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)
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.
Israel and Turkey in search of solutions
Twelve and eleven years have elapsed since the Davos and Mavi Marmara incidents, respectively, and Turkey-Israel relations are undergoing intense recovery efforts. They are two important Eastern neighbours and influence regional stability.
Currently, as in the past, relations between the two countries have a structure based on realpolitik, thus pursuing a relationship of balance/interest, and hinge around the Palestinian issue and Israel’s position as the White House’s privileged counterpart. However, let us now briefly summarise the history of Turkish-Jewish relations.
The first important event that comes to mind when mentioning Jews and Turks is that when over 200,000 Jews were expelled by the Spanish Inquisition in 1491, the Ottoman Empire invited them to settle in its territory.
Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel in 1949. Israel’s first diplomatic Mission to Turkey was opened on January 7, 1950 but, following the Suez crisis in 1956, relations were reduced to the level of chargé d’affaires. In the second Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Turkey chose not to get involved and it did not allow relations to break off completely.
The 1990s saw a positive trend and development in terms of bilateral relations. After the second Gulf War in 1991 -which, as you may recall, followed the first Iraqi one of 1980-1988 in which the whole world was against Iran (with the only exception of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Syria, Libya and the moral support of Enver Hoxha’s Albania) – Turkey was at the centre of security policy in the region. In that context, Turkey-Israel relations were seriously rekindled.
In 1993, Turkey upgraded diplomatic relations with Israel to ambassadorial level. The signing of the Oslo Accords between Palestine and Israel led to closer relations. The 1996 military cooperation agreement was signed between the two countries in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which provided significant logistical and intelligence support to both sides.
In the 2000s, there was a further rapprochement with Israel, due to the “zero problems with neighbours” policy promoted by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party. I still remember issue No. 3/1999 of the Italian review of geopolitics “Limes” entitled “Turkey-Israel, the New Alliance”.
In 2002, an Israeli company undertook the project of modernising twelve M-60 tanks belonging to the Turkish armed forces. In 2004, Turkey agreed to sell water to Israel from the Manavgat River.
Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Israel in 2005 was a turning point in terms of mediation between Palestine and Israel and further advancement of bilateral relations. In 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas spoke at the Turkish Grand National Assembly one day apart. High-level visits from Israel continued.
On December 22, 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to Ankara and met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In that meeting, significant progress was made regarding Turkey’s mediation between Israel and Syria.
Apart from the aforementioned incidents, the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations occurred five days after the above stated meeting, i.e. Operation “Cast Lead” against Gaza on December 27, 2008. After that event, relations between the two sides were never the same as before.
Recently, however, statements of goodwill have been made by both countries to normalise political relations. In December 2020, President Erdoğan stated he wanted to improve relations with Israel and said: “It is not possible for us to accept Israel’s attitude towards the Palestinian territories. This is the point in which we differ from Israel – otherwise, our heart desires to improve our relations with it as well”.
In its relations with Israel, Turkey is posing the Palestinian issue as a condition. When we look at it from the opposite perspective, the Palestinian issue is a vital matter for Israel. It is therefore a severe obstacle to bilateral relations.
On the other hand, many regional issues such as Eastern Mediterranean, Syria and some security issues in the region require the cooperation of these two key countries. For this reason, it is clear that both sides wish at least to end the crisis, reduce rhetoric at leadership level and focus on cooperation and realpolitik areas.
In the coming months, efforts will certainly be made to strike a balance between these intentions and the conditions that make it necessary to restart bilateral relations with Israel on an equal footing. As improved relations with Israel will also positively influence Turkey’s relations with the United States.
Turkey seeks to avoid the USA and the EU imposing sanctions that could go so far as to increase anti-Western neo-Ottoman rhetoric, while improved relations with Israel could offer a positive outcome not only to avoid the aforementioned damage, but also to solve the Turkish issues related to Eastern Mediterranean, territorial waters, Libya and Syria. Turkey has no intention of backing down on such issues that it deems vital. Quite the reverse. It would like to convey positive messages at the level of talks and Summits.
Another important matter of friction between Turkey and Israel is the use of oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean reserves between Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus (Nicosia).
This approach is excluding Turkey. The USA and the EU also strongly support the current situation (which we addressed in a previous article) for the additional reason that France has been included in the equation.
The alignment of forces and fronts in these maritime areas were also widely seen during the civil war in Libya, where Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, as well as other players such as Russia, Italy, etc. came into the picture.
Ultimately, a point of contact between Turkey and Israel is the mediation role that the former could play in relations between Iran and Israel, especially after the improvement of Turkish-Iranian relations.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad – which killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 -the Turkish Foreign Minister stated that the U.S. action would increase insecurity and instability in the region. He also reported that Turkey was worried about rising tensions between the United States and Iran that could turn Iraq back into an area of conflict to the detriment of peace and stability in the region. There was also a condolence phone call from President Erdoğan to Iranian President Rouhani, urging him to avoid a conflictual escalation with the United States following the airstrike.
