Will the US and Iran find common ground in Afghanistan?

Introduction

On July 7, 2021 Iran hosted talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban (the Taliban delegation was led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai). The same day, the Taliban attacked the Badghis provincial capital Qalat-i-Naw (Badghis is one of thirty-four provinces in Afghanistan). Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif emphatically stated that the Afghan people should decide their own future, while also stating that there was a major threat to security. As of Friday, the Taliban claimed to have captured 85% of Afghanistan’s territory (it is tough to verify such claims however).

Zarif also underscored the point that dialogue was the only option for finding a way out of the current imbroglio in Afghanistan:

…commitment to political solutions the best choice for Afghanistan’s leaders and political movements

Tehran, which shares a 945 kilometre border with Afghanistan, also hosts 3 million Afghan refugees and migrant workers, and has expressed its concern with regard to the growing turmoil in the country as a result of US withdrawal of troops.

Important symbolism

If one were to look beyond the Afghan-Iran bilateral relationship, as well as the fact that Tehran is likely to be impacted by events in Afghanistan, the meeting is an attempt by Iran to send out a message to Saudi Arabia (which for long has positioned itself as the key geopolitical player in the Middle East) and the US with regard to its geopolitical relevance.

Tehran’s ties with Riyadh have witnessed an upswing in recent months, with Saudi Arabia expressing its keenness to resolve bilateral issues. Senior officials from both countries met in Iraq in May. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a media interview in April 2021, clearly batted in favour of better Saudi-Iran ties, while not denying that differences did exist between both sides. Talks were held between Saudi and Iranian officials in April and May in Baghdad and are likely to shift to Oman.

Iran-US ties

Iran’s ties with the US under the President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner in comparison to outgoing president Hassan Rouhani, are likely to face more challenges (at least in the short run). The Biden administration had made attempts to rejoin the Iran Nuclear deal/Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but it had limited time. (The US had signed in 2015, but the Trump Administration withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018.)

While the Iranian Presidential election was held in June, the Vienna negotiations (in which US participated indirectly) began only in April 2021. Some ice has been broken between Iran and the US, but no real outcome should be expected till August, when Raisi takes over. Iran’s announcement that it would begin producing enriched uranium metal has also drawn severe criticism from the E3 countries (France, Germany, and the UK) and could act as an impediment to the renewal of the JCPOA. It would also be pertinent to point out that, due to domestic pressures, it was very tough for both sides to move away from stated positions (while the US had said it would remove sanctions once Iran fully complies with the terms and conditions of the 2015 deal, Iran stated that it could only do so after US removed economic sanctions).

Need for US-Iran engagement on Afghanistan

Biden has shown pragmatism on a number of foreign policy issues. A strong example of this is how, in spite of his criticism of Russia, he has not refrained from engagement and finding common ground with Moscow. Similarly, realising Turkey’s importance in Afghanistan (Turkey had offered to safeguard Kabul Airport after the withdrawal of US troops), he has sought to improve ties with Istanbul. During a meeting between Biden and Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, on the sidelines of the NATO Summit, a number of issues were discussed and both sides agreed that the meeting was positive. During the Summit, Turkey — a NATO member — made a commitment that it would keep its troops in the country, to safeguard Kabul Airport.

It is important that the US engages with Iran in a more pro-active manner (albeit indirectly), and not just on JCPOA but also Afghanistan; so far Biden has publicly spoken about the role of Russia but given the tensions with Tehran he has not really made a mention – though there has been a growing chorus by US allies for a back channel with Iran on Afghanistan. Given the fact that the US is engaging with Iran indirectly on JCPOA and other changes taking place, some engagement would already be going on but this needs to be substantial and more effective. On the other hand, Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran have been working to find a common strategy to counter the likely security challenges in Afghanistan.

Neither Tehran nor Washington can engage publicly, but it is important for Biden to open an effective back channel to Iran via US allies in the GCC, such as Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Iran, in spite of moving closer to Beijing and Moscow in recent years as a result of Trump’s flawed Iran policy, would not like to send out a signal that it is blindly kowtowing to any external force, including China (the Iran-China 25 year agreement was viewed with suspicion in Iran by many including Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who called it a suspicious deal), and a working relationship with Washington on the Afghanistan quagmire would only produce benefits.

In conclusion, the Biden Administration should give priority to the relationship with Iran seeing the changing political landscape. While due to domestic pressures and lobbies within the US, progress with regard to Washington getting back on board the JCPOA has been impeded, it is important that the US does not miss out on pro-active back channel diplomacy and engagement with Iran on Afghanistan.

Iran, the US, nuclear deals, and South Asia

In the coming months, US-Iran relations will be watched closely in South Asia (the region’s geopolitical landscape will be significantly impacted as it is by the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan).

India’s ties with Iran are economic and strategic. It has, for example, invested in the Chabahar Port project (during PM Modi’s Iran visit in 2016, India had committed $500 million for development of the port), and in December 2018, India had taken over a part of Phase 1 of the Chabahar Port (Shahid Beheshti). New Delhi has, however, stopped oil imports in 2019 after the US ended the waiver which it had provided to India and other countries for import of oil from Iran.

After India’s decision to stop importing oil from Iran, ties deteriorated and the Chabahar Project also suffered. Iran expressed its displeasure with New Delhi for stopping oil imports and also complained that development of the Chabahar Port had slowed down. This in spite of the fact that the Trump Administration had stated that Chabahar Project would be free from US sanctions on Iran. A State Department spokesperson, while commenting on Chabahar Port, said:

The exception for reconstruction assistance and economic development for Afghanistan, which includes the development and operation of Chabahar Port, is a separate exception, and is not affected by yesterday’s announcement

New Delhi and Tehran have been working towards improving ties ever since the end of 2019.  With the change of guard in Washington DC, however, India sensed a reduction in Iran-US tensions and also a US return to the JCPOA. As a result, it has been paying greater attention to the Chabahar Project, which has been dubbed as its gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia (India has already used the port on more than one occasion for sending consignments to Afghanistan and relief materials during the Covid19 pandemic). Soon after the victory of Joe Biden in the US presidential election, India began to pay greater attention to the Chabahar Port and work on it has accelerated since the beginning of 2021.

It would be pertinent to point out that Indian PM Narendra Modi also sent a congratulatory tweet to Raisi stating that he looked forward to ‘working with him to further strengthen the warm ties between India and Iran.’

While the Tehran-New Delhi relationship seems to have improved in recent months, Tehran kept India out of the development of the Farzad B gas field (this field had been discovered by ONGC Videsh, the overseas arm of Oil PSU, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation). The Iranian oil ministry, in a statement, said:

The National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) has signed a contract worth $1.78 billion with Petropars Group for the development of Farzad B Gas Field in the Persian Gulf

New Delhi responded by saying that Iran would involve India at a later stage in the development of Farzad B.

Iran-Pakistan ties and CPEC

It is also important to bear in mind the fact that Pakistan-Iran ties have witnessed a significant improvement in recent years.

First, there has been a downward slope in Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE (though in recent months Islamabad’s ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia have improved).

