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Iran’s Dilemma of “Cocktail Party Effect” in the Middle East

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Over the past two decades, Iran has experienced many security and economic problems. The accumulation of these problems at the domestic level has led to years of double-digit inflation, widespread poverty, and numerous social anomalies, and at the international level, has put the risk of war with the United States and its allies. While being the result of years of US pressure to corner Iran, these challenges also represent destructive consequences of Iran’s unbalanced deterrence mentality in the Middle East. However, the costs and adverse consequences are limited to Iran. In this regard, Iranian officials have long believed that the era of decline and weakness of the US and its regional cohorts has already begun and the withdrawal or at least the reduction of the US military presence in Iraq is the result of Iran’s military deterrence. The facts on the ground are very different from these Iranian claims.

Insisting on this strategic view and insight without considering the imposed costs, failures, Iranian interests losses during these years and problems that it is facing now, boils down to ignoring the difference between the concepts of output and outcome. Based on Tehran Chamber of Commerce Report, published in mid-July 2021, the inflation rate in Iran is 31 and 9 times that of the two war-torn and failed states of Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. This is notable considering that during the past two decades Iranian leaders have always justified their regional policies based on the necessity of fighting the United States and trying to force it out of the Middle East so that Iran does not find itself in the same situation as these two countries. I call this permanent dilemma of Iranian regional policies “the dilemma of cocktail party effect.” This concept is a phenomenon in psychology and audiology in which the auditory attention of an individual is focused on one specific stimulus, while ignoring others, similar to the situation where one can talk with one person in a crowded party and ignore other noises around them. This phenomenon, however, is catastrophic in foreign policy.

Today, we can say that Iran is entangled in the dilemma of the cocktail party effect more than any other country in the world due to its insistence on this incorrect policy and insight. Iran is so focused on expelling the US from the Middle East that it is has ignored the new concepts of security in foreign and defense policies, merely opting for advancing and exerting its influence through military power and proxy groups. These are symptoms of the dangerous disease of defective sense of proportion among Iranians the outcomes of which have been bitterly repeated throughout the history.

This claim can be supported by numerous evidence: the coalition forces led by the United States still control Iraqi air space; Iran is the main reason for the increase in the Pentagon budget for the 127e program to fight terrorism in the Middle East; Operation Spartan Shield, launched in 2012 to compensate for the removal of United States forces from Iraq, is still active (the military relationships between the United States in regions such as the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, from Egypt to Oman and Kazakhstan, are shaped based on this program, with  more than 10,000 joint projects providing a procurement and support platform for Pentagon to manage combat forces in the region as needed); in 2020 and for the first time after 14 years, Iran lost its direct agency in the election of Iraq’s Prime Minister and consequently, today Iraq has a Prime Minister who is reviving important agreements with the US and other rivals of Iran; the possibility of reconciliation and cohesion of Shiite resistance forces, including the most important actor that supports Iran in Iraq (al-Ḥashd ash-Shaʿbī, the Popular Mobilization Forces), has dwindled with the assassination of the General Soleimani and the call for withdrawal of the American forces has led to separation of four brigades (al-Ḥashd al-Atabaat, the Holy Shrines Forces) from the Popular Mobilization Forces followed by conflicts between them and Iraqi organizations; the Shiite Iraqi government (as a state at the strategic depth of Iran!) needs issuance and extension of waivers by the United States Department of the Treasury and Department of State to import electricity and gas from Iran due to economic and banking sanctions imposed on Iran by the US; Iraq, as a sovereign state, cannot pay for energy carriers it buys from Iran and only agrees to release these funds in small amount for purchase of medication and humanitarian commodities.

Not only has the continuation of this form of military deterrence and regional policies not yielded any tangible achievement for Iran but it has also promoted the anti-Iranian polices in Iraq. For instance, the past few years have witnessed the surge of Pan Arabism and Arab nationalism in Iraq, which Kazemi is trying to employ to contain Iran’s proxy forces in Iraq. In doing so, it appears that he is supporting a political strategy that organizes a faction of Iraqi political and religious actors against the Iranian backed militias to isolate them by reducing their capacity and popular legitimacy. The US aerial attacks on the bases of Iranian backed militias in Iraq, such as the first military attack of Biden Administration on Iranian bases near the Iraqi-Syrian border, which took place in intelligence coordination with the Iraqi government, must be a significant warning to Iran.

