translation, the most widely disseminated Qur’an in the English-speaking world, the late Islam scholar Khaleel Mohammed asserted that it “reads more like a supremacist Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemic than a rendition of the Islamic scripture.”

Religion scholar Peter Mandaville noted in a recently published book on decades of Saudi export of ultra-conservative Islam that “it is the kingdom’s outsized role in the printing and distribution of the Qur’an as rendered in other languages that becomes relevant in the present context.”

Ms. Derbal, Mr. Sinani and this author contributed chapters to Mr. Mandaville’s edited volume.

The King Fahd Complex said that it had produced 18 million copies of its various publications in 2017/18 in multiple languages in its most recent production figures. Earlier it reported that it had printed and distributed 127 million copies of the Qur’an in the 22 years between 1985 and 2007. The Complex did not respond to emailed queries on whether parenthetical texts have been recently changed.

The apparent absence of revisions of parenthetical texts reinforces suggestions that Mr. Bin Salman is more concerned about socio-political considerations, regime survival, and the projection of the kingdom as countering extremism and jihadism than he is about reforming Saudi Islam.

It also spotlights the tension between the role Saudi Arabia envisions as the custodian of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, and the needs of a modern state that wants to attract foreign investment to help ween its economy off dependency on oil exports.

Finally, the continued distribution of Qur’ans with seemingly unaltered commentary speaks to the balance Mr. Bin Salman may still need to strike with the country’s once-powerful religious establishment despite subjugating the clergy to his will.

The continued global distribution of unaltered Qur’an commentary calls into question the sincerity of the Saudi moderation campaign, particularly when juxtaposed with rival efforts by other major Muslim countries to project themselves as beacons of a moderate form of Islam.

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League convened some 100 Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders to “establish a set of values common to all major world religions and a vision for enhancing understanding, cooperation, and solidarity amongst world religions.”

Once a major Saudi vehicle for the global propagation of Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, the League has been turned into Mr. Bin Salman’s megaphone. It issues lofty statements and organises high-profile conferences that project Saudi Arabia as a leader of moderation and an example of tolerance.

The League, under the leadership of former justice minister Mohammed al-Issa, has emphasised its outreach to Jewish leaders and communities. Mr. Al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim religious leaders in 2020 on a ground-breaking visit to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi extermination camp in Poland.

However, there is little evidence, beyond Mr. Al-Issa’s gestures, statements, and engagement with Jewish leaders, that the League has joined in a practical way the fight against anti-Semitism that, like Islamophobia, is on the rise.

Similarly, Saudi moderation has not meant that the kingdom has lifted its ban on building non-Muslim houses of worship on its territory.

The Riyadh conference followed Nahdlatul Ulama’s footsteps, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement with 90 million followers in the world’s largest Muslim majority country and most populous democracy. Nahdlatul Ulama leader Yahya Cholil Staquf spoke at the conference.

In recent years, the Indonesian group has forged alliances with Evangelical entities like the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), Jewish organisations and religious leaders, and various Muslim groups across the globe. Nahdlatul Ulama sees the alliances as a way to establish common ground based on shared humanitarian values that would enable them to counter discrimination and religion-driven prejudice, bigotry, and violence.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of Humanitarian Islam advocates reform of what it deems “obsolete” and “problematic” elements of Islamic law, including those that encourage segregation, discrimination, and/or violence towards anyone perceived to be a non-Muslim. It further accepts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unlike the Saudis, without reservations.

The unrestricted embrace of the UN declaration by Indonesia and its largest Muslim movement has meant that conversion, considered to be apostasy under Islamic law, is legal in the Southeast Asian nation. As a result, Indonesia, unlike Middle Eastern states where Christian communities have dwindled due to conflict, wars, and targeted attacks, has witnessed significant growth of its Christian communities.

Christians account for ten percent of Indonesia’s population. Researchers Duane Alexander Miller and Patrick Johnstone reported in 2015 that 6.5 million Indonesian had converted to Christianity since 1960.

That is not to say that Christians and other non-Muslim minorities have not endured attacks on churches, suicide bombings, and various forms of discrimination. The attacks have prompted Nahdlatul Ulama’s five million-strong militia to protect churches in vulnerable areas during holidays such as Christmas. The militia has also trained Christians to enable them to watch over their houses of worship.

Putting its money where its mouth is, a gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama religious scholars issued in 2019 a fatwa or religious opinion eliminating the Muslim legal concept of the kafir or infidel.

Twelve years earlier, the group’s then spiritual leader and former Indonesian president Abdurahman Wahid, together with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, organised a conference in the archipelago state to acknowledge the Holocaust and denounce denial of the Nazi genocide against the Jews. The meeting came on the heels of a gathering in Tehran convened by then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that denied the existence of the Holocaust.