Consequently, it is in the Turkish President’s interest to maintain an open channel with Iran, so that he himself can soften the mutual tensions between Israel and Iran, and – in turn – Israeli diplomacy can influence President Biden’s choices, albeit less pro-Israel than Donald Trump’s.
Turkey is known to have many relationship problems with the United States – especially after the attempted coup of July 15-16, 2016 and including the aforementioned oil issue – and realises that only Israel can resolve the situation smoothly.
In fact, Israel-USA relations are not at their best as they were under President Trump. President Erdoğan seems to be unaware of this fact, but indeed the Turkish President knows that the only voice the White House can hear is Israel’s, and certainly not the voice of the Gulf monarchies, currently at odds with Turkey.
Israel keeps a low profile on the statements made by President Erdoğan with regard to the Palestinians- since it believes them to be consequential – as well as in relation to a series of clearly anti-Zionist attitudes of the Turkish people.
We are certain, however, that President Erdoğan’s declarations of openness and Israeli acquiescence will surely yield concrete results.
The 25-year China-Iran agreement
On March 27, 2021, a document entitled “Comprehensive Document of Iran-China Cooperation” was signed by Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, and his Chinese counterpart. The Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had previously called “the agreement between the presidents of Iran and China correct and wise.” However, the Iranian people have widely criticized it as entirely against their national interests. Iranian officials have not even publicized the document’s contents yet probably because it is highly contentious.
In 2019, excerpts from this document were revealed by the Economist Petroleum news site. The details included:
- China invests $460 billion in Iranian oil and transportation sectors. China will get its investment back from the sale of Iranian crude during the first five years.
- China buys Iranian petroleum products at least 32% cheaper.
- The Chinese can decide before other companies whether to participate in completing all or part of a petrochemical project.
- 50,000 Chinese security personnel will be deployed to protect Chinese projects in Iran.
- China has the right to delay the repayment of its debts for up to two years in exchange for Iranian products’ purchase.
- At least one Russian company will be allowed to participate in the Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline design together with the Chinese operator.
- Every year, 110 senior Revolutionary Guards officers travel to China and Russia for military training. 110 Chinese and Russian advisers will be stationed in Iran to train Revolutionary Guards officers.
- Development of Iranian military equipment and facilities will be outsourced to China, and Chinese and Russian military aircraft and ships will operate the developed facilities.
Even some circles within the regime have criticized the agreement. The state-run Arman newspaper wrote, “China has a 25-year contract with Iran and is investing $460 billion in Iran. It is somewhat ambiguous. Presently, China is holding the money it owes us and blames it on the U.S. sanctions. How can we trust this country to invest $460 billion in Iran?”
Last year, Iran and China had the lowest trade in the previous 16 years, and according to statistics, by the end of 2020, the volume of trade between Iran and China was about $16 billion, which, including undocumented oil sales, still does not reach $20 billion.
Jalal Mirzaei, a former member of Iran’s parliament, said: “If in the future the tensions between Tehran and Washington are moderated, and we see the lifting of some of the sanctions, China can also provide the basis for implementing the provisions of this document, but if the situation continues like today, Beijing will not make any effort to implement the document, as it is essentially unable to take concrete action on the ground because of the sanctions.”
Iran is vital to China in two ways, through its geopolitical location and its geo-economic importance. China knows that it does not have enough natural resources and is currently having a hard time supplying them from Russia and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia supplies its energy needs from oil giant Aramco, half of which is owned by the United States. That is why China is looking for a safe alternative that the United States will not influence, and the only option is Iran. They may also have a two-pronged plan in Iran, which involves using Iran’s profitable market and making Iran into a lever of pressure against the United States for additional concessions.
The Iranian regime’s objectives
The deal could deepen China’s influence in the Middle East and undermine U.S. efforts to isolate the Iranian regime. While the international dispute over the Iranian regime’s nuclear program has not been resolved, it is unclear how much this agreement could be implemented. The regime intends to make it a bargaining chip in possible future nuclear negotiations. However, some of Iran’s top authorities believe that China and Russia cannot be trusted 100 percent.
Due to the sanctions, the regime has a tough time to continue providing financial support to its proxy militias in the region. The regime also faced two major domestic uprisings in 2017 and 2019. Khamenei’s regime survived the widespread uprisings by committing a massacre, killing 1,500 young protesters in the 2019 uprising alone, according to the Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and later confirmed by the Iranian regime’s Interior Ministry officials. Now with the coronavirus pandemic, Khamenei has been able to delay another major uprising.
Iran’s economy is on the verge of collapse. Khamenei must bow to western countries’ demands regarding the nuclear issue, including an end to its regional interventions and its ballistic missile program. Khamenei will struggle to save his regime from s imminent uprisings and a deteriorating economy that will undoubtedly facilitate more protests by the army of the unemployed and the hungry at any moment.
