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China’s Strategic Agreement with Iran: An opportunity of the new century?

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The China-Iran strategic agreement

China and Iran have concluded an extensive strategic agreement, which prepared within the framework of a roadmap for 25 years, is a considerable step for achieving a comprehensive strategic partnership between two Asian powers with many mutual interests. The agreement entails political-strategic, economic and cultural components and is designed to ensure the comprehensive promotion of each aspect of relations between China and Iran in the long run. In the political-strategic dimension (military, defence and security), an attempt has been made to establish close positions and cooperation between the two countries in the form of permanent mechanisms, while promoting exchanges, consultations and close cooperation on issues of mutual interest and agreement in regional institutions. Strengthening the defence infrastructure, countering terrorism and holding regular military manoeuvres as an exhibition of strength and alignment between the two countries can be considered the most important axes in this regard.

Economic cooperation is also one of the main axes of long-term cooperation between the two countries. The internal affairs of the two countries and third countries, and finally the exploitation of Iran’s capacities, including the young and skilled labour force, have been emphasised. Cooperation in the fields of oil, industry and mining, and energy-related fields (energy, renewable energy, etc.) based on national sustainable and environmental development concerns are emphasised in this document. It should be noted that to maximise the geopolitical and geoeconomic benefits, the present agreement emphasises the effective participation of Iran in the Chinese one belt one road project, and in this regard, comprehensive cooperation in the framework of this initiative with the priority of cooperation in infrastructure will be put on the agenda. Emphasis is placed on rail, road, port and air, telecommunications, science and technology, education and health. The agreement specifically underscores the facilitation of effective procedures in economic and trade cooperation, and accordingly, the facilitation of financial and banking cooperation, customs, deregulation, granting facilities by the rules in free trade and special economic zones, strengthening cooperation and Non-oil trades. In the cultural dimension, the promotion of tourism, media, academia, various non-governmental cultural institutions are emphasised.

For almost three years, the destiny of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has hung in the balance (Guardian News, 2018). The Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, contending that a policy of economic coercion, called maximum pressure, would provide a preferable agreement, from the US perspective. The JCPOA’s initial bargain was straightforward: limiting and monitoring what the international community perceived as the most worrying virtue of Iranian policy — the proliferation risks of its nuclear programme — and in return providing relief from international sanctions imposed on Iran over years. If anything, U.S. sanctions have sharpened Tehran’s desire to introduce Beijing as a reliable economic and political ally. But although due to the impacts of Washington’s maximum pressure strategy this agreement looks more profitable to Iran than to China, however, Beijing will strengthen its status as one of the few formal buyers of Iran’s oil, as well as boosting its footprint in the Iranian economy. Moreover, assisting to ensure the survival of the JCPOA presents China with the opportunity to put forward its profile in international affairs and to set the tone in the broader nuclear non-proliferation debates and specifically in solving the dilemma over the JCPOA. The geoeconomic interests in the region are obvious as much of recent strategic discourses have focused on China’s need for energy from the Middle East. China maintains a huge interest in exporting to the region, but also there is also huge enthusiasm in the region for Chinese investment there.

The Persian Gulf has occurred as a new theatre of U.S.-China great power competition. China regards the region as a vital strategic interest to play a more active role and is keen to stabilize the environment that will inter alia help its infrastructure investments in the region. (Global Times, 2017) This, in China’s perspective, rests upon stability within the region. Iran will be more linked to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). According to China’s estimations, the growth opportunities through BRI will reduce tensions in the Middle East. (Xinhua, 2017) Therefore, in contrast to reluctant European investors, China has proceeded to pour investments into Iran. The latest example was a 538 million USD railway deal. (South China Morning Post, 2017) China under the umbrella of the One Belt, One Road project, is steadily expanding its political influence and investment footprint, including the Strait of Hormuz. Beijing will aim to deepen its involvement in the region building on a long-term strategy that seeks to improve China’s diplomatic and economic influence across the Middle East.

