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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

The Absence of Riyadh in the Turbulent Afghanistan

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As the situation in Afghanistan becoming increasingly turbulent, the NATO allies led by the United States are fully focused on military withdrawal. As this has to be done within tight deadline, there have been some disagreements between the United States and the European Union. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, publicly accused the U.S. military in Afghanistan, which was responsible for the internal security of Kabul Airport, of deliberately obstructing the EU evacuation operations.

China and Russia on the other hand, are more cautious in expressing their positions while actively involving in the Afghanistan issue. This is especially true for Russia, which after both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud have pleaded Russia for mediation, Moscow has now become a major player in the issue.

Compared with these major powers, Saudi Arabia, another regional power in the Middle East, appears to be quite low-key. So far, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia has issued a diplomatic statement on the day after the Taliban settled in Kabul, stating that it hopes the Taliban can maintain the security, stability and prosperity of Afghanistan. Considering the role that Saudi Arabia has played in Afghanistan, such near silent treatment is quite intriguing.

As the Taliban were originally anti-Soviet Sunni Jihadists, they were deeply influenced by Wahhabism, and were naturally leaning towards Riyadh. During the period when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time, Saudi Arabia became one of the few countries in the international community that publicly recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban regime.

Although the Taliban quickly lost its power under the impact of the anti-terror wars initiated by the George W. Bush administration, and the Saudis were pressured by Washington to criticize the Taliban on the surface, yet in reality they continuously provided financial aid to the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda organization which was in symbiotic relations with the Taliban.

However, after 2010, with the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, the Riyadh authorities had decreased their funding for their “partners” in Afghanistan due to the increase in financial aid targets.

In June 2017, after Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and took power, Saudi Arabia’s overall foreign policy began to undergo major changes. It gradually abandoned the policy of exporting its religious ideology and switched to “religious diplomacy” that focuses on economic, trade and industrial cooperation with main economies. Under such approach, Saudi Arabia’s Afghanistan policy will inevitably undergo major adjustments.

With the reformation initiated by the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has drastically reduced its financial aid to the Taliban. In addition, Riyadh also further ordered the Taliban to minimize armed hostilities and put its main energy on the path of “peaceful nation-building”. This sudden reversal of the stance of Saudi Arabia means that Riyadh has greatly weakened the voices of the Taliban in the global scenes.

In recent years, the Taliban have disassociated with Saudi Arabia in rounds of Afghanistan peace talks. After Kabul was taken over by the Taliban on August 19, a senior Taliban official clearly stated that the Taliban does not accept Wahhabism, and Afghanistan has no place for Wahhabism. Although this statement means that Al-Qaeda’s religious claims will no longer be supported by the Taliban, it also indicates that the Taliban has reached the tipping point of breaking up with Riyadh.

Under such circumstance, for the Riyadh authorities under Mohammed bin Salman, the most appropriate action is probably wait-and-see as Afghanistan changes again.

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Middle East

Gulf security: It’s not all bad news

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Gulf states are in a pickle.

They fear that the emerging parameters of a reconfigured US commitment to security in the Middle East threaten to upend a more-than-a-century-old pillar of regional security and leave them with no good alternatives.

The shaky pillar is the Gulf monarchies’ reliance on a powerful external ally that, in the words of Middle East scholar Roby C. Barrett, “shares the strategic, if not dynastic, interests of the Arab States.” The ally was Britain and France in the first half of the 20th century and the United States since then.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the revered founder of the United Arab Emirates, implicitly recognised Gulf states’ need for external support when he noted in a 2001 contribution to a book that the six monarchies that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “only support the GCC when it suited them.”

Going forward question marks about the reliability of the United States may be unsettling but the emerging contours of what a future US approach could look like they are not all bad news from the perspective of the region’s autocratic regimes.

The contours coupled with the uncertainty, the Gulf states’ unwillingness to integrate their defence strategies, a realisation that neither China nor Russia would step into the United States’ shoes, and a need to attract foreign investment to diversify their energy-dependent economies, is driving efforts to dial down regional tensions and strengthen regional alliances.

Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, his UAE counterpart, are headed to Washington this week for a tripartite meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The three officials intend “to discuss accomplishments” since last year’s establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries “and other important issues,” Mr Blinken tweeted.