Second, the Iran-China 25-year strategic agreement signed earlier this year is also likely to result in the expansion of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Project towards Iran. (Tehran has expressed its willingness to be part of CPEC project). In recent months, China has already been focusing on Afghanistan as an important component of the CPEC. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian, in May 2021, said, ‘China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are discussing issues related to extending roads and expressways in Pakistan to Afghanistan.’

Conclusion

In conclusion, revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal is likely to take time. The US-Iran relationship is important not just in the context of the bilateral relationship, but is likely to have an impact on the geopolitics of the Middle East and South Asia, as well as important connectivity initiatives of both India and China.

What the rise of Raisi means for regional security and nuclear bargains

Introduction 

The triumph of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi in the recently-held Iranian Presidential election is likely to pose a challenge with regard to the renewal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA/Iran Nuclear Agreement (in 2019, US had imposed sanctions on him for human rights violations). Raisi, who has been serving as Iran’s Chief Justice since March 2019, will take over as President in August 2021 and will be replacing Hassan Rouhani, a moderate.

While he has not opposed the JCPOA in principle, Raisi is likely to be a tougher negotiator than his predecessor. This was evident from his first news conference, where he said that Iran will not kowtow to the West by limiting its missile capabilities or addressing concerns with regard to Iran’s role in the region’s security. In the news conference, he also stated that he will not be meeting US President Joe Biden.

The US has been guarded in its response to the election result. Commenting on the verdict and its likely impact on the Iran nuclear deal, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated: 

The ultimate decision for whether or not to go back into the deal lies with Iran’s supreme leader, and he was the same person before this election as he is after the election

Iran-China relations in recent years  

Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated Raisi on his triumph, describing Iran and China as ‘comprehensive strategic partners.’ The Chinese President said that he was willing to work with Iran on a host of issues. Only last year, Iran and China had signed a 25-year strategic comprehensive agreement which sought to give a strong boost not just to economic ties between Tehran and Beijing, but security ties as well. One of the reasons cited for Tehran moving closer to Beijing has been the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran-P5+1 agreement/JCPOA in 2018 and its lack of flexibility. From Beijing’s point of view, the deal was important not just for fulfilling its oil needs (according to the agreement, China would receive Iranian oil at a cheaper price). 

While there is no doubt that the Biden administration has made attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal in recent months and the Vienna negotiations in which US has been indirectly involved, a solution does not seem in sight in the short run given that Raisi will replace Rouhani only in August. Also, if both sides stick to their stated position things are likely to get tougher. Interestingly, a senior Iranian official, presidential chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi, indicated that the US had agreed to move over one thousand Trump-era sanctions, including those on insurance, oil, and shipping. 

The JCPOA has taken a break at the Vienna talks for some days and, commenting on this, Mikhail Ulyanov, permanent representative to Russia, said:

The task is to make full use of this break to ensure that all participants get final political instructions on the remaining controversial issues

Obstacles  

While many Democrats and strategic analysts had been arguing that the Biden administration needed to show greater urgency and move away from stated positions with regard to a return to the JCPOA, opposition from not just Republicans but hawks within his party made any such agreement impossible.  

Apart from domestic opposition, Biden will also need to deal with pressure from Israel. While it is true that GCC countries, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, earlier opposed to the deal have been seeking to improve ties with Iran and have also softened their opposition to the deal, Israel has been opposed to JCPOA. The recently-elected Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s stand vis-à-vis JCPOA is the same as Benjamin Netanyahu’s. After the Iranian election, the Israeli PM said: 

Raisi’s election is, I would say, the last chance for world powers to wake up before returning to the nuclear agreement, and understand who they are doing business with

Role of China and Russia  

It would be pertinent to point out that, days before the election, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had stated that the US should remove sanctions vis-à-vis Iran. Given the fact that Raisi is anti-West, it is likely that China and Russia could play an important role in the revival of JCPOA.  

While there is merit in the Biden administration’s approach of removing sanctions against Iran in a stage-wise manner, since this may be politically more feasible, Washington needs to think innovatively and bear in mind that a rigid approach vis-à-vis Tehran will only make anti-Western sentiment in Iran more pronounced, and leave it with no choice but to move closer to China. GCC countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have been working towards resolving tensions with Iran, could also play an important role in talks between the Biden administration and a dispensation headed by Raisi.

In conclusion, the Biden Administration clearly has its task cut out. While negotiating with Raisi may not be easy, the fact that he has support of the supreme leader could be favourable, and the US could also use some of its allies to engage with the new administration.

“Building Back A Better World”: Can it challenge the BRI?

Introduction

Ever since taking over as President, Joe Biden has reiterated the need for the US and its allies to work together to check China’s economic rise by providing alternatives to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project as well as its burgeoning technology scene. During his State of the Union address in April 2021, the US President had said:

China and other countries are closing in fast. We have to develop and dominate the products and technologies of the future

It would be pertinent to point out that 138 nations on five continents have signed various BRI cooperation agreements with China as of the end of 2020. (EU member states including Greece and Italy are also on board the BRI.) China has so far invested a whopping $690 billion in BRI-related projects in 100 countries.

G7 and the B3W

On June 12, 2021 the G7 unveiled the Building Back a Better World (BBBW/B3W), a brain child of the Biden Administration. The G7 leaders said that the B3W would be “values-driven, high-standard, and transparent.” During a conversation with Boris Johnson in March, the US President had discussed the need for an alternative to the BRI. A number of BRI related projects in developing countries in Asia and Africa have drawn criticism for lacking in transparency and not being economically sustainable, leading to debts which make countries dependent upon them or leads to a “Debt Trap (pdf).”

Debt trap has been defined as “a predatory system designed to ensnare countries into a straightjacket of debt servitude.” A prominent example of this is Sri Lanka, where when the South Asian nation’s debt burden vis-à-vis China became untenable, it was compelled to sign a 99-year lease with China through which Beijing got 70% stake in the strategic port of Hambantota. Many projects falling under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), too, have been under the cloud for lacking transparency and not being feasible. In certain cases, such as the Kyaukpyu port in Myanmar, Beijing has had to renegotiate the cost of projects (it was brought down from $7.3 billion to $1.3 billion) as a result of strong local opposition.

Alternatives to BRI

The Trump Administration received bi-partisan support for the BUILD (Better Utilisation of Investment Leading to Development ) Act, which created a new agency (the United States International Development and Financial Corporation, or USIDFC) with a corpus of $60 billion to facilitate private sector involvement in the Indo-Pacific, especially African countries. In 2018, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had also made a commitment of $113 million to projects in the Indo-Pacific focused on technology, infrastructure, and energy. In November 2019, the US, Japan, and Australia had also launched the Blue Dot Network on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit.

Then-US National Security Advisor Robert O Brien had compared the Blue Dot Network to Michelin Guide, which meant that just like a Michelin star is the sign of approval for a restaurant, a blue dot would be a seal of approval for infrastructural projects. Days before the G7 meeting, the inaugural meeting of the consultation group of the Blue Dot Network was held in Paris, apart from representatives from Western governments and Japan, other stakeholders such as members of civil society, academics, and 150 global executives participated in this meeting.

The US State Department, while commenting on the Blue Dot Network, had said:

The Blue Dot Network will be a globally recognized symbol of market-driven, transparent and sustainable infrastructure projects

Under the umbrella of Quad countries (US, Japan, Australia, and India), too, there has been discussion on enhancing economic cooperation as well as connectivity.