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Iran Gives Russia Two and a Half Cheers



Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Moscow, March 15 2022. Credit: @Amirabdolahian via Twitter.

Iran’s rulers enthusiastically seek to destroy the liberal world order and therefore support Russia’s aggression. But they can’t manage full-throated support.

For Iran, the invasion of Ukraine is closely related to the very essence of the present world order. Much like Russia, Iran has been voicing its discontent at the way the international system has operated since the end of the Cold War. More broadly, Iran and Russia see the world through strikingly similar lenses. Both keenly anticipate the end of the multipolar world and the end of the West’s geopolitical preponderance.

Iran had its reasons to think this way. The US unipolar moment after 1991 provoked a deep fear of imminent encirclement, with American bases in Afghanistan and Iraq cited as evidence. Like Russia, the Islamic Republic views itself as a separate civilization that needs to be not only acknowledged by outside players, but also to be given ana suitable geopolitical space to project influence.

Both Russia and Iran are very clear about their respective spheres of influence. For Russia, it is the territories that once constituted the Soviet empire. For Iran, it is the contiguous states reaching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon — plus Yemen. When the two former imperial powers have overlapping strategic interests such as, for instance, in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, they apply the concept of regionalism. This implies the blocking out of non-regional powers from exercising outsize economic and military influence, and mostly revolves around an order dominated by the powers which border on a region.

This largely explains why Iran sees the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity that, if successful, could hasten the end of the liberal world order. This is why it has largely toed the Russian line and explained what it describes as legitimate motives behind the invasion. Thus the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe was cited as having provoked Russian moves. “The root of the crisis in Ukraine is the US policies that create the crisis, and Ukraine is one victim of these policies,” argued Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following the invasion.

To a certain degree, Iran’s approach to Ukraine has been also influenced by mishaps in bilateral relations which largely began with the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian surface-to-air missiles in January 2020, killing 176 people. The regime first denied responsibility, and later blamed human error.

Iran, like several other of Russia’s friends and defenders,  the ideal scenario would have been a quick war in which the Kremlin achieved its major goals.

Protracted war, however, sends a bad signal. It signals that the liberal order was not in such steep decline after all, and that Russia’s calls for a new era in international relations have been far from realistic. The unsuccessful war also shows Iran that the collective West still has very significant power and — despite well-aired differences — an ability to rapidly coalesce to defend the existing rules-based order. Worse, for these countries, the sanctions imposed on Russia go further; demonstrating the West’s ability to make significant economic sacrifices to make its anger felt. In other words, Russia’s failure in Ukraine actually strengthened the West and made it more united than at any point since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

A reinvigorated liberal order is the last thing that Iran wants, given its own troubled relations with the collective West. The continuing negotiations on a revived nuclear deal will be heavily impacted by how Russia’s war proceeds, and how the US and EU continue to respond to the aggression. Iran fears that a defeated Russia might be so angered as to use its critical position to endanger the talks, vital to the lifting of the West’s crippling sanctions.

And despite rhetorical support for Russia, Iran has been careful not to overestimate Russia’s power. It is now far from clear that the Kremlin has achieved its long-term goal of “safeguarding” its western frontier. Indeed, the Putin regime may have done the opposite now that it has driven Finland and Sweden into the NATO fold. Western sanctions on Russia are likely to remain for a long time, threatening long-term Russian economic (and possible regime) stability.

Moreover, Russia’s fostering of separatist entities (following the recognition of the so called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” and other breakaway entities in Georgia and Moldova) is a highly polarizing subject in Iran. True there has been a shift toward embracing Russia’s position over Ukraine, but Iran remains deeply committed to the “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the affairs of other states and territorial integrity. This is hardly surprising given its own struggles against potential separatism in the peripheries of the country.

Many Iranians also sympathize with Ukraine’s plight, which for some evokes Iran’s defeats in the early 19th century wars when Qajars had to cede the eastern part of the South Caucasus to Russia. This forms part of a historically deeply rooted, anti-imperialist sentiment in Iran.

Iran is therefore likely to largely abstain from endorsing Russia’s separatist ambitions in Eastern Ukraine. It will also eschew, where possible, support for Russia in international forums. Emblematic of this policy was the March 2 meeting in the United Nations General Assembly when Iran, rather than siding with Russia, abstained from the vote which condemned the invasion.

Russia’s poor military performance, and the West’s ability to act unanimously, serve as a warning for the Islamic Republic that it may one day have to soak up even more Western pressure if Europe, the US, and other democracies act in union.

In the meantime, like China, Iran will hope to benefit from the magnetic pull of the Ukraine war. With so much governmental, military and diplomatic attention demanded by the conflict, it will for the time being serve as a distraction from Iran’s ambitions elsewhere. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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