The Israeli foreign ministry suggested those other issues include “further opportunities to promote peace in the Middle East” as well as regional stability and security, in a guarded reference to Iran.

From the Gulf’s perspective, the good news is also that the Biden administration’s focus on China may mean that it is reconfiguring its military presence in the Middle East with the moving of some assets from the Gulf to Jordan and the withdrawal from the region of others, but is not about to pull out lock, stock and barrel.

Beyond having an interest in ensuring the free flow of trade and energy, the US’s strategic interest in a counterterrorism presence in the Gulf has increased following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US now relies on an ’over the horizon’ approach for which the Middle East remains crucial.

Moreover, domestic US politics mitigate towards a continued, if perhaps reduced, military presence even if Americans are tired of foreign military adventures, despite the emergence of a Biden doctrine that de-emphasises military engagement. Moreover, the Washington foreign policy elite’s focus is now on Asia rather than the Middle East.

Various powerful lobbies and interest groups, including Jews, Israelis, Gulf states, Evangelists, and the oil and defence industries retain a stake in a continued US presence in the region. Their voices are likely to resonate louder in the run-up to crucial mid-term Congressional elections in 2022. A recent Pew Research survey concluded that the number of white Evangelicals had increased from 25 per cent of the US population in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2020.

Similarly, like Afghanistan, the fading hope for a revival of the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, from which former President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018, and the risk of a major military conflagration makes a full-fledged US military withdrawal unlikely any time soon. It also increases the incentive to continue major arms sales to Gulf countries.

That’s further good news for Gulf regimes against the backdrop of an emerging US arms sales policy that the Biden administration would like to project as emphasising respect for human rights and rule of law. However, that de facto approach is unlikely to affect big-ticket prestige items like the F-35 fighter jets promised to the UAE.

Instead, the policy will probably apply to smaller weapons such as assault rifles and surveillance equipment, that police or paramilitary forces could use against protesters. Those are not the technological edge items where the United States has a definitive competitive advantage.

The big-ticket items with proper maintenance and training would allow Gulf states to support US regional operations as the UAE and Qatar did in 2011 in Libya, and, the UAE in Somalia and Afghanistan as part of peacekeeping missions.

In other words, the Gulf states can relax. The Biden administration is not embracing what some arms trade experts define as the meaning of ending endless wars such as Afghanistan.

“Ending endless war means more than troop withdrawal. It also means ending the militarized approach to foreign policy — including the transfer of deadly weapons around the world — that has undermined human rights and that few Americans believe makes the country any safer,” the experts said in a statement in April.

There is little indication that the views expressed in the statement that stroke with thinking in the progressive wing of Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party is taking root in the policymaking corridors of Washington. As long as that doesn’t happen, Gulf states have less to worry about.

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Middle East

Reducing Middle East tensions potentially lessens sectarianism and opens doors for women

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Two separate developments involving improved relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and women’s sporting rights demonstrate major shifts in how rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world and competition to define Islam in the 21st century is playing out in a world in which Middle Eastern states can no longer depend on the United States coming to their defence.

The developments fit into a regional effort by conservative, status quo states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; and proponents of different forms of political Islam, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar; to manage rather than resolve their differences in a bid to ensure that they do not spin out of control. The efforts have had the greatest success with the lifting in January of a 3.5-year-long Saudi-UAE-Egyptian-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The reconciliation moves also signal the pressure on Middle Eastern players in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam to change perceptions of the region as being wracked by civil wars, sectarian tensions, extremism, jihadism, and autocracy. Altering that perception is key to the successful implementation of plans to diversify oil and gas export dependent economies in the Gulf, develop resource-poor countries in the region, tackle an economic crisis in Turkey, and enable Iran to cope with crippling US sanctions.

Finally, these developments are also the harbinger of the next phase in the competition for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. In a break with the past decade, lofty declarations extolling Islam’s embrace of tolerance, pluralism and respect for others’ rights that are not followed up by deeds no longer cut ice. Similarly, proponents of socially conservative expressions of political Islam need to be seen as adopting degrees of moderation that so far have been the preserve of their rivals who prefer the geopolitical status quo ante.