Opportunities for the B3W

There is an opportunity for the B3W, since in the aftermath of Covid, certain BRI projects have slowed down. Second, the geographical scope of BBBW is much wider than that of the projects under the Indo-Pacific (B3W will also include Latin America and Caribbean). BBBW can also hardsell its strengths such as transparency and sustainability – both economic and environmental. It also can dovetail with some of Biden’s ambitious economic schemes related to the economy and infrastructure. The fact that Biden is willing to take the lead, unlike Trump, is reassuring for allies and sends out a positive message to developing countries looking for alternatives to the BRI. While addressing a press conference after G7, the US President made this point:

The lack of participation in the past and in full engagement was noticed significantly not only by the leaders of those countries, but by the people in the G-7 countries, and America’s back in the business of leading the world alongside nations who share our most deeply held values

The US had also categorically clarified that the B3W seeks to provide an alternative to BRI, but it is not merely about targeting China.

Possible limitations of B3W

Yet, there are limitations. First, the B3W still does not have a clear blue print. Second, it would be tough to match the BRI in terms of resources. Third, a number of G7 members who themselves share good relations with China may be reluctant to get on board the initiative (even though it has been made clear that the B3W initiative is not just about targeting China).

Conclusion

In conclusion, a lot will depend upon how much not just the US government and big businesses are willing to invest in the B3W (since the model will be different from the BRI, which is one of ‘state capitalism’) but whether other members of the G7 are willing to play a proactive role in such a project. An alternative is needed to the BRI and the announcement of B3W is welcome. Taking it forward and competing with BRI may not be impossible but is certainly a tough task.

Vaccine Apartheid and Intellectual Property

Introduction

In recent weeks there has been a growing clamor with regard to addressing the issue of vaccine ‘apartheid’, or the inequity in access to vaccines (as of April 2021, the more affluent countries, which account for less than 20% of the global population, had bought 60% of confirmed orders – well over 4.6 billion doses).

African leaders have red-flagged the issue of lack of access to vaccinations and also how, due to poor access, rate of vaccination is slow. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has commented

…no one is safe until everyone is safe, so all of us must be treated equally across the world and vaccines must be treated as a public good, available at affordable prices right across the board.

The rise in daily cases (more than 20 million Indians have been infected) and mortalities (in the month of April itself, there have been an estimated 40,000 casualties) as a result of COVID-19 in recent weeks in India has further brought this issue to center stage. Apart from the government being ill-prepared for the second wave, and the virtual collapse of the health system (even in the national capital there has been a shortage of beds and oxygen), the third wave is being attributed to the slow rate of vaccination: only 2% of the population has been fully inoculated with both doses, while less than 10% has received one dose. One of the reasons cited for the slow rate of vaccination has been India’s inability to ramp up its vaccine production which could be eased out if the World Trade Organization (WTO) provides an intellectual property waiver.  

During an online address, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai underscored the point that addressing the issue of vaccine inequity is important not just from the point of public health but also from an economic standpoint.

One of the ways for increasing vaccination, as discussed earlier, is increasing the production and for this an Intellectual Property (IP) Waiver is essential. Both the Chief of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom, as well as former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have repeatedly made this point. Both Brown and Tedros said that removing a waiver during an emergency situation was essential and this should be on the agenda of the G7 Summit to be held in June in the UK.

South Africa and India have, since October 2020, been seeking a waiver on certain provisions of the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).   

Pressure on the US to provide Intellectual Property waivers

There has been growing pressure on the Biden administration to address the issue of vaccine apartheid and this has grown in recent days and weeks. 

More than 170 heads of state and several Nobel Laureates wrote to US President Biden in favour of removing US IP rules for production of vaccines. This includes former French President Francois Hollande, Former British PM Gordon Brown, and Nobel Laureates Professor Joseph Stiglitz and Professor Francoise Barre-Sinoussi.

10 Democratic Senators have also written to Biden to support the temporary TRIPS waiver.

Biden administration assistance to India and possibility of intellectual property waiver 

In recent weeks, with the increasing number of cases in India, the Biden administration has unequivocally stated that it will assist India in dealing with the COVID-19 threat. Apart from President Biden and other senior officials from his administration who have assured all necessary help, Anthony Fauci, the Chief Medical Advisor to the President, has asked pharmaceutical companies to help out either by ramping up their production or by transferring their technologies. Said Fauci:

You can’t have people throughout the world dying because they don’t have access to a product that rich people have access to.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, in a media interview, also stated:  

We believe that the pharmaceutical companies should be supplying at scale and at cost to the entire world so that there is no barrier to everyone getting vaccinated.

On Wednesday, May 6, 2021, the Biden administration announced that it supported the waiver on Intellectual Property protections for COVID-19 vaccines. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, in a statement, said:

This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.

Why this announcement is important 

The announcement is a significant development, given the pressure from numerous quarters, especially pharmaceutical lobbies. Founder of Microsoft and philanthropist Bill Gates, in a media interview, spoke against waiving patents. Said Gates:

It’s not like there’s some idle vaccine factory, with regulatory approval, that makes magically safe vaccines.

Gates, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has sponsored Gavi: the Vaccine Alliance, a public-private global health partnership which seeks to increase low-income countries’ access to immunization. Gavi, alongside WHO, runs the COVAX to improve access to vaccines in low- and middle-income countries.

A trade group, PhRMA, has also warned against an IP waiver, and a number of Republicans have argued against such a step and wrote a letter to US Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

Conclusion 

In conclusion, the Biden administration’s decision on May 6, 2021, needs to be hailed; it is important to address all issues which are obstructing the ramping up of global manufacturing of vaccines and preventing a faster rate of vaccination in less affluent countries. All stakeholders need to act fast to prevent the pandemic from spreading and taking more lives. Globalization, multilateralism, and talk of liberal values are of no use if the issue of vaccine apartheid is not addressed on a war footing.

Is a Persian-Saudi thaw on the horizon?

Introduction

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s (MBS) recent comments, where he batted for better bilateral ties with Iran, have understandably drawn attention given that, in recent years, ties between both countries had hit rock bottom. Said MBS in a television interview on April 27, 2021:

At the end of the day, Iran is a neighbouring country and all that we hope for is to have good
relations.

MBS did not deny that Riyadh had differences with Tehran over a number of issues (specifically Iran’s nuclear program and some of the proxies which it was supporting in the Middle East).

The Saudi crown prince also said that his country wanted Iran to prosper, and to contribute to regional and global growth. Both countries have been jostling with each other for influence in the Middle East. In recent years, tensions have exacerbated as a result of Iran’s support for the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen, while a coalition of Sunni Arab forces has been backing pro-government forces. Riyadh, which like other GCC states has moved closer to Israel, has also accused Tehran of meddling in Iraq and Jordan, and for plotting a strike on Saudi oil installations in 2019. In 2016, both countries had cut diplomatic ties after Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi Embassy in Iran as a mark of protest against the kingdom’s execution of a respected Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

Iran’s reaction to Saudi Crown Prince statement

Iran reacted positively to the Saudi crown prince’s statement, saying that this augured well for the bilateral relationship. Officials from Iran and Saudi Arabia had held talks in Baghdad in April (these talks were facilitated by Iraq) on a number of crucial issues.