The situation is somewhat the same in the case of Syria. Prior to the civil war, Syria had a $30 billion market, which has now declined to $5 billion. Iran holds a share of $150 million in this market, while the share of Turkey, an enemy of Bashar al-Assad that has spent large sums to topple the Damascus government, is 13 times of those of Iran. Is the real danger and threat to Iran’s national interests and security losing these economic advantages Syria offers or merely the presence of US military bases? If Iran pursuits its goals in the region correctly and proportionate to its national interests and reduces tensions with the United States, even 10 American military bases in Syria will not hurt this country. On the other hand, what kind of victory it would be for the Axis of Resistance if the US withdraws completely from Syria but Iran remains in the list of countries supporting terrorism, Iran-o-phobia continues to spread, and Aleppo remains under the occupation of Turkey and the Golan heights under the occupation of Israel? Moreover, would physical withdrawal of the American forces from Syria neutralize sanctions and newly emerging  US-centered trends and projects, given that, at the moment, the “Caesar Act” prevents Iran from freely passing its gas pipelines from Iraq to Syria and then to the Mediterranean Sea through investments in and economic cooperation with Syria (even with Assad government as an ally!) and that Iran’s strategic partner (Russia) welcomes the status quo, which results in ousting of Iran as its most important rival in gas exports in the world?

We must bear in mind that CENTCOM has bases in seven countries near Iran, has formed multilateral military cooperation with more than 10 countries and, most importantly, has signed security cooperation agreements with 16 countries. Can Iran force the US to close these bases and/or ask the host countries to withdraw from their agreements with the US? Given the military bases of the US in Turkey, the Persian Gulf countries, and Afghanistan, and considering superiority of American military and technological capabilities that allow CENTCOM to take offensive actions, will the mere closure of US bases in Iraq and Syria have decisive strategical and security effects on military planning and political developments in the region? Iran must remember that General Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, was targeted in Iraq by drones that took off from a base outside of Iraq

Furthermore, one should consider that every year on November, US Presidents extend National Emergency status towards Iran based on Executive Orders; that the International Emergency Economic Powers Act is working against Iran; that CAATSA, a US federal act that allows this country to impose economic sanctions on enemies of the United States, disrupts all Iranian economic activities and capacities, banking transactions, financial and insurance measures, and industrial and transportation systems in an unprecedented manner; that Iranian properties and possessions in foreign countries (amounting to more than $50 billion by now) are easily confiscated based on the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) and the Flatow Amendment; that Iran has for years paid the endless costs of its nuclear program due to the drastic faults in its ideological foreign policy moves without even having the actual weapons as North Korea does and finally has been forced to allow the most sensitive and important dimensions of its nuclear program to be inspected by the IAEA in exchange for the lifting of sanctions and returning to normal trade relations with the world; that Iran (without having any nuclear weapons) have for years been advocating, overtly and covertly, the physical destruction of Israel, the only country in the Middle East with tens of nuclear warheads; that Iran ignores the principle of perception and misperception in international politics and, instead of keeping a low profile in its defense capabilities, continuously demonstrates their details of weapons with provocative slogans; that this country is incapable of translating its political and military influence in the region to economic influence due to the lack of a vast strategic view; and that while Iran pays the costs of preserving security in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Turkey, Russia and other countries reap the benefits of this security, leaving Iran at the target of criticisms and accusations from nations it has lost their support. Given all the above, would there be any tangible alternations in Iran’s economic and security situation even if all American bases were dismantled in Iraq and Syria?

Iran’s fundamental problem and the crises it continues to face are the result of limited strategic culture of a country that is faced with serious dilemmas of recession and cognitive closure in the domains of defense and foreign policy rather than the destructive role played by belligerent countries. For example, on October 18, 2020, the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued an official statement declaring that Iran was allowed to import and supply all kinds of conventional armaments at the international level from that point on in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2331, after 13 years. Contrary to expectations that Iran would be at least able to trade with its strategic partners (Russia and China) to meet some of its defensive  needs, no transactions has yet taken place since then, suggesting that the annulment of  sanctions on armaments by the United Nations was practically useless. This was due to issuance of the Executive Order 13949 on September 21, 2020, based on which “any party that participates in the provision, sale or transfer of conventional weapons to Iran will be punished.” The entire world, including China and Russia, complied with this order.

The elites in Tehran must take a stand on several basic questions: How many more years can Iran survive with double-digit inflation, negative growth rates, continuous decline in the value of the country’s currency and the outflow of its human capital? How much longer can Iran pay the costs of tensions with its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf? Can Iran be certain that the future governments in Iraq and Syria will not establish political relations with Israel? Would Iran still feel the responsibility to bring the occupation of Iraq to an end and to oust the United States from the region after the defeat of ISIS?  Will helping the gradual coming to power of and giving the sense of independence to anti-Iran political forces—even some Shiite movements—not lead to their cooperation with the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council to cause problems for Iran and become its regional economic rivals in the fields of energy, affecting Iran’s opportunities and interests?