China’s reluctance to act as a security guarantor

The decades-old Saudi–Iranian rivalry and tensions vis-à-vis their regional rival has been once again pushed into the attention.  Considering the Saudi-Iranian tensions, the conventional wisdom is that both sides are far from de-escalation to pave the way for a détente. According to Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, “Saudi Arabia does not want to de-escalate and one gets the assumption that Riyadh was operating under the influence of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign on Iran”. (Reuters, 2020) From the Saudi perspective, Iran’s behaviour is reckless and endangers the global economy that Iran must change its behaviour before any dialogues between Tehran and other countries can take place. Recently, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told the 56th Munich Security Conference that “Until we can talk about the real sources of that instability, talk is going to be unproductive,” the foreign minister said.” (Reuters, 2020)

Although the China-Iran deal prompted extensive debates in international media, Iran is not the only country in the region to maintain 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) The total amount that China invested in all the GCC states during the same period reaches up to $83 billion. These investments in a technology project, fisheries, oil projects, building roads etc. are all part of China’s Maritime Silk Road project for which the GCC states are strategically important. Trade exchange between China and the GCC countries exceeded $180 billion in 2019, accounting for 11 per cent of the GCC’s foreign trade. In 2020, China replaced the EU as the GCC’s primary trading partner. This exemplifies an enormous transformation from 1990 when diplomatic relations were first inaugurated between Saudi Arabia and China; at the time, China-GCC trade was slighter than $1.5 billion, representing only 1 per cent of the entire volume of Persian Gulf Arab States trade. (Julia Gurol& Jacopo Scita, 2020)

Due to the contemporary cycle of incidents in the Strait of Hormuz that intensified tensions, China could be compelled to take on a greater security role to preserve the freedom of navigation which is necessary to its energy security and flow of oil supplies through the Persian Gulf. However, regardless of the existing regional tensions and the high risk of military conflicts lately threatened by Trump, China is 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 its comprehensive power in the Middle East is not yet well-defined. (Job B Alterman, 2013) Beijing seems unlikely to proclaim any peace initiatives for Persian Gulf security beyond broad calls for peace in the region probably maintaining China’s existing policy of non-interference. From China’s perspective, its contribution to the regional developments through bilateral agreements and the BRI is the best way for stability. Thus, it is fair to say that China has played almost no role in easing geopolitical tension between Iran and the GCC (Camille Lons, Jonathan Fulton, Degang Sun, & Naser Al-Tamimi, 2019)

Conclusion 

Hence, Iran is an essential partner to Beijing’s economic projection in the Middle East. China and Iran aim to maintain regular mechanisms for genuine dialogue on all mutual issues. However, the GCC states aim to restrain China’s support for Iran. Nevertheless, 

China will not shape any one-sided relation neither with the GCC nor with Iran. By avoiding partnerships in favour of its bilateral ties with Iran or the GCC, China remains keen to balance its relations with all regional powers. By circumventing direct involvement in regional battles, China aims to further expand its economic and military activities in a highly strategic region, securing the flow of oil exports desperately needed under a competitive atmosphere without being bogged down in the upheaval of political and security confrontations in the Persian Gulf. 

With China being present now in the Persian Gulf, Washington will have to acknowledge China’s interest. China is questioning the current security architecture of the Indian Ocean region. It would finally thwart the US and India’s role as a net security provider in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, diminishing their role and geographic advantage. 

Through the agreement with Iran, China can maintain a sustainable presence along the Strait of Hormuz and it would effectively have a credible presence across two key chokepoints in the Indian Ocean, together with Bab-el-Mandeb. Chinese presence along the Strait of Hormuz would legitimise Beijing’s overseas bases to guard its maritime interests which would lend credence to Beijing’s claims of being a responsible global actor. 

As far as regional security is concerned, the prospect of a wider conflict in the region will jeopardize not only oil exports but also risks scaring away overseas investors, while Iran and most of the GCC states need fresh capital, cutting-edge technology and management know-how. It appears that a sustained and inclusive dialogue on the Persian Gulf security with the support and mediation of external actors such as China would envisage practical measures to gradually build trust and expand cooperation. Such an inclusive mechanism could evolve into a regularised, confidence-building platform that addresses both the issue-specific challenges and broader questions about security in the Persian Gulf. 

Pourya Nabipour is a third-year PhD Candidate at the University of Birmingham in the School of Government. He holds an M.A. in International Relations and Diplomacy from the University of Birmingham. He has written various articles in Persian and English, focusing on Iranian foreign policy, the Middle East Security and Non-Proliferation Affairs.

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Middle East

China-US and the Iran nuclear deal

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian that Beijing would firmly support a resumption of negotiations on a nuclear pact [China Media Group-CCTV via Reuters]

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with  Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province.  Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.

A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for  strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.

During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.

The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said

‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’

The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.

During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC,  Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.

In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.

Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.

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Middle East

Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?

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Image source: atalayar.com

“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!

The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force! 

Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.

The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.

Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.   

The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.

The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.

The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.

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Middle East

Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility

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Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.

Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.

This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.

The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.

IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”

And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.

In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.

IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report  and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).

The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.

The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.

Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.

Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).

And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).

There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.

But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions. 

Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.

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