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“Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” Agreement and the Future of Sino-Iranian Relations

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Authors: Yunis Sharifli and Gandab Valiyeva*

Sino-Iranian diplomatic relations have developed in various fields since 1971. During this period, mutual visits played an important role in the development of bilateral cooperation. An example of this is the start of discussions on the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement during the visit of the leader of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping to Iran on January 19, 2016. The agreement provides for an investment of about $ 400 billion by China to modernize Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical industries and improve the country’s land and water transport. In recent years, various discussions have been held on the progress of Sino-Iranian relations towards strategic cooperation. When relations are based on strategic partnership, economic relations between states come to the fore and a certain level of trust is established between the parties. On the contrary, in a partnership that we can call a limited partnership, the security interests of the states take precedence over the economic interests, which leads to a limited level of relations (Røseth, 2018). This article will analyze whether Sino-Iranian relations are in line with strategic cooperation in the context of economic, energy, and security factors, and analyze how the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” Agreement will affect the future of relations.

Economic relations

China is important in terms of economic power, and Iran in terms of resources, both globally and regionally. In this regard, the development of Sino-Iranian economic relations has always been important for the two countries. This was due to Iran has rich energy resources and the key role of energy resources in China’s economic development. In addition, China has been a major industrial supplier to Iran which has been under Western sanctions since 2008.

Thus, Western companies began to withdraw from the Iranian market, especially after the financial sanctions imposed on Iran in 2012. In the same year, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration announced Iran’s “Look East” policy (Shariatinia və Azizi, 2019). The main goals of this policy were to ease the pressure of Western sanctions, to establish relations with the rising economic powers of East Asia to ensure Iran’s economic development and to attract investment from these countries. During this period, the expansion of relations with Asian countries has always been the most important priority, and China has been at the center of this strategy.

Especially since 2008, when Western countries imposed sanctions on Iran, trade between the two countries has grown rapidly. Thus, between 2010 and 2014, despite sanctions, China’s exports to Iran increased by 29% annually. In terms of trade, the peak of bilateral relations was reached in 2014, when the trade turnover between the two countries amounted to $ 51 billion. After 2014, trade relations declined, despite the gradual lifting of Western sanctions. The reason for this was the gradual normalization of Iran’s relations with the West and the revival of trade relations with European countries in 2015 as a result of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”. In this context, the trade volume between the two countries decreased in 2016 to $ 30 billion (Teer və Wang, 2018).

Looking at the trade relations between the two countries from a broader perspective, we can see that trade relations are developing to a limited extent, in fact, the development of China-Iran trade relations is developing in parallel with China’s trade relations with other Middle Eastern countries. For example, China’s exports to Iran increased by 16.9% annually between 2004 and 2018. During the same period, China’s exports to Saudi Arabia increased by 16.1% year on year and to Turkey by 16.8%. Another example is China’s $ 18 billion worth of exports to both Iran and Saudi Arabia between 2010 and 2018 (Garlick and Havlova, 2020). In this sense, it can be said that China is trying to maintain a balanced relationship with the countries of the Middle East in terms of economic relations in the region.

China’s investment in Iran increased rapidly in 2016-2017 after the gradual lifting of sanctions on Iran, but after the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran in 2018, China’s investment in Iran decreased (Garlick və Havlova, 2020). In terms of foreign direct investment, Sino-Iranian relations are balanced compared to other regional countries. For example, in 2018, China’s foreign direct investment in Iran was $ 3.23 billion, in the UAE – $ 6.23 billion, and in Pakistan – $ 4.24 billion.

The Trump administration’s withdrawal of the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018 and the application of a strategy of maximum pressure have further weakened the development of Iran-China trade relations. In this context, China’s oil exports from Iran fell sharply, which led to a further decline in trade between the two countries. In 2019, trade between the two countries fell to $ 23 billion.

The weakening of economic relations between China and Iran in recent years and the development of economic relations within a limited framework, rather than a strategic one, can be explained by several reasons. The first reason for this limited cooperation is the tough sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States since 2018. In this context, China does not want to further strain the already problematic Sino-US relations by developing relations with Iran. The second reason is the uncertainty of Iran’s long-term economic future and the weak business environment in the country. Chinese companies usually prefer to invest in stable countries. In addition, economic sanctions deter Chinese companies from entering the Iranian market. The third reason is that China’s investment is gradually shifting from developing countries to developed countries that have advanced technologies and extensive industry experience. Finally, another reason for the weakening of trade is China’s diversification of energy imports with different countries.