The second issue is the contradiction between Iran’s regional goals and its expectations from the Middle Eastern Arab countries. Iran has legitimate security needs and concerns, but has based its expectations on the fixed idea that the countries in the Persian Gulf region must take important steps to cut off their security and military cooperation with the US, dismantle Western military bases on their soil and share their security with Iran based on Iranian guarantees and in line with Iranian interests and security requirements. This, from the viewpoint of Tehran, requires closure of American military bases and expulsion of all its forces from the Persian Gulf countries. Accordingly, Iranian elites propose that attempts be made to achieve joint security in the Persian Gulf with the cooperation of all the countries in the region in the framework of projects such as Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE). In not trying to change the negative mentality of its neighbors, and by insisting on joint security, Iran disregards two facts simultaneously: 

First, given that after four decades, Tehran is still promoting a form of political regime that is conceptualized by exporting its revolution, the perception of the countries in the region is that Iran is after regime change in these Arab countries. Essentially, exporting revolution has no other meaning. This is how this model of regional policy is judged and constructed aggressively due to its intersubjective structure. It means that Iran seeks to change the current regional order (with the US supportive umbrella) and establish its own desired revolutionary order without gaining the consent or trust of the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf about its goals and objectives. This is where the contradiction and the zero-sum game arises. Iran ignores the fact that these countries essentially owe their political independence, security, survival, and sustainability of economic development to the West (especially the US). In addition, military and strategic relations between Persian Gulf countries and the US form a vital part of their national security and some of these countries even willingly pay exorbitant sums for the presence of American forces to guarantee and continue regional security arrangements around US presence.

Some exemplary evidence are as follows: the US Department of Defense signed a new memorandum of understanding with Qatar in January 2019 to develop and expand the “Al Udeid Air Base” as the new basing hub for CENTCOM in the region; in March of the same year, CENTCOM reached an agreement with Oman to use the two ports of Duqm and Salalah for monitoring Iranian military operations in the Sea of Oman; in September  2020, the UAE asked the US to transfer its Air Base in Incirlik, Turkey to the UAE; in January 2020, the US succeeded in winning the consent of Israel for establishment of the Iron Dome Air Defense Missile Shield in some of the Persian Gulf Countries and, simultaneously, CENTCOM started a project to prepare the new military bases in western Saudi Arabia and convert them into relief and logistics bases. These bases include King Fahad Port, King Faisal Air Base and King Fahad Base at Taif. Therefore, while American pivot to Asia strategy and their determination to reduce forces in the Middle East is serious, aggressive Iranian regional policies are inadvertently in harmony with those of Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Russia and China. That is, all these countries seek the continuation of the presence of US forces in the region, albeit each for different reasons.

The dilemma of cocktail party effect describes how the capacities and facilities we once thought would stay with us forever would fade and how methods that we insist that are always efficient in confronting future variations and challenges would become obsolete. For example, Iran fails to consider this fact that as the tensions and differences between Iran and Arab countries increase, differences between Arab countries and the US and Israel will decrease and vice versa. The more intensified the confrontation between Iran and the US becomes in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the more the motivation of the US for greater security and military cooperation with Arab countries and Israel, and consequently, the greater the attempts and inclination of Arab countries for permanent presence of US military forces in the region. Concurrent with the continuation of this security formula, a part of the fundamental policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in relation to the Middle East concerns “wiping Israel off” the face of the Earth. Basically, the unilateralism of the Islamic Republic in continuing this same physical omission policy accounts for many of the differences and conflicts between Iran and Western countries and, contrary to Tehran’s expectations, has led to overt closeness of the Arab world and Israel.

The conventional and established assumption that the American forces have always understood the Middle East based on predetermined macro plans and strategies is not very accurate. The roles that Israel, for example, the member states of the GCC, Russia and China play in delaying the departure or reduction of the number of US forces from and in the Middle East cannot be denied. Interestingly, despite the huge efforts and investments made by the Islamic Republic of Iran for ousting the US from the Middle East, during the past decade and since Obama’s second term in the office—i.e. when Washington has been more serious about reducing its military forces and bases in areas close to Iran due to the need for a greater presence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans to confront the growing Chinese power—Iran’s policies and behavior have inadvertently prevented the departure of these forces from the region. Therefore, accounting for the facts over wishes, and contrary to Tehran’s expectations, not only has the US not left the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, but also other members of the GCC, including Saudi Arabia and Oman, are following the example of UAE and Bahrain in seeking to normalize their relations with Israel, and now Israel and Turkey also have a presence in the region.

Cognitive flexibility is essential for deterrence to flourish.  It is such qualities we need to solve the Iran’s security challenges of today, including regional conflict and US multilateral pressures. In short, to expel the United States from the Middle East, Iran must achieve this goal by the help of the United States and its regional allies.

Masoud Rezaei is a senior visiting fellow at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies (CMESS) in Tehran. He has focused on Iran’s foreign and defense policy in the Middle East, Iran’s relations with great powers, non-proliferation and arms control issues in the Persian Gulf region. Dr. Rezaei holds a PhD in International Relations from the Islamic Azad University, Tehran Sciences and Research Branch (Isfahan). @rezaeimsd

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Assyrians are Not Refugees Who Settled in Iraq

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In recent years, some Kurdish and Arab politicians and wanna-be historians have been making statements that the Assyrians of Iraq were refugees from Hakkari, Turkey and that the British brought them to Iraq. This absurd and misleading statement spread as Assyrians were trying to find their place in the new Iraq post 2003 US invasion.