Many analysts argue that MBS’ recent remarks are an indication of his acceptance of the Biden administration’s policy towards the Middle East, which is vastly different from that of the Trump administration. Not only has the Biden administration released a report which clearly holds MBS responsible for the murder of Egyptian journalist Jamal Khashoggi (former President Donald Trump, who shared a close rapport with MBS, refused to release the report), but it has also withdrawn support for the Saudi war in Yemen. Biden did refrain from imposing sanctions on MBS, since a US return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)/Iran nuclear agreement would be smoother if the Saudis do not create unnecessary impediments. The US President’s decision to not impose sanctions on MBS drew flak from many within his own party, though senior officials have reiterated the point that an excessively aggressive approach vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia will harm US interests in the Middle East.

Progress made during negotiations

In recent weeks some tangible progress has been made during negotiations, held at Vienna, on the Iran nuclear deal. However, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, while commenting on the headway which had been made, said:

We are on the right track and some progress has been made, but this does not mean that the talks in Vienna have reached the final stage.

The Biden Administration has faced criticisms for being status quoist on the Iran issue, but it has been pro-active in trying to move ahead on the issue of the Iran Nuclear Agreement, and has been working closely with E3 countries (UK, France, Germany).

At a time when some progress has been made with regard to the revival of the Iran Nuclear deal, and many are referring to the possibility of an interim deal, MBS’ comments are significant given Riyadh’s stiff opposition to the revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal till only a few months ago.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the recent talks held between Iran and Saudi Arabia and MBS’ tone need to be welcomed. While, unlike Trump, Biden has not allowed Saudi Arabia to direct his Iran policy, he is mindful of the fact that for any meaningful progress vis-à-vis Iran, Riyadh can not be ignored. If Iran and Saudi Arabia work towards improving their relations there could be some major changes in the geopolitical dynamics and economic landscape of the Middle East. An improvement of ties between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia also reiterates the point that complex issues can not be viewed through simplistic binaries.

Biden’s Summit on Climate and Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative

Introduction 

US President Joe Biden hosted a Summit on Climate (April 22-23, 2021) which was attended by 40 world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping. Ever since taking over as President, Biden has sent out a strong message that the US would take a leadership role as far as climate issues are concerned. During his address at the Summit, the US President also dubbed this decade as decisive. Said Biden: 

Scientists tell us that this is the decisive decade – this is the decade we must make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis. 

Under the Trump Administration, the US had withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, while one of Biden’s first steps was getting the US to re-join the Paris Agreement, and he has also made a commitment of $1.2 billion to a Green Climate Fund.  Another important component of Biden’s climate change agenda includes an infrastructural package, which seeks to invest in clean energy transition. The Biden Administration has also been laying emphasis on creating clean energy jobs, and greater investment in Research and Development (R and D) related to clean energy. 

US-China scope for cooperation? 

While ties between US and China have witnessed a serious deterioration in recent weeks, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the Climate Change Summit. Days before the Climate Summit, Xi, while addressing the Boao Forum at Hainan, was critical of the US for promoting a cold war mentality, but did clearly leave the door open for cooperation with the US in dealing with common challenges posed by climate change.

In spite of the downward spiral in bilateral relations, Biden and members of his administration have also repeatedly stated that there is scope for the US and China to work together.

Biden’s Climate Change envoy, John Kerry, had visited China earlier this month, and during the course of his trip exchanged notes with China’s special envoy for climate change, Xie Zhenhua. A joint statement released by both sides stated

The United States and China are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands,

An invitation to Chinese President Xi Jinping to attend the Summit was extended during Kerry’s visit, though China did not give any confirmation (Xi gave his confirmation to attend the Summit one day before).

Agenda of the Summit

During the summit, the US President made a commitment that US would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by around 50% below its 2005 emissions levels, by 2030. (Former US President Barack Obama had made a commitment to reducing emissions around 26-28% by 2025.) Biden’s announcement has been hailed by some, and being cited as a reiteration of the point that Biden wants to show the way on climate change. Biden’s announcement may be opposed by certain quarters within the US who feel that the US should not be compelled to reduce emissions drastically.

Before the Summit, China had made it clear that it would not toe the US line. During John Kerry’s China visit the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, Le Yusheng, said:  

Some countries are asking China to achieve the goals earlier. I am afraid this is not very realistic.

While addressing the summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated a commitment he had made last year while addressing the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA): that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, and to peak carbon emissions by 2030. He reiterated the need for global cooperation. 

How Biden and Xi linked their commitment to environment with their economic visions 

What was interesting was that both Biden and Xi Jinping also linked the climate goals to their economic goals. Xi Jinping spoke about a focus on a ‘green’ Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Interestingly, the mega connectivity project, often dubbed as China’s ‘Marshall Plan,’ has often been criticised not just for its lack of transparency, but also for the fact that it is not environmentally friendly (in fact many observers have argued that Biden’s infrastructural plan is a counter to China’s BRI).

Biden has repeatedly spoken about creating clean jobs and infrastructure and repeated the same during his address. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, while Washington-Beijing ties are likely to face numerous strains, climate change seems to be one area where there is space for cooperation between the two. While the US under Biden is likely to follow a significantly different approach from that under Trump, China is unlikely to budge from its commitments. What would be interesting to see is whether Beijing actually addresses criticisms of the BRI not being environmentally friendly. While China and the US may find some common ground on climate change, it is likely that the Biden administration, given its focus on the environment, may come down more harshly on the BRI and may come up with an alternative.

The 1971 war and the creation of Bangladesh: 50 years later

2021 happens to be the 50th anniversary of the 13-day Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, which also resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. In 2011, I co-edited a book titled Warriors after War which consists of interviews with retired Army officials from India and Pakistan. Here is an excerpt:

Tridivesh Singh Maini recalls that part of the inspiration for this book arose from the history of this incident, and the fact that the original impetus for change had arisen not from politicians but from ex-military figures in Pakistan and India. Subsequently, he carried out the interviews with all the Indian ex-military figures for this volume, while his colleague in Pakistan, Tahir Malik, carried out all but one of the interviews with Pakistani ex-military figures (Brigadier Shaukat Qadir was interviewed by Richard Bonney).

It is difficult to emphasize sufficiently the uniqueness, importance and timeliness of this volume. Relations between Pakistan and India were strained from the outset as a result of the events of Partition in 1947, when the mass migration of the populations in opposite directions and the slaughter that occurred on both sides led to mutual recrimination. (pgs 34-35)

Here is a link to the book on Amazon. Here is a pdf of the entire book.

The Al Ula Accord: Qatar’s gains, the UAE’s losses, and Iran’s quiet win

Introduction 

Days after the signing of the solidarity and stability agreement – the Al Ula accord – between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia’s allies, the Qatari Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, made it clear that Doha would continue to pursue an independent foreign policy driven by its own national interest. The Qatari Foreign Minister was alluding to demands by Riyadh and other countries that Qatar should re-assess its ties with Iran and Turkey in the aftermath of the agreement.

Days after the imposition of the blockade, Saudi Arabia and other countries had stated that they would remove the blockade provided that Doha accepted a list of 13 demands. One of these demands was that Doha should downgrade ties with Tehran and Ankara. Qatar categorically refused to accept this demand.  

