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(former President Donald Trump, who shared a close rapport with MBS, refused to release the report), but it has also withdrawn support for the Saudi war in Yemen.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.

Nightcap

  1. Segregating identity (Amanda Gorman) Kenan Malik, Observer
  2. Toward a more global history of capitalism Andrew Liu, Spectre
  3. Geopolitics as theory: federal-republicanism (pdf) Daniel Deudney, EJIR
  4. Argentina’s alternate history María Mazzoni, Age of Revolutions

Afternoon Tea: Allegory of the Peace of Westphalia (1654)

This is by Jacob Jordaens, a Flemish painter, and it is not even one of his most famous paintings. Here’s Jordaens’ wiki page. The Peace of Westphalia ended the 30 Years War. The Habsburgs weren’t necessarily the bad guys. The Peace of Westphalia didn’t establish state sovereignty in a system of equal (in theory) nation-states within an interstate order. The Peace of Westphalia solved a religious constitutional question within the Holy Roman Empire and ended the war between the Dutch and the Spanish. The Westphalian state system that we speak of and live in today is not appropriately named. Here’s the best article (pdf) I’ve read on the Peace.

If we were to appropriately name the interstate order that we have today, it would be named the Napoleonic interstate system. Alas. It’s called the Westphalian system. The US, and a couple of other big states like China and Russia, have trouble fitting in to the “Westphalian” state system because they established their own regional state systems long before being wrangled into European imperial entanglements. It goes without saying that polities in Africa, Asia, and the Americas also had trouble fitting into the “Westphalian” state system.

What if one of the regional orders established by the US, Russia, or China were embraced as the new global order, instead of the “Westphalian” (really Napoleonic) system based on nation-state sovereignty? I don’t think this would be a bad thing, and in their own way, the US, China, and Russia have been trying to do this since the end of World War II.

Nightcap

  1. Reading Antigone in the age of coronavirus Spencer Klavan, L & L
  2. Rawls, Antigone, and the tragic irony of norms Aris Trantidis, NOL
  3. The Arctic is starting to really heat up Sharon Burke, War on the Rocks
  4. First among Satans (fantastic) Kareem Shaheen, Newlines

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.

Nightcap

  1. How slaves shape their societies Catherine Cameron, Aeon
  2. Geopolitics and change (pdf) Daniel Deudney, New Thinking in IR
  3. Bernie Sanders?
  4. Liberalizing the liberal order? (podcast) David Hendrickson, Power Problems

Nightcap

  1. Clarence Thomas and the Left Mark Pulliam, Law & Liberty
  2. Religious liberty and the Left Ian Millhiser, Vox
  3. Mughal hegemony Manjeet Pardesi, EJIR
  4. Was Shikha Dalmia purged? George Dance, Political Animal

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.

Nightcap

  1. Sovereignty and the modern treaty process (pdf) Paul Nadasdy, CSSH
  2. How states wrest territory from their adversaries (pdf) Dan Altman, ISQ
  3. Farage’s dangerous appeal Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  4. Decomposing the nation-state (pdf) Murray Rothbard, JLS

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.