On October 3, 1932 Iraq became the 57th member of the League of Nations (replaced by the United Nations on October 24, 1945 post World War II). On December 15, 1932, an article titled “Iraq and the Assyrians” was published in the periodical The Near East and India. The article addressed the settlement of the Assyrians in Iraq. The Assyrian leaders have been pleading to solve the settlement issue before ending the British mandate over Iraq and before admitting Iraq into the League of Nations as a sovereign and independent state (planned for 1932). The Assyrian leaders warned the West that Iraqi leaders could not be trusted and that Assyrians are not safe under the rule of Arabs and Kurds.

Before going further into the article aforementioned there is an important point that the readers must understand. The Assyrians did not fall from Mars onto northern Iraq. The Assyrians have been living in Northern Mesopotamia from time immemorial and their dynasties established one of the greatest civilization and empire in the Near East. The fall of the last Assyrian dynasty, i.e., the Neo-Assyrian Empire, in 612 BC and the last capital in Harran in 609 BC did not mean the disappearance of the people. This is similar to the fall of the Roman, Greek, Persian and many other empires. The people of those empires survived. The Assyrians continued to live in and around the historic Assyrian capitals of Ashur (Qal’at Sharqat), Kalhu (Nimrud), Dur Sharukin (Khursabad), Nineveh (Nebi Yunis) and Harran in upper Mesopotamia or lived in new settlements near by those capitals, such as Mosul, Arbil, Kirkuk, Urfa (Urhai or Edessa), Nisibin, etc. that were centers of the Assyrians’ Christianity.

Assyria was occupied by several nations including the Medes, Greeks, Parthians, Romans, Sassanids, Arabs, Mongolians, Ottoman Turks and others in between. The Assyrians adopted Christianity during the time of the Apostles and remained Christians ever since. The Christological controversies that followed the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Chalcedon (451) isolated these Assyrian denominational communities from each others. As the Church established further structure and hierarchy, the Churches of the Assyrians kept the various Assyrian communities together, each under its leader, the patriarchs. The Assyrian denominational terms Nestorian and Jacobite were born. Later, in 1681 in Diyar Bekir (Turkey) and in 1830 in northern Iraq (Alqosh) the conversion of Assyrians to Catholicism isolated more Assyrians as the term Chaldean was given to these converts.

With the clear establishment of these denominations, a clear distribution of the Assyrian population was shaped. The Nestorian Assyrians lived as a concentrated region of the Hakkari Mountains (Van Province) and Urmia region in Persia, Jacobite Assyrians in the Tur Abdin/Diyar Bekir region (Sandschak Zor and Diyar Bekir Provinces) and Chaldean Assyrians in Nineveh region/Arbil/Kirkuk (Mosul Province); however, these various denominational groups were intermixed in some locations. Despite this denominational separation, they all continued to refer to themselves as Suraye, which is Asuraye or Assuraye, meaning Assyrians.

The genocide of World War I (1914-1918) committed against the Assyrians by Turks and Kurds in Hakkari and Tur ‘Abdin (today both in modern Turkey) forced the Assyrians out. One escape route ended the Assyrians first in the camp of Baquba (1918 near Baghdad) and then in the camp of Mindan (1920 near Mosul) via Urmia, Persia.

Map of the Ottoman Empire divided by provinces Before its Fall in 1922

The other route ended up in Qamishli and Aleppo as genocide continued even after the Ottoman Empire had collapsed and the Turkish State was created in 1922. Therefore, the Assyrians were basically displaced because of genocide from one province to another within the same Ottoman Empire, i.e., from Hakkari to Mosul and from Diyar Bekir/Tur Abdin to Qamishli/Aleppo. Those displaced refugees from Hakkari and Urmia joined their Catholic brethren, the Chaldean Assyrians, in Mosul Province. Therefore, the Assyrians did not migrate from some foreign planet to Mosul Province considering also that there were Assyrians in Mosul region since the fall of the Assyrian Empire and these Assyrians after converting to Catholicism became known as Chaldeans.

Another important issue is the similarity in the geographical terrain. One of the principle Assyrian regions was the highlands that starts from Mosul (today in Iraq) and extends all the way to southern Lake Van (today in Turkey). The Assyrian people lived throughout these highlands. This continuation of topography was not divided politically until the official fall of the Ottoman Empire in November 1, 1922. After many disagreements, protests and negotiations, the British and the Turks finally signed the Treaty of Ankara on June 5, 1926 by which both states recognized the Brussels line (with some minor modifications) as the frontier between the two new created states of Iraq and Turkey. Even if we consider this new frontier, we need to understand that the large Assyrian region of Lower Barwar was always part of the Ottoman’s Mosul Province (Iraq) – the Assyrians of Lower Barwar did not migrate from Turkey to Iraq per se, unlike those of Upper Barwar.