The UAE’s response to the accord  

While all other signatories have hailed the agreement, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has said that while the signing of the agreement is a welcome step, there is no clarity with regard to contentious issues – such as Doha’s relations with Ankara and Tehran. Expressing the UAE’s skepticism, its Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said

Some issues are easier to fix and some others will take longer. We are off to a very good start…but we have issues with rebuilding trust.

The UAE had opened land, sea, and airports with Qatar on January 8, 2021 (Saudi had opened the borders on January 4, 2021). According to many observers, the accord will give a boost to bilateral economic links between the UAE and Qatar (the UAE’s tourism and construction sectors are likely to benefit significantly from the agreement).

It would be important to point out that, till a few months ago, the UAE had been opposed to the removal of the blockade on Qatar, but was compelled to sign it, given the changing dynamics in the Middle East. 

Iran, Turkey, and the agreement 

The key objective of both the US (White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner had visited the Middle East in December) and Saudi Arabia in removing the embargo on Qatar was reducing the latter’s dependence upon Iran. Qatar has been using Iranian air space ever since the blockade was imposed in June 2017.

On the other hand, Doha realizes that its independent foreign policy, and good relations with Washington and Tehran and Ankara, are an asset. The latest agreement, which will improve ties with Saudi Arabia, could further bolster its strategic importance and foreign policy options. Qatar has consistently batted in favor of reduction of tensions between the US and Iran, and after the signing of the agreement, it has offered to intervene between Saudi Arabia and Iran and Saudi Arabia and Turkey (both Turkey and Iran had also welcomed the Al Ula accord, and expressed optimism that it would pave the way for stability in the Middle East). 

Mutlaq Al-Qahtani, Special Envoy of the Qatari Foreign Minister for Combating Terrorism and Mediation in the Settlement of Disputes, while commenting on the possible role of Qatar in reducing tensions between Ankara and Tehran, stated:

If these two countries see that the State of Qatar has a role in this mediation, then it is possible to do so.

The UAE is not too happy with Qatar’s increasing clout as a result of the agreement (for long the UAE has viewed itself as a key player in the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] and a bridge). While the UAE itself has maintained back channels with Iran, especially in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, it has serious differences with Turkey and has not been comfortable with Qatar’s increasing proximity with Ankara. 

Conclusion  

In conclusion, the agreement is an important step but the geopolitics of the Middle East are extremely complex. Qatar is unlikely to drastically alter its approach vis-à-vis Turkey and Iran; in fact it would like to view itself as a peacemaker rather than just a mere bystander. The fact that Qatar was able to deal with the economic implications of the blockade has only strengthened its position (in 2021, it is likely to grow at 2.7%, the second highest rate within the GCC). 

It remains to be seen how the Saudis and the US view the role of Qatar within the GCC. What would also be important to watch is how the UAE deals with the changing landscape in the Middle East.

The Saudi-Qatar thaw

Introduction

On January 5, 2021, at the annual Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit, at Al-Ula, an agreement was signed between Saudi Arabia (along with its allies) and Qatar that restored diplomatic ties.

Blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and its allies

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt had imposed a trade, travel, and diplomatic embargo on Qatar (two GCC states, Oman and Kuwait, did not cut diplomatic ties with Qatar). Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, and its close ties with Iran, were cited as the main reason for the decision to impose this blockade.

Saudi Arabia and its allies had closed its sea routes, land borders, and airspace to Qatari vehicles. As a consequence of the blockade, Qatar was compelled to use Iranian air space. Riyadh re-opened its airspace and land and sea borders with Qatar on January 4, 2021, and other countries will be following suit.

Attempts had been made by the US to broker a deal between both sides in 2017. Riyadh, along with other countries which had imposed the blockade on Qatar, had presented 13 conditions to Qatar including; shutting down of Al Jazeera and other Qatar-funded news outlets, downgrading ties with Iran and Turkey, and refraining from meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. Qatar categorically refused these conditions and stated that it would not in anyway compromise its sovereignty.

Qatari Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, had said that “we are willing to negotiate any legitimate grievances with our neighbours, but we will not compromise our sovereignty.”

He also dubbed the blockade imposed on Qatar as a violation of international law.

The agreement signed for restoration of diplomatic ties

The Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, while commenting on the agreement signed to end the blockade of Qatar, stated:

What happened today is… the turning of the page on all points of difference and a full return of diplomatic relations.

Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman dubbed the agreement as a reiteration of “Gulf, Arab, Islamic solidarity and stability.”

Senior Advisor to the White House, Jared Kushner (also Donald Trump’s son-in-law), along with Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz and Brian Hook, a special State Department adviser, witnessed the agreement for restoring diplomatic relations between Riyadh, its allies, and Qatar.

Role of the US, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia

During his visit to the Middle East in December 2020, where he met with the Saudi Crown Prince and the Emir of Qatar, Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, Kushner is supposed to have pushed for the removal of the blockade on Qatar.

Kuwait too has been an important player in trying to reduce tensions between Qatar and the other Arab states. In December 2020, the Foreign Minister of Kuwait, Al Sabah, had hinted at progress in this direction, though Qatar had stated that it would only accept any agreement which was fair.

Iran and Saudi Factor

There are two important factors behind this agreement. First, that the Saudis want to send a positive message to the incoming Biden administration. Biden has been critical of Saudi Arabia’s poor track record on human rights, and he has even dubbed Riyadh as a “pariah state.” The Biden administration has also stated that it will re-assess ties with Riyadh, and it has accused Trump of being soft vis-à-vis the Saudis.

The Trump administration, especially Jared Kushner, is taking credit for the removal of the blockade, with one senior official dubbing it as a massive breakthrough and that “it will allow for travel among the countries as well as goods. It will lead to more stability in the region.”

The Trump administration is calling this agreement its second most important Middle East accomplishment, after the Abraham Accords (through which relations were normalized between Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel).

Riyadh too is likely to take credit for its role in reducing tensions with Qatar, which is home to the largest American military facility in the Middle East – the Al Udeid air base.

The second important part is the Iran factor. Saudi Arabia is wary of the Biden administration’s possible outreach to Iran, and it has sought to isolate Iran through this step. As a result of the embargo, Qatar had moved much closer to both Turkey and Iran.

Conclusion

In conclusion, a number of economic and geopolitical factors have resulted in removing the embargo on Qatar. While it is likely to reduce tensions, there are some major divergences between Qatar and other Arab countries on crucial foreign policy issues, especially Iran. Qatar is unlikely to accept any conditionalities, and unlikely to re-orient its foreign policy significantly. It will also be interesting to see how the incoming Biden administration views the role of Saudi Arabia in this agreement.

EU-China trade talks: More than just economics

The in-principle agreement between the EU and China over the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) is significant both from an economic and geopolitical standpoint.

The first round of talks for EU-China CAI began in January 2014 (it was only in 2016 that there was some agreement between both sides on the broad contents of the CAI). Ties between the EU and China too had witnessed a sharp deterioration in the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic, and a number of EU member states, including Germany, Spain, and Italy, had tightened FDI regulations with an eye on preventing Chinese takeover of companies, especially in sensitive sectors like security.