That next phase of the battle is being shaped not only by doubts among US allies in the Middle East about the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor, reinforced by America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is also being informed by a realisation that neither China nor Russia can (or will) attempt to replace the US defence umbrella in the Gulf.

The battles’ shifting playing field is further being determined by setbacks suffered by political Islam starting with the 2013 military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president and brutally decimated the Muslim Brotherhood. More recently, political Islamists suffered a stunning electoral defeat in Morocco and witnessed the autocratic takeover of power in Tunisia by President Kais Saied.

A just published survey of Tunisian public opinion showed 45 percent of those polled blaming Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahada party, for the country’s crisis and 66 percent saying they had no confidence in the party.

The Middle East’s rivalries and shifting sands lend added significance to a planned visit in the coming weeks to Najaf, an Iraqi citadel of Shiite Muslim learning and home of 91-year-old Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, by Ahmed El-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s foremost historic educational institution.

The visit takes place against the backdrop of Iraqi-mediated talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two major centres of Islam’s two main strands, that are aimed at dialling down tensions between them that reverberate throughout the Muslim world. The talks are likely to help the two regional powers manage rather than resolve their differences.

The rivalry was long marked by Saudi-inspired, religiously-cloaked anti-Shiite rhetoric and violence in a limited number of cases and Iranian concerns about the country’s Sunni minority and its opting for a strategy centred on Shiite Muslim proxies in third countries and support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Implicit in Saudi and Iranian sectarianism was the perception of Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni majority countries, and Sunnis in Iran and Iraq after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, as fifth wheels of the other.

Imam El-Tayeb’s visit, a signal of improvement in long-strained Egyptian-Iraqi relations, as well as a possible later meeting between the Sunni cleric, a Shiite cleric other than Ayatollah Al-Sistani who is too old and fragile to travel, and Pope Francis, are intended to put sectarianism on the backburner. Ayatollah Al-Sistani met with the pope during his visit to Iraq in March.

The visit takes on added significance in the wake of this week’s suicide bombing of a Hazara Shiite mosque in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz that killed at least 50 people and wounded 100 others. The South Asian affiliate of the Islamic State, Islamic State-Khorasan, claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst since the Taliban came to power in August. It was likely designed to fuel tension between the Sunni Muslim group and the Hazara who account for 20 percent of the Afghan population.

Imam El-Tayeb’s travel to Najaf is likely to be followed by a visit by Mohamed al-Issa, secretary-general of the Saudi-dominated Muslim World League. The League was long a prime vehicle for the propagation of anti-Shiite Saudi ultra-conservatism. Since coming to office, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recast the League as a tool to project his vaguely defined notion of a state-controlled ‘moderate’ Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic.

In a similar vein, hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took many by surprise by allowing women into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to attend this month’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and South Korea. Iran is the only country to ban women from attending men’s sporting events. It was unclear whether the move was a one-off measure or signalled a loosening or lifting of the ban.

Mr Raisi was believed to see it as a way to rally domestic support and improve the Islamic republic’s image as much in China and Russia as in the West. No doubt, Mr. Raisi will have noted that China and Russia have joined the United States, Europe, and others in pressuring the Taliban in Afghanistan to recognize women’s rights.

To be sure, women in Iran enjoy education rights and populate universities. They can occupy senior positions in business and government even if Iran remains a patriarchal society. However, the ban on women in stadia, coupled with the chador, the head to foot covering of women, has come to dominate the perception of Iran’s gender policies.

Allowing women to attend the World Cup qualifier suggests a degree of flexibility on Mr. Raisi’s part. During his presidential campaign Mr. Raisi argued that granting women access to stadiums would not solve their problems.

It also demonstrates that the government, with hardliners in control of all branches, can shave off sharp edges of its Islamic rule far easier than reformists like Mr. Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, were able to do.

The question is whether that is Mr. Raisi’s intention. Mr. Raisi may be testing the waters with this month’ soccer match, only time will tell.

It may be too big a leap in the immediate future but, like Imam El-Tayeb’s visit to Najaf, it indicates that the dialling down of regional tensions puts a greater premium on soft power which in turn builds up pressure for less harsh expressions of religion.

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