During World War I, British and French representatives, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot, authored a secret agreement (concluded on May 19, 1916 ) regarding the future spoils of the Ottoman Empire that was expected to lose the war. After few modifications and incidents, the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq was created from the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra and immediately placed it under the British mandate. Modern Turkey, Iraq, Syria and other states in the region did not exist before 1921/22. Therefore, we cannot say that in 1918 people moved from Turkey to Iraq because Turkey and Iraq did not exist at the time.

Now back to the December 5, 1932 The Near East and India article, which stated that the Council of the League of Nations considered the question of the settlement of the 40,000 [Nestorian] Assyrians in Iraq. At the council meeting, Nuri al-Said, the prime minister of Iraq stated: “The government of Iraq is determined to assure the prosperity, the happiness and the tranquility of all inhabitants of Iraq. It is following the best and most practical path to this end, allowing itself to be guided by the most human principles, by considerations of the general interest and by respect for existing laws.”

It took only few months later from the promise of the Iraqi prime minister that 3,000 Assyrians were massacred in the state-sponsored Simele Genocide in August 1933. The Assyrians continue to be persecuted and oppressed in Iraq by the Arab and the Kurdish authorities as the leaders and historians of Arabs and Kurds continue to claim that the Assyrians were refugees from Turkey and Persia (later Iran) and needed to be relocated or settled outside Iraq, if they had any conditions or hard to meet conditions, regardless how reasonable.

One important note, Kurdish nationalists and writers claim that the Allies post WWI divided Kurdistan into north, south, east and west Kurdistans. Such wild claims must never be allowed to spread. Unlike the well established and historic Assyrian Empire, there never existed an official state or country on the world map under the name of Kurdistan. After European travelers and missionaries visited the Middle East region, they encountered the nomad Kurds and soon a border-less and unofficial region under such name began to be inserted on certain Middle East maps to reflect the presence of these stateless people. In 1946, a Kurdish state under the name of Mahabad Republic was established in west Iran, but it was crushed by the Iranian army after 11 months. The Kurdish nationalists have promoted an aggressive Kurdification campaign to erase the Assyrian history from northern Iraq and replace it with Kurdish history.

Education empowers people – it enables them to understand. When they understand, they discuss issues affecting them with confidence, logically and accurately. Assyrians and other undermined people around the world must participate in this great battle of survival armed with education, because they must not let the murderers or oppressors write the history. The Assyrians are the indigenous people of Iraq – history and archeology proves that. Throughout history, many Assyrians were forced to flee their homes and lands of northern Iraq (occupied Assyria) because of massacres and persecution.

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U.S. Policy Case for Middle East under New Conditions

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Image source: twitter @POTUS

In contrast to the presidential elections of the past two decades, the new White House administration has faced great difficulties in shaping its Middle East policy. With internal division, polarization, political system failures and the unwavering pandemic, the Middle East has largely dropped out of U.S. foreign policy priorities. Shortly after his election, George W. Bush came up with the ambitious initiative of a Greater Middle East which entailed a democratic restructuring of the region; Barack Obama quickly sent a special envoy for the Middle East to mediate between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; and Donald Trump, by contrast, dashed a number of traditional constants in the policies of his predecessors. It took Joe Biden’s administration a long time to realize the place of this troubled region in the U.S. grand strategy. Trump left Biden a heavy and intricate legacy, with no room for continuity or a sharp change of course on all fronts.

The continued policy of confrontation with Russia and China, framed ideologically as that of a democracy vs. autocracy, implied a revision of the approach towards the Middle East and a need to restore trust globally, taking into account all the painful experiences of the U.S., especially after the fiasco in Iraq and Afghanistan. How to achieve this amid a shifting global balance of power—clearly, not in favor of the United States—and striking changes in the region where the U.S. is increasingly seen as a key regional player was exactly the question. As early as by President Obama’s second term, a kind of consensus had been reached in the U.S. after long discussions. Trump was also guided by it, although one of his first trips abroad was to Saudi Arabia. U.S. policy in the Middle East is overly militarized, while meddling in the region’s internal affairs and the resources invested do not yield proper political impact. This leads to the conclusion that the U.S. military presence and political commitments should be reduced, avoiding overstretching in the face of emerging global threats and challenges.

