Afghanistan deserves attention, but don’t lose sight of Iran

Introduction

While global attention is understandably focused on the turmoil in Afghanistan, another major challenge for US President Joe Biden is likely to be the restoration of the Iran Nuclear Deal/JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Program of Action). While to begin with the negotiations between Iran and other signatories (the US was part of these indirect talks) to the 2015 JCPOA offered a ray of hope, since June there has been no progress.

Iran’s nuclear program, and its foreign policy in the Middle East (especially its support to proxies), have emerged as the contentious issues between Iran and other signatories to the 2015 JCPOA.

In an important statement, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently said that:

America’s current administration is no different from the previous one, because what it demands from Iran on the nuclear issue is different in words, but the same thing that Trump demanded

After facing flak for his handling of Afghanistan, Biden would not like to send out a message that his approach towards Iran is similar to his predecessor.

Here it would be pertinent to point out that senior officials in the Biden administration have hinted at their impatience with the lack of progress. The US President, after his meeting with Israeli PM Naftali Benett, said:

We’re putting diplomacy first and see where that takes us. But if diplomacy fails, we’re ready to turn to other options

The Israeli PM (whose stance on Iran is identical to that of his predecessor) is supposed to have praised Biden’s clarity with regard to curbing Iran’s nuclear program.

The attack on Mercer Street in July 2021 was criticised not just by Israel, but also the UK and US. The US Secretary of State had alluded to retaliatory action.

Raisi’s election

The election of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, in June 2021, was, according to analysts and commentators, likely to be a major stumbling block to the revival of the JCPOA. Ever since taking over, though, the Iranian President has moderated his stance considerably, and has spoken to French President Immanuel Macron, and also held an in-person meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, who visited Iran. During both meetings, Raisi put forward Iran’s views on the JCPOA saying that Tehran could not accept some of the conditionalities which other signatories to the deal are trying to impose. The Iranian President, during his conversation with Macron, criticised the US for imposing more sanctions.

CIA Chief William Burns, one of the architects of the 2015 JCPOA, also visited Israel, and is supposed to have discussed the Iran Nuclear deal with senior Israeli officials.

Challenges for Iran’s economy

It would be pertinent to point out that Iran’s currency, the Rial, has taken a significant beating in recent weeks as a result of the domestic uncertainty as well as the turmoil in Afghanistan. Even before Raisi had taken over as President, the country was afflicted with numerous economic challenges, including rising inflation (this was estimated at well over 30%). The covid19 situation as well as US sanctions had been held responsible for the economic crisis.

There were protests as a result of water shortages and power shortages as well. While there are high expectations from Raisi, there is a realization in Iran that unless the US removes sanctions Iran’s economy is unlikely to witness a recovery.

In conclusion, it is important for the Biden administration to give priority to negotiations related to the Iran deal, and to refrain from adopting a path similar to that of the Trump administration. Raisi’s hardline credentials, as well as his proximity to Khamenei, put him in a better position as far as negotiations pertaining to the Iran Nuclear deal are concerned. Time is running out, and Washington DC will need to give some elbow room to the new president. The US should also realize that reduction of tensions with Iran could be handy since Tehran has links with the Taliban.

While the outreach by France and Japan to Iran is encouraging, Washington DC itself needs to adopt a flexible approach vis-à-vis the JCPOA and should not lose patience. It is also important for Washington to not allow Israel to influence its Iran policy.

Biden’s newest foreign policy challenge: Iranian and Israeli hardliners

Introduction

After the triumph of Ebrahim Raisi in the June 2021 Iranian Presidential election, the US and other countries, especially the E3 (the UK, Germany, and France), which are party to the JCPOA/Iran Nuclear deal would have paid close attention to his statements, which had a clear anti-West slant. Raisi has made it unequivocally clear that while he is not opposed to the deal per se, he will not accept any diktats from the West with regard to Iran’s nuclear program or its foreign policy in the Middle East.

In addition to Raisi’s more stridently anti-US stance, at least in public, what is likely to make negotiations between Iran and the US tougher is the recent attack on an oil tanker, off Oman, operated by Zodiac Maritime, a London based company owned by an Israeli shipping magnate, Eyal Ofer. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid did not take long blame Iran for the attack, referring to this as an example of ‘Iranian terrorism’ (current Israeli PM Naftali Bennett’s policy vis-à-vis Iran is no different from that of his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu). After Raisi’s win in June, Israel had reiterated its opposition to negotiating with Iran, and the Israeli PM termed the election of hardliner Raisi as a ‘wake up call’ for the rest of the world. Two crew members — a Romanian and a Briton, were killed in the attack.

While the Vienna negotiations between Iran and