In the month of September, while commenting on the possibility of the CAI, the European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen had stated: “China has to convince us that it’s worth having an investment agreement.”

Key contents of the agreement

The CAI will ensure a uniform arrangement for the whole of Europe with China. The key issues which will be addressed through the CAI include; resolution of disputes, greater transparency with regard to Chinese state subsidies, and curbs on China’s practice of asking foreign investors to share their technology in lieu for market access.

China has also agreed to address issues pertaining to sustainable development – such as environment and climate (China has agreed to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change). Beijing has also agreed to implement the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions.

According to an EU official, substantial commitments have been received from China on three issues: market access, level playing fields, and sustainable development. One of the strong backers of the CAI has been the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The deal will provide the EU greater access to China’s market. While the EU provides a significant amount of market access to China, the same can not be said of Beijing. Beijing is supposed to have made a firm commitment to the EU towards greater market access, especially in manufacturing (which makes up more than half of EU’s investment in China, including the automotive sector and basic materials).

Geopolitical implications

The deal has an important geopolitical dimension to it. While in the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic, ties with the Western world, including the EU, had witnessed a downward spiral, this deal is important in terms of symbolism. Chinese media publications have hailed the finalization of this agreement, emphasizing the point that the EU has adopted an independent stance vis-à-vis China and not followed Washington’s line.

Gao Jian, a scholar at Shanghai International Studies University, states:

Deeper China-EU ties will decrease possibility that the US will be able to hijack Europe for its anti-China chariot. Hopefully, the completion of the China-EU BIT talks will sound an alarm bell to the US administration and send this message: cooperation is the only way out for China-US relations.

If one were to look at US reactions, it is not only officials in the Trump Administration (which has a little over two weeks in office) who have been skeptical, but those from the incoming Biden Administration as well. Matt Pottinger, Trump’s Deputy National Security Advisor, has stated:

Leaders in both U.S. political parties and across the U.S. government are perplexed and stunned that the EU is moving towards a new investment treaty right on the eve of a new U.S. administration.

One of Biden’s key thrusts has been on working with the EU, and his pick for NSA chief, Jack Sullivan, had said that the US would like to work with the EU on common concerns vis-à-vis China’s ‘economic practices.’ Many observers argue that the decision of the EU could drive a wedge between the EU and the US, and this was one of Beijing’s main aims. It has also been argued that trilateral economic cooperation between Japan, the EU, and the US vis-à-vis China could also be impacted by the CAI.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the EU has sent out a clear message: that it would like to chart its own course given that it has its own economic interests, and not necessarily toe the US line vis-à-vis Beijing. For China, it is important in terms of messaging, as is evident from the tone of the Chinese media who are trying to dub this as a snub by Brussels to Washington DC. While US President-elect Biden has sought joint cooperation with the EU, the EU and the US will need to be on the same page with regard to dealing with China.

UK-Turkey Free Trade Agreement: Beyond the Economics

Introduction

On December 29, 2020, the UK and Turkey signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which will become effective January 1, 2021, after the UK leaves the EU. Turkey’s Trade Minister, Rushkar Pekcan, and the British Ambassador to Turkey, Dominick Chilcott, signed the agreement. 

The timing of the agreement was interesting, since the FTA was signed days after the UK and EU had managed to clinch a Brexit trade deal, with great difficulty, and after the US imposition of sanctions on Turkey for the purchase of S400 missiles from Russia (the decision to impose sanctions is likely to have its impact not just on Turkey-US ties, but also between Turkey and other NATO member states).

Commenting on the importance of the deal, Pekcan said:

The free trade agreement is a new and special milestone in the relationship between Turkey and United Kingdom.

President Recep Erdogan, while referring to the significance of the FTA a day before it was signed, had said that it would create a win-win situation for both Turkey and the UK. He also said that the deal is crucial, and dubbed it as Turkey’s most important economic agreement after the 1995 Customs Union.

Economic importance of the FTA 

If one were to look at the economic significance of the deal, it is dubbed to be the fifth largest trade deal for Britain. The UK-Turkey FTA is also likely to give a significant boost to the bilateral trade between both countries. The UK is Turkey’s second largest export market (for commodities including vehicles, textiles, and electrical equipment). The agreement is also important from Turkey’s point of view because without a deal well over 75% of Turkey’s exports to the UK would have been subject to tariffs. The FTA will also ensure existing preferential tariffs for 7,600 British businesses that exported goods to Turkey in 2019.

According to estimates, the potential for bilateral trade between Turkey and Britain is up to $20 billion. Britain is Turkey’s fifth largest investor (investment is estimated at $11.6 billion) and a total of 2,500 British companies are based in Turkey. 

UK Trade Secretary Elizabeth Truss, while commenting on the deal, said ‘[…it] provide[s] certainty for thousands of jobs across the UK in the manufacturing, automotive, and steel industries.’

While the key features of the deal are known (it seeks to prevent supply chains in automotive and manufacturing sectors, and also covers all agricultural and industrial goods), the FTA could also give a fillip to deeper defense cooperation between the UK and Turkey (in November 2020, Turkey and the UK held defence exercises for the first time).

Geopolitical context

The FTA also has geopolitical significance, because the UK is one of the few Western countries with which Turkey has a cordial relationship. While all eyes have been on the imposition of US sanctions, and its impact on the Washington-Istanbul relationship, Turkey’s ties with the EU have also witnessed a steady deterioration due to a multitude of factors in recent years. Turkey has also not been on the same page as the Western world on a number of geopolitical issues. This includes the Syria issue, as well as the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkey’s military operation in Syria and reactions

Turkey’s military offensive against Kurdish forces in Northern Syria in 2019 received strong responses from EU member states and the US. While the EU was critical of the action, US policy makers had urged Donald Trump to freeze assets belonging to Turkish leaders and block the sale of arms to Istanbul. Trump had written to Erdogan to refrain from such an action, but the Turkish President paid no heed to the same. It would be pertinent to point out that after Turkey’s October 2019 invasion of Syria, Britain had stopped sales of arms, but said it would not be providing new export licences for weapons which may be used in military operations in Syria.

If one were to look at the Azerbaijan-Armenia issue, France has been vocal in supporting international supervision of the ceasefire and has also expressed apprehension that Turkey and Russia may exclude Western countries. 

The EU has also been uncomfortable with Turkey’s policy in the Mediteranean. Only recently, the EU imposed sanctions against Turkish companies and individuals for oil drilling. Greece had wanted sectoral sanctions but this was resisted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who shares a close rapport with Erdogan.

Russia-Turkey relationship

While it is believed that the main reason for the rift between Turkey and the West is the former’s growing proximity to Russia, Istanbul and Moscow too have divergences over geopolitical issues (be it Syria, Libya, or Azerbaijan). Only recently, the presence of the Turkish President at Azerbaijan’s military parade on December 10, 2020, to mark Azerbaijan’s victory over Russian ally Armenia with Turkish assistance, would not have gone down well with Moscow. Yet in public, Russia has refrained from criticizing Turkey. In an interaction with the media in December 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that sometimes Russian and Turkish interests do not ‘coincide,’ yet he also praised Turkey for pursuing an ‘independent foreign policy’ in spite of being a member of NATO and honoring its commitments. 