The president and the secretary of state were critical of their predecessors, while devising their own approach to the region, with its unresolved conflicts and socio-political cataclysms, was clearly delayed. There has been a sense of uncertainty in the Arab world as to how and when Joe Biden would set a course for the Middle East. Questions arose as to whether one should prepare for a U.S. withdrawal from the region and Washington’s search for foreign policy alternatives. There were growing security concerns in the Gulf, which viewed Iran as a real threat. Namely, they believed that the U.S., having lost interest in the region, would decide to abandon its traditional guarantor role in the face of ongoing course corrections. Washington’s general words about “recalibration,” “redeployment,” and “reorientation” evoked mixed feelings: On the one hand, a desire for America to somehow define itself; on the other, a loss of confidence in it. The prolonged lack of progress in reaching agreement on the terms of a U.S. return to the JCPOA and the uncertainty over the parties’ future intentions were perceived with concern by Washington’s regional partners; not only by the Arab monarchies but also by Israel. The complicated domestic situation in Israel after the establishment of a shaky two-headed coalition and the prospect of a fifth edition of parliamentary elections in the last two years have put U.S. diplomacy in an ambiguous position.

The negative for the United States impact of the Ukrainian crisis on global energy as well as predominantly neutral attitudes towards the crisis in the non-Western world, which is somewhat closer to understanding Russia’s motives, seemed to serve as a stimulant that prompted Washington to shift its attention back to the Middle East—especially since the current conditions on the oil market have led to a significant increase in fuel prices in the U.S., which could have an adverse impact for the U.S. administration in light of the approaching midterms.

In this environment, the announcement of Biden’s upcoming trip to the Middle East on July 15-16 was met with a lot of skepticism, especially within America. The visit to Saudi Arabia came in for particular criticism because Biden promised to make Riyadh a “pariah” after the brutal assassination of Saudi journalist Khashoggi, and he was now planning to rehabilitate it in favor of domestic interests. Biden himself was forced to speak publicly to put the purpose of his visit to the Middle East in a broader global and regional context.

The pessimistic sentiments in the U.S. expert community were vividly expressed by Daniel Kurtzer and Aaron David Miller, two retired senior diplomats who worked for years in the Middle East and at the State Department under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The essence of this image, translated into political language, is as follows: “If you plant a garden and go away for six months, what have you got when you come back? Weeds.” Biden deprioritized the Middle East for sixteen months, and the weeds have grown in the meantime. And so the president was sent on a “diplomatic foray into the region to plant U.S. flags and start to repair the damage done to the flowers and greenery.” The conclusion is that the pivot to the Middle East will not last long, and one should not expect quick pay-offs.

The itinerary from Tel Aviv to Jeddah, where, alongside with the bilateral U.S.-Saudi negotiations, the U.S. president met with a number of Arab leaders in the GCC+3 format (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan) is quite telling. This list indicates the states the Biden administration intends to bet on as well as the range of oft-interrelated problems, the approaches to which the administration considers necessary to clarify and harmonize. These include regional security, continued normalization of the Arab-Israeli relations, the issue of a U.S. return to the JCPOA, warning signals to Iran, a new understanding of the nature of allied relations, conflict resolution with a focus on Yemen, continued Palestinian-Israeli contacts, etc.

The Israeli part of Biden’s trip showed that the United States was not going to revise the legacy of the previous administration, which formally declared Israeli settlements in the West Bank not contrary to international law and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel. By and large, the status of Jerusalem, like the issue of Jewish settlements, is a fait accompli for the United States. At the same time, Biden reiterated his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—it was a purely formal gesture, though: more of a tribute to his election campaign. This position is also enshrined, albeit one-sidedly, in the Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration. Apart from passing remarks about his intention to promote dialogue with the Palestinians and provide humanitarian grants, the American president’s visit to the Palestinian Authority was more of a touristy, humanitarian nature. The text of this widely circulated declaration leaves no doubt that the U.S. continues to pursue the principled policy of ensuring Israel’s security and military dominance as “strategic commitments that are vitally important to the national security of the United States itself.” In this regard, we have seen additional measures of cooperation in air defense and laser technology development. Another important point of the declaration was the message to the U.S. partners in the region that America will “never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon” and will work with them “to confront Iran’s aggression and destabilizing activities.” Finally, the U.S. and Israel praised the Abraham Accords as a critical addition to Israel’s strategic peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and an important starting point for building a new regional security system.

The most complicated and sensitive part of the president’s Middle East tour—the trip to Saudi Arabia—had two dimensions to it. First, a normalization of the long-struggling bilateral relations with a new focus on the policies of Trump and Obama; and second, a presentation of the U.S. administration’s vision of the Middle East strategy.