Energy relations 

One of the developed aspects of economic cooperation between Iran and China is energy relations. The main reason for the development of this sector is that Iran has rich energy resources, and China needs energy resources such as oil and gas for economic development (K. Damianova, 2015). Sanctions on Iran limit the development of energy relations between the two countries, but nevertheless, Sino-Iranian energy relations have developed during this period, and China has increased its influence in terms of Iran’s energy resources.

Following the financial sanctions imposed on Iran, Western and US companies have suspended most of their oil and gas projects. This created a new opportunity for China. Although Chinese oil companies have been active in Iran since 2002, a number of upstream and downstream energy projects have been contracted since the sanctions. In total, China’s Sinopec and CNPC companies (China National Petroleum Corporation) have signed a number of projects with Iran to explore and develop oil and gas fields worth $ 14 billion (Davis, Lecky and et al, 2013). One of the fields invested by Chinese companies is the Azadegan field, one of the largest oil fields in Iran. This field is divided into two parts: North and South Azadegan oil fields. China’s CNPC and Iran’s NIOC reached an agreement in 2009 to develop the North and South Azadegan fields. Under the agreement, the project would be implemented in two phases and would produce 260,000 barrels of oil. However, 150,000 barrels of oil were produced in the first stage and 11,000 barrels in the second stage. Iran was forced to cut ties with CNPC in 2014 due to delays in oil production (Khan və Guo, 2017:22). Another important project is the agreement on the development of the Yadavaran oil field, signed in 2007. The first phase of the project produced 25,000 barrels of oil, and the second phase produced 100,000 barrels. It is planned to increase this production to 300,000 barrels in the third stage (Khan və Guo, 2017:21).

In addition to mega-projects, Chinese companies are implementing smaller projects in Iran. CNPC and Iran signed an agreement in 2005 to operate the Kudasht bloc. CNPC has also signed an agreement with the Iranian Oil Company to develop the Masjid-e Suleiman field. China prefers small projects such as the Masjid-e-Suleiman oil field because Chinese companies do not have the technology required for larger and more complex projects, such as North Azadegan and Yadeveran (Dubowitz və Grossman, 2010).

In addition to oil fields, the two countries also cooperate on gas fields. One of Iran’s most important natural gas fields is the South Persian gas field. Following the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, French company Total and China’s company CNPC signed a joint agreement to develop the 11th section of the field. For the development of the field, 50.1% fell to Total, 30% to CNPC and 19.9% to Pars Oil and Gas. However, in 2018, Total officially announced its withdrawal from the contract due to the heavy sanctions imposed on Iran by the Trump administration. CNPC saw this as an opportunity and agreed to buy a 50.1% stake in Total. However, due to increasing international pressure, problems with coordination between the National Iranian Oil Company and CNPC, and the fact that CNPC did not have enough technology to develop the field, the company was forced to withdraw from the natural gas project for the second time. The continuation of the project fell on the Pars Oil and Gas Company.

Along with multilateral cooperation, new relations are being established between the two countries in the field of alternative energy. Cooperation in the field of alternative energy began in 2016 and covers the production of hydropower, wind energy and biomass.

In recent years, although China has become Iran’s largest energy trading partner, Iran ranks seventh in energy supplies to China. In 2020, China imported 542.386 million tons of oil and 101.661 million tons of natural gas from Iran. In 2021, the level of imports increased sharply. However, despite all this, the energy relations between the two countries are limited and there are various problems, which leads to limited cooperation. The main reasons for this situation can be listed as follows.

The first factor here is Washington’s position. Although Iran-China relations are developing, US-China and US-Iran relations have a significant impact on Sino-Iranian relations. The second reason is China’s energy diplomacy. The main aim here is to diversify energy importers and energy routes. Therefore, China is a place of balanced policy in the Middle East region and imports oil and gas from other energy-rich countries in the region. The imposition of sanctions on Iran restricts oil imports from Iran and leads to an increase in imports from other countries in the region. The third reason is that Chinese energy companies are technologically inadequate and inexperienced compared to Western companies. The last reason is that Chinese companies are reluctant to invest in Iran, which is politically and economically unstable and lags behind other countries in the region in terms of a business environment.

Security Relations

China-Iran security cooperation has been developing since the 1980s. The first line in this relationship is arms sales. Thus, since the 1990s, China has always played a strategic role in Iran’s arms imports, and in most cases, the main share in imports was Chinese weapons (Conduit və Akbarzadeh, 2018). China accounted for 75% of Iran’s arms imports in 2005 and 68% in 2012, and this trend continued in 2014 and 2015. Following the gradual lifting of sanctions on Iran in 2016, Iran’s arms imports from China fell sharply, while imports from Russia increased by 100% (Teer and Wang, 2018). This trend continued between 2016-2019.