He has also stated that Moscow needs to be ‘patient’ and adopt a more compromising stance vis-à-vis Turkey. 

Erdogan does realize that he cannot afford a sudden deterioration of ties with the US, and his reconciliatory statements vis-à-vis Israel, and the Turkish decision to appoint an envoy after more than two and a half years, is being viewed as a step towards mending ties with the incoming Biden Administration.

Conclusion 

The Britain-Turkey FTA is important not just for economics but also for geopolitical reasons. While Britain will deal with the realities of a post-Brexit world, and such FTA’s will be important in navigating the same, for Turkey the deal is important in the context of the geopolitics of the Middle East and beyond.

Biden’s Middle East: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel


Introduction  

As President-elect Joe Biden gets ready to take over, he faces numerous foreign policy challenges. One of the most complex issues is likely to be Washington’s approach vis-à-vis Tehran. A lot of analysis has focused on how Biden has spoken about conditional entry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)/Iran agreement from which Donald Trump withdrew in 2018 – subject to Iran returning to full compliance. There have been indicators that Biden may get on board with the agreement unconditionally to give some space to the current government of Hassan Rouhani, which will face elections in 2021. Sanctions have taken their toll on the Iranian economy (Foreign Minister Javad Zarif recently stated that sanctions have inflicted damage to the tune of $250 billion), and hardline voices have become stronger – the last thing the US would want is hardliners capturing power.  

For the US and its allies, the concern is about Iran’s nuclear program. In an interview to New York Times on December 2, Biden said “the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region” was to deal “with the nuclear program.”

For Iran, one of the major concerns is the fact that the country’s economy is in the doldrums. Rouhani and Zarif have both indicated this, and on more than one occasion. After Iran’s parliament and its Guardian Council recently gave a go ahead to a law that threatens to not permit UN inspections and to increase the level of uranium enrichment beyond the 2015 deal if sanctions were not removed within two months, Zarif clearly stated that these laws were not ‘irreversible’: 

The Europeans and USA can come back into compliance with the JCPOA and not only this law will not be implemented, but in fact the actions we have taken … will be rescinded. We will go back to full compliance.

Saudi factor

US dealings with Iran hinge on the overall geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East and have been influenced by the relations of Israel and Saudi Arabia with Tehran. During the Trump administration, Israel and Saudi Arabia had a strong influence over American policy towards Iran. Even as Trump prepares to demit office, his administration is making it clear that there will be no change in US ‘maximum pressure’ policy vis-à-vis Iran (in fact Iran has been projected as the main threat to security in the Middle East). This includes imposition of sanctions, and also upping the ante vis-à-vis Iran via Saudi Arabia and Israel (serving and retired US officials point to an Israeli hand in the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which would make US diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran tougher). 

Biden, too, has indicated that he will consult other countries with regard to his Iran policy. In his interview to the New York Timesthe President elect said:

In consultation with our allies and partners, we’re going to engage in negotiations and follow-on agreements to tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program.

The key question is to what degree will Biden consult other stakeholders in the Middle East, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. According to observers, neither will have a veto over Biden’s Iran policy, as they did have during the Trump administration (Trump had a strong personal rapport with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as the Saudi royal family). Here it would be pertinent to point out that while no US President can afford to neglect Israel or Saudi Arabia, Biden has been critical of Saudi Arabia, specifically in the context of its Human Rights record, in the past.  

Saudi Arabia and the Biden Administration 

Keeping this in mind, Saudi Arabia has sought to build a perception that it is open to removing the economic blockade vis-à-vis Qatar (the blockade was imposed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in June 2017). A statement was made by the Saudi Foreign Minister regarding possible headway between Qatar and other countries which had imposed a blockade.  

Days after Jared Kushner’s visit to the Middle East, where he met with the Saudi Crown Prince as well as the Emir of Qatar, and is supposed to have discussed the resumption of Qatari planes using Saudi and UAE’s airspace, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud stated: 

We have made significant progress in the last few days thanks to the continuing efforts of Kuwait but also thanks to strong support from President Trump.

Senior Qatari officials, including the Foreign Minister, said that while a resolution was welcome, it needed to be based on ‘mutual respect.’ Iran – which shares cordial ties with Qatar – welcomed the possibility of removal of the blockade. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh stated: 

We straightforwardly and promptly welcomed any settlement of tensions in the Persian Gulf region. The Iranian foreign minister adopted a stance on the issue and said that within the framework of the good-neighbourliness policy, we embrace any move at any level to politically resolve the crisis in the Persian Gulf.

Statement regarding the JCPOA 

Saudis have also indicated that they would like to be consulted with regard to the US getting on board with the JCPOA. Said Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, while speaking at a conference: 

I think we’ve seen as a result of the after-effects of the JCPOA that not involving the regional countries results in a build-up of mistrust and neglect of the issues of real concern and of real effect on regional security.

While the foreign minister indicated that Saudis have not been consulted so far by Biden, he also stated that Riyadh was willing to work with Biden.  

Conclusion 

Biden, unlike Trump, is likely to consult important stakeholders, but on the Iran issue he will have limited space and can not allow other countries to exercise inordinate influence. Biden is likely to work closely with US allies, and is likely to go by the advice of the European Union in general and the E3 in particular. Statements from Tehran indicate that in spite of the Trump administration’s aggressive approach vis-à-vis Iran, there is space for negotiation though Biden may have to give up on his earlier conditionalities of getting on board the JCPOA. Much will depend upon the Trump administration’s approach vis-a-vis Iran for the remaining duration, and whether or not the Rouhani administration can prevent hardliners from setting the agenda.

On Joe Biden and America’s relationship with Iran

One of the important foreign policy priorities of President-elect Joe Biden, which will have an impact not just on the US but a number of its allies in the West – such as the UK, Germany, France (the E3), India, and Japan – is Washington’s ties with Iran. 

It will be interesting to see the ultimate shape which Biden’s Iran foreign policy takes place. Days before the announcement of the election result, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated, in an interview to CBS news, that Iran viewed the statements emanating from the Biden camp positively, though Iran would have to wait and watch. 

While commenting on the Biden-Harris victory, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged the US to return to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). Said Rouhani

Now, an opportunity has come up for the next U.S. administration to compensate for past mistakes and return to the path of complying with international agreements through respect of international norms 

Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA – Iran/P5+1 agreement in 2018, had been criticized by allies, including the E3, who were signatories to the agreement. 

President-elect Joe Biden has also unequivocally stated that he is open to the US rejoining JCPOA, subject to the fact that Iran returns to compliance with the nuclear agreement. Biden, who also served as Vice President under Obama (who had fervently backed the JCPOA), has been critical of the Trump Administration’s approach towards Iran, dubbing it as a failure. During the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Biden, along with many US allies, had also advocated that the US relax Iranian sanctions temporarily on humanitarian grounds. 

In recent months, Washington has imposed more sanctions on Iran, the latest instance being sanctions imposed days before the election on Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum, the National Iranian Oil Company, and its oil-tanker subsidiary. The reason cited for sanctions is the financial support provided by these companies to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). It would be pertinent to point out that the US was unable to snapback Iranian sanctions which had been removed under the JCPOA – UNSC members blocked US attempts. While there is skepticism with regard to the revival of the deal given that incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani himself is likely to face elections soon, and there is limited room for manuevre given that hardliners in Iran (whose clout has increased as a result of Trump’s Iran policy), are averse to any engagement with the West. Senior Iranian officials have also stated that they will not accept any conditionalities from Washington.