On the bilateral agenda, Biden tried to find some middle ground in the eternal conflict between “American values” and “national interests,” between respecting human rights and supporting rigid autocracies, which in the United States, i.a. among Democrats, include the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There has been a heated debate in the United States over the dilemma where the prestige of a powerful figure in the kingdom, like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been directly affected by Khashoggi’s assassination. Did the U.S. president raise human rights issues with the Crown Prince and what was his reaction? Responding to the numerous questions, the president confirmed that he had discussed this issue “directly and openly,” though there remained great doubt in U.S. domestic political discourse about the administration’s determination (and that of Biden personally) to put ideological values above practical considerations. The reaction of the Saudi leadership was no less direct. As it became known in the Arab world, Mohammed bin Salman replied briefly: “And what about Shireen Abu Akleh?” (a journalist of Palestinian origin murdered in Israel). In general, the contrast between the way Americans “defend” democracy and human rights in Ukraine and the way they do it for the Palestinians in the Arab world has not gone unnoticed. This partly explains no mention of the Ukrainian conflict from the Arab side during the talks.

The U.S. president’s trip to the Middle East was the occasion for the public announcement of a revised foreign policy in its regional dimension. Biden thought it was symbolic that he was the first U.S. president to come to Saudi Arabia from Israel and the first to visit the region at a time when the U.S. has no military personnel engaged in military operations there. Thereafter, the U.S. emphasized intensive diplomacy with the caveat that the use of force is seen as a last resort when all other options have been exhausted.

The U.S. Middle East strategy is presented in five main areas. First, the U.S. will not leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran, so it is not withdrawing from the region. Washington will bolster partnerships with countries that subscribe to the rules-based international order, making sure these countries can defend themselves against foreign threats. Second, security cooperation. The U.S. will pledge determination to ensure the freedom of navigation through the Middle East’s waterways, including the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb, to prevent dominance by any country. Third, de-escalation and termination of regional conflicts. The U.S. is ready to work with the partners to counter threats from Iran by forcing it to curtail its nuclear program. Fourth, the development of bilateral political, economic, and security connections, and the promotion of regional projects in energy, free trade and investment. Fifth, the U.S. commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms and the values enshrined in the U.N. Charter.

It remains a matter of debate how the American president’s significant statements in the Middle East with a leadership bid can convert into practical policy. At the same time, growing tensions in Europe and Asia are gradually pushing this into the background. Assessments of the prospects for achieving the goal in practice are rather restrained, ranging from a complete disbelief in the U.S. ability to achieve ambitious goals in a rapidly changing region to assertions that Biden should be given time and that America still has chances to adjust its Middle East policy to the new realities in the world and in the United States itself. Looks like Biden took some not-so-heavy political baggage from the Middle East. U.S. attempts to present Saudi Arabia’s consent to overflight of its airspace by Israeli civilian aircraft as a breakthrough were quickly devalued by the Saudis’ official explanations that it was only about facilitating international air communications, not about normalizing relations with Israel. The Saudis have also made adjustments to the definition of the U.S. role in lowering oil prices. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Al-Jubeir hastened to declare that the decision will be based on market assessments, and Saudi Arabia intends to continue consultations with OPEC members as well as within OPEC+, i.e. with Russia. The Saudis oppose the politicization of the global financial system and do not support calls for an oil embargo. According to experts, if the decision to further increase oil production was made, such an increase wouldn’t be so critical that the U.S. could take the credit.

Biden’s post-Bush, post-Obama and post-Trump Middle East strategy looks like a desire to find a middle ground between two extremes: over-involvement in the regional set-up coupled with military intervention or a complete turn toward the Indo-Pacific. That is, there is an understanding that the U.S. cannot change the Middle East, nor can it afford to withdraw from it. At the same time, the focus on countering Russia and China, which allegedly took advantage of the vacuum in the region, remains part of this adjusted strategy, much as the pivot to mobilize traditional Arab partners to achieve U.S. goals. And that is where the main contradiction lies. The U.S. plan for a regional alliance of democracies has no real prospect in the Middle East. The results of Biden’s Middle East trip clearly showed that, in contrast to the times of the Soviet-American confrontation, the Arab countries pursue a diversified policy, avoiding a strictly one-sided orientation on the principle of “the enemy of my friend is not my enemy.” With a new round of global confrontation, the leaders of these countries tread carefully, without closing foreign relations on unstable alliances and believing that their national interests in the new geopolitical and regional realities are more consistent with maintaining a situational partnership with the major powers.

Strengthening the U.S. strategic partnership with Israel at the expense of the right of the Palestinian people to their statehood is unlikely to advance further normalization of Israel’s relations with the Arab world, but rather will complicate the country’s integration into the region. As a result, one can expect a sharp rise in radical sentiment among the Palestinians, with the support of the resistance front by Arab states. This is evidenced by the restoration of Hamas’ relations with Syria, as well as the meeting of all Palestinian factions in Algeria facilitated by the movement. In security issues, the Gulf monarchies are looking for opportunities to defuse tensions with Iran through regional mediation as an alternative to U.S. guarantees.