A comparison of the arms trade between the two countries with that of other countries in the region shows that the Sino-Iranian arms trade is largely limited and that China lags behind in the arms trade with other countries in the region. For example, China exports drones to Iraq, Pakistan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but does not export drones to Iran. In addition, although Iran accounts for the bulk of Iran’s arms imports from China in the region in certain years, there is no agreement on joint arms production between the two countries. In return, China has a joint drone production agreement with Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.  Given that China does not export drones to Iran and has no joint arms production agreements with Iran, it can be argued that Iran lags behind other countries in the arms trade with China. In recent years, sanctions and Iran’s imports of weapons from Russia have further weakened the arms trade.

In terms of joint military exercises, security relations between the two countries are limited. In the last ten years, China and Iran have held only three joint military exercises. The first of these exercises was held in 2014 against piracy, the second in 2017 in the eastern Strait of Hormuz, and the third in 2019 between China, Russia, and Iran in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. China has held joint military exercises with other Middle Eastern countries since 2010, including Turkey, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, especially in 2017 and 2019, China conducted separate joint military exercises to maintain balance in relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran.  As can be seen, China is conducting joint military exercises not only with Iran but also with other countries in the region. The goal is to develop China’s relations with the countries of the region, as well as to increase arms exports through military exercises.

In general, as in economic cooperation between the two countries, security cooperation remains limited. It is expected that this trend will continue in the short and medium-term. This situation can be explained by various reasons. The first reason is China’s reluctance to deepen security relations with Iran. Thus, any military conflict between Iran and the United States could bring China face to face with the United States. This is also true of the arms trade, for example, China prefers to be cautious about developing an arms trade with Iran because of the possibility of arms being transferred to Iranian-affiliated groups in the region or using them against the United States or its allies in the region.  Second, China is developing relations in the region not only with Iran, but also with other powers in the region, such as Egypt, Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, so it is trying to secure its interests by acting in a balanced way in the region. The deepening and deepening of security relations with Iran towards strategic cooperation could upset China’s balanced relations with other countries in the region, increase China’s perception of threats, and undermine China’s interests in the region. Finally, a highly armed Iran is not in China’s interests, as it could increase Iran’s aggression in the region and threaten the energy security of China and other countries in the region.

Taking all this into account, we can assume that security relations between the two countries are based on limited cooperation and will not develop towards strategic cooperation in the short and medium-term.

The future of bilateral relations in the framework of the “Comprehensive StrategicPartnership

Negotiations on “Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation” began in 2016. The deal is expected to cost $ 400 billion and allow China to invest in Iran’s oil, gas, petrochemical, and transport sectors. The agreement provides for investment in the development of the ports of Chabahar and Cask, which could play a strategic role in diversifying Iran’s oil exports. Although the agreement provides for investment in various areas, it is doubtful that relations between the two countries will develop towards real strategic cooperation after the signing of this agreement. First of all, the persistence of sanctions on Iran and the strained relations with the United States, which prevents Chinese and Chinese companies from investing in Iran. Second, China’s balanced policy in the Middle East and its pro-Iranian stance on regional cooperation are likely to hurt its regional and global interests. Third, the fact that various projects that have been closed since 2013 are still on paper, and some have been suspended after they begin, raises doubts about the viability of all projects under this new agreement.

As a result, although Sino-Iranian relations have developed over the past 10 years in terms of economic, energy, and security relations, and the two countries have similar views on the international system, the security interests of the two countries, especially China, outweigh its economic interests with Iran. For China, maintaining limited relations with Iran is important in terms of its regional interests in the Middle East, its avoidance of confrontation with the United States, and its ability to prevent the growing perception of the “Chinese threat” in the Middle East. In addition, even if the conservatives, who are more pro-reform than pro-reform, win the June 18, 2021, presidential election in Iran, Sino-Iranian relations are likely to remain limited in the short to medium term for a variety of reasons.

*Gandab Valiyeva has done Bachelor of International Relations at the Azerbaijan State Economic University. She was an intern Center of Analysis of International Relations ( AIR Center). She is an intern Caucasian Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (QAFSAM). Gandab Valiyeva is interested Middle East politics through the internship program, especially Iran’s foreign and energy policy with global and regional powers. Her areas of expertise cover Iran’s foreign policy in the context of South Caucasus and China-Iran relations. 

Yunis Sharifli graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations from the Azerbaijan State Economic in 2020. At the moment, he is studying at the University of Bologna for his Master's Degree. He was an intern at the Topchubashov Center. He is currently an intern at the Caucasian Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (QAFSAM). His areas of expertise cover China’s foreign policy in the context of the Central Asia and South Caucasus and also the Belt and Road Initiative.

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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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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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