Unlike the 2015 JCPOA, the Iranian regime in 2021 is in a much weaker position. In fact, by many accounts, it is the weakest in its 40-year history. By signing the recent Iran-China agreement and auctioning Iranian resources, Khamenei wants to pressure the United States to surrender and restore the 2015 JCPOA as quickly as possible. But in the end, this pivot will not counteract domestic pressures that target the regime’s very existence.
China-Arab Relations: From Silk to Friendship
China and the Arabs have a long and rich economic and cultural history, and this distinguished relationship still exists today, with a promising future. This bilateral relationship between the two nations is based on the principles of respect and non-interference in internal affairs or foreign policies. Therefore, China’s relationship with the Arabs as well as with other nations is unique and a model to be followed. If you meet a Chinese person, the first phrase will be “Alabo” or an Arab in Mandarin, and he/she will welcome you. The Chinese state’s dealings with its counterparts can be measured based on the model of this Chinese citizen. China deals with the Arabs on the basis of friendship and historical ties.
The history of Sino-Arab relations goes back to the Tang Dynasty, and these relations developed with the flourishing of trade between the two nations. Since China was famous for its high quality silk, this trade route was called the “Silk Road”. Baron Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, better known in English as Baron von Richthofen, was a German traveller, geographer, and scientist. He is noted for coining the terms “Seidenstraße” and “Seidenstraßen” = “Silk Road” or “Silk Route” in 1877.
Chinese-Arab relations have developed in contemporary history. In 1930, China established official relations with the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A library in China was named the “Fouad Islamic Library”, after the late Egyptian king, “Fuad the First”. In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser cut ties with China and established relations with the Communist People’s Republic of China and inaugurated an embassy in Egypt. In the same year, the Arab League established relations with the People’s Republic of China. By the year 1990, all Arab countries cut their relations with the Republic of China and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.
In 2004, the China-Arab Cooperation Forum was established, and today it is considered a milestone for the Sino-Arab relationship. At its inauguration, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing delivered a speech stating:“The Arab world is an important force on the international scene, and that China and the Arab countries have enjoyed a long friendship. Our similar history, our common goals and our broad interests have been credited with enhancing cooperation between the two sides; no matter how the international situation changes, China has always been the sincere friend of the Arab world”. The China-Arab Cooperation Forum was officially established during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the headquarters of the League of Arab States in January of 2004.
Hu Jintao indicated at that time that the formation of the forum is a continuation of the traditional friendship between China and the Arab world. The Chinese president said at the time, “The establishment of the forum is conducive to expanding mutual cooperation in a variety of fields. He added that China had made four proposals; First, maintaining mutual respect, fair treatment and sincere cooperation at the political level. Second, strengthening economic and trade relations through cooperation in the fields of investment and trade, contracted projects, labor services, energy, transportation, communications, agriculture, environmental protection and information. Third, expand cultural exchanges. Finally, conducting training for the employees.”
During the second session of the forum in Beijing in 2006, China showed its sympathy for the issues of the Arab world and its interest in the peace process between Palestine and Israel, since China is a peace-loving country; it presented the idea of “a nuclear-free Middle East”. China is the best friend of the Arab countries today. Although some Arab countries have strong relations with the West whose policy does not match the Chinese policy, but all Arab countries agree on friendly and good relations with the People’s Republic of China.
The Arab citizen is not interested today in the foreign policy of the US, the deadly weapons of the US and Russia, or European culture, but rather the livelihood and economy, and this is what China provides through its wise economic policy. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative, or New Silk Road, which will restore glow to China-Arab relations; as the Arab world is in a strategic location on the initiative map. Thus, the Arab countries are an important partner for China in the initiative. Although the volume of trade exchanges between China and the Arab countries exceeded 200 billion US dollars, which increased 10 times over the past decade, there was no commercial and institutional arrangement to facilitate trade between the two sides.
China, as a peaceful and non-invasive country, aims to promote economic cooperation with Arab region on an equal basis because it considers the Arab world a historic partner. The historical experience of the Arabs with the Chinese through the Silk Road has confirmed that China differs from the nations of colonialism and imperialism, which consider the Arab region a place rich in natural resources only. In his historic speech at the Arab League, Chinese President Xi stressed that China will not seek to extend influence and search for proxies in the Middle East. The Chinese initiatives will contribute to establishing security and stability through economic development and improving the people’s livelihood, in line with the post-2015 development agenda and the aspirations of the Arab people for a better life, as the Chinese experience proves that development is the key to digging out the roots of conflicts and extremism in all its forms.
China is a neutral country and does not favor the use of violence. During the Syrian crisis, for example, the Chinese envoy to the Security Council raised his hand three times, meaning that China, with its wise diplomacy, supported the Syrian regime without entering the military war. During the recent Chinese military parade, Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed some Chinese military capabilities and thus sent a message to the enemies that China will always be ready if a war is imposed on it, and a message of support to China’s allies. The Arab region today needs a real partner who possesses economic and military power and international political influence, such as China; to ensure the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, and to consolidate the China-Arab relations and raise it to the level of a strategic alliance.
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