One should not expect a dramatic turnaround in the U.S. Middle East policy. The incumbent president will have to reckon with the balance of power in Congress, which cannot be changed by executive orders. The Middle East will remain a focus of the Democratic administration, albeit not a top priority. The new style, with its emphasis on multilateral diplomacy, will help set a more balanced course toward key regional issues. At the same time, the Biden administration will not be able to ignore that Russia’s multi-vector policy has shown its relevance over the past two decades. The new reality in the Middle East will force American diplomacy to seek interaction points with Russia through overcoming the credibility gap, even in the face of tense bilateral relations. The question is whether it is possible to separate the Middle East from the context of the real geopolitics unfolding at odds. In this sense, Syria will be an important indicator of U.S. intentions, being a country where both Washington and Moscow, like in Europe, are in direct military contact.

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Middle East

An updated Chinese strategy towards the Arab region: Evidence from Saudi Arabia

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The economic ties between Saudi Arabia and China are a reflection of both countries’ current development. From 1949 until the mid-1970s, interactions between China and the Muslim world were almost non-existent. During the late 1970s, China began its economic reform initiative, which reshaped China’s economy from 1978 to 2000, opening the way for developing the bilateral relations. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and China was improved with the beginning of the twenty-first century. In 2008, the global financial and economic crisis ravaged the United States; this paved the way for further progress in the Saudi-Chinese relationship.

After Saudi Arabia put out its 2030 vision for multilateralism, the movement in Saudi-Chinese relations coincided with the transformation in the global system, which is one of the most essential parts of multipolarity. As a result, China now has more possibilities for being involved in this process.

After China’s openness to the West, the country devoted itself primarily to the acquisition of advanced financial and technological infrastructure. At the time, China was not interested in strengthening its ties to Saudi Arabia and raising the level of the relationship to a strategic partnership. According to Saudi officials, the Chinese economy had nothing to tempt them to create links with it, regardless of China’s significant economic progress made. In terms of the world’s greatest economies, China has yet to make it into the top ten.

There was little trade between the two countries. A mere 1.171 billion riyals, or around 1.5 percent, of Saudi Arabia’s total imports were made in China in 1987. After more than 20 years of economic changes in China, this statistic remained unchanged. Even though China’s volume tripled, China’s share of Saudi imports remained at 3.5%, thus it takes time to create economic ties.

China’s imports to Saudi Arabia doubled in value between 1987 and 1999, rising from 1.2 billion to 3.7 billion riyals. The Saudi’s overall worldwide imports still dwarf this amount, notwithstanding the rise. However, by the end of the nineties, there was an improvement in this relationship. The year 2000 marked the beginning of a major shift in the economic ties between the two countries. There was an increase in bilateral trade that year of more than 1.7 times what it was last year. This is due to an increase in previously unreported Saudi shipments to China. Between 1990 and 2000, exports nearly quadrupled. Saudi’s on-going trade surplus with China can be attributed to this increase in exports.

Economic ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia will be altered significantly. High-level visits, discussions, and exchanges of views between Saudi Arabia and China have created new horizons in bilateral relations, in addition to strengthening economic ties. Globalization has also contributed to the building of trade linkages between all countries, including China and Saudi Arabia. This is also relevant to the World Trade Organization’s principles and the development of a free market economy. The economic ties between the two countries developed dramatically between 2000 and 2007. This is mainly due to the rapid growth of the Chinese economy. Growth in China’s economy has begun to pick up steam, shifting the world’s top economies into a new position. China, which ranked sixth in 2000, surpassed the United Kingdom to take fourth place in 2006. In 2007, it overtook Germany to take third position.

During the period between 2001 and 2007, Saudi Arabia’s exports to China nearly doubled, while imports nearly quadrupled. In the time since 2008, major developments have led to stronger ties between the two countries’ economies, paving the way for future strategic collaboration. After the housing crisis, the financial and economic crisis of 2008 had a significant impact on the development of Saudi Arabia’s ties with China. Because of this tragedy, there was a global economic downturn. Except for China, the rest of the industrialized world’s growth rates were either negative or extremely low throughout this period. China rose from third to second place in the world’s economy between 2007 and 2010, ahead of Japan, which fell from third to fourth.

As of 2010, China’s GDP had overtaken Japan’s, ranking it second in the world’s major economies matrix. By 2028, China is expected to overtake the United States as the world’s most powerful economy.

In terms of bilateral trade exchanges, minerals accounted for nearly eighty per cent of the overall value of Saudi’s top exports to China in 2019. Electrical goods and equipment are among the many items that China exports to Saudi Arabia.

It’s no surprise that Saudi Arabia ranked first and second in terms of oil exports to China in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Last year, China bought more than twice as much oil from Saudi Arabia as Russia did, at 1.69 million barrels per day.

The Chinese grand strategy, based mainly on the Belt and Road Initiative, will not make progress without a solid partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. China is a huge powerhouse that depends mainly on trade and industry; therefore, in order for China to survive, it is likely that in the next few years we will witness a qualitative leap in the bilateral relationship between China and Saudi Arabia.

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