Biden may have fundamental differences in his approach vis-à-vis the Middle East as compared to Trump for a variety of reasons. 

First, Biden is likely to be less confrontationalist vis-à-vis Iran as has already been indicated by him. 

Second, Donald Trump had a far better relationship with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, like UAE, Saudi Arabia, and others like Turkey and Egypt. Trump made no qualms about getting along with authoritarian leadership of these countries, and turning a blind eye to human rights violations in Saudi Arabia.  

Trump touted agreements between Middle Eastern countries Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel as one of his major achievements. To be fair, even his critics would grant him credit for the same. What puzzled many was his flexibility vis-à-vis North Korea and his obduracy in engaging with Iran. Former President Obama while commenting on the US withdrawal from JCPOA had remarked: 

Indeed, at a time when we are all rooting for diplomacy with North Korea to succeed, walking away from the JCPOA risks losing a deal that accomplishes – with Iran – the very outcome that we are pursuing with the North Koreans

Third, a more flexible engagement will prevent Iran from further swaying towards China, something Washington would want to prevent. One of the key factors cited for the Iran-China 25-year agreement (which will bolster economic and strategic relations between both countries) is the approach of the Trump Administration vis-à-vis Iran. 

Apart from this, Biden, who has repeatedly reiterated the point about engaging with allies, is likely to take their advice. The US President-elect has already proposed a global democracy summit where common challenges confronting the world will be discussed and it is expected that the US will seek the views of allies. 

UK, France, and Germany (E3), and Japan and India, are likely to be in favor of a different approach vis-à-vis Iran, given their economic and strategic interests.  

It is not necessary that Biden is likely to follow a policy identical to Obama’s given that global geopolitical dynamics in general and the situation in the Middle East have witnessed a significant shift. Yet a more flexible and pragmatic US approach towards Iran could prevent Tehran from veering further towards Beijing. It is also important for the US to give more space to its allies to strengthen economic linkages with Tehran. Joe Biden has numerous other challenges, and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani too has a number of problems to cope with but there is a limited window for at least getting back to the dialogue table and reducing tensions.

New Zealand’s elections and the geopolitics of the Pacific

Introduction 

The convincing victory of Jacinda Ardern is important for more than just one reason. First, the 40 year-old Ardern’s centre-Left Labour party has won convincingly — securing 49% of the vote, and securing 64 seats in the 120 seat assembly. Ardern has delivered the biggest election victory for her party in half a century. The victory gives Ardern and her party the opportunity to form a single party government.  

Second, while there is often talk of a right-wing political discourse being dominant globally, it is important that a center-left leader has won. Many commentators of course would argue that New Zealand is a small country, with a small population of less than 5 million – and that not much should be read into the electoral result.

Third, Ardern’s successful handling of the Covid19 pandemic, along with other women leaders – including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing Wen, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen – has been acknowledged globally. A study published by the World Economic Forum and The Center for Economic and Policy Research makes this point and has cited some of the reasons for the success of the these leaders. The success has been attributed to the fact that all these leaders were quick to react to the crisis. 

Fourth, at a time when the world is becoming insular, the New Zealand PM has been firmly pitching for open immigration policies, has taken a strong stance vis-à-vis Islamophobia (something which leaders of other liberal democracies have failed to do), and repeatedly argued in favor of a more inclusive society. In March 2019, shootings at a Mosque in Christchurch by white supremacists had resulted in the killing of 50 people. Ardern, while expressing solidarity with members of the community, donned a head scarve, or hijab, and this gesture was appreciated. In her victory speech the New Zealand PM stated that the world is becoming increasingly more polarized and that “New Zealanders have shown that this is not who we are.” 

The New Zealand PM has her task cut out on issues related to the economy (the economy had shrunk by 12% in the second quarter thanks to the impact of the lockdown). Like other countries, there have been many job losses. Some of the sectors which have witnessed job losses, such as retail, hospitality, and tourism – employ women (according to some estimates a whopping 90% of people who have lost jobs are women). Some commentators also believe that the Labour government has not been able to deliver on key promises related to housing, child welfare, and the economy. There is also an argument that Ardern’s first tenure was not transformational, and after her win the expectations from her will be much higher.

Foreign Policy Challenges  

New Zealand, in spite of being a small country, is important in the context of foreign policy issues. There are two important dimensions: New Zealand’s ties with China, and as a part of the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

As far as New Zealand’s ties with China are concerned, there are various layers to the bilateral relationship. Jacinda Ardern’s government has largely gone along with other 5 eye countries when it comes to the issue of allowing Huawei entry into New Zealand’s 5G network. On issues pertaining to Hong Kong, the Uygurs, and the South China Sea too, New Zealand has taken a firm stance vis-à-vis Beijing. After the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, New Zealand suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and it also made revisions with regard to its policy on military and dual-use goods and technology exports to Hong Kong, subjecting the city to the same as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). 

During her speech at the China-New Zealand Summit, Ardern said: 

As you know, this has come to the fore recently around developments like Hong Kong’s new security law, the situation of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang province, and Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organisation.

Like its neighbour Australia, New Zealand has also been taking cognizance of increasing political interference in its domestic politics, via governments, political parties, and universities. There has been bipartisan support for taking measures to check the same. Some policies have been introduced with regard to political donations as well as Foreign Direct Investment. 

At the same time, New Zealand has a close economic relationship with China and this is strong reiterated by figures. In 2019, China accounted for a staggering 33% of New Zealand’s dairy exports, over 40% of meat experts and contributed to 58.3% of international education earnings (it is estimated that in 2019, 87% of New Zealand’s service export earnings from China came from education-related travel and personal tourism).

While there has been a shift in New Zealand’s approach vis-à-vis China, officials have also repeatedly made the point, that it will not blindly toe any other country’s stance vis-à-vis China. 

CPTPP

Another important foreign policy component of New Zealand is as member of the 11-member CPTPP. Along with other countries, New Zealand worked towards keeping supply chains going in the midst of the pandemic. For instance in April, New Zealand sent a first plane load of essential supplies to Singapore. (This included commodities like lamb and beef which were sent by a chartered plane.)

New Zealand and other CPTPP members have also been working to resume essential travel, while Singapore opened a travel bubble with New Zealand on September 1, 2020 (which means that quarantine-free travel will be allowed). 

New Zealand and its neighbour Australia, another member of CPTPP, have opened an air bubble too (though this is one-way as yet only passengers from New Zealand can travel to Australia). The bubble currently is applicable only to two Australian states New South Wales and the Northern Territory.

Conclusion  

In conclusion, the election result is important not just in the context of domestic politics, but in sending a message that there is space for centrist and inclusive politics and that it is not necessary to have a Strong Man image cultivated by many right-wing leaders. It is also important to bear in mind that liberal democracies, which respect diversity, are in a far better position to provide an alternative narrative to that of China. Apart from this, while the shortcomings of globalization do need to be acknowledged and addressed, inward looking economic and immigration policies need to be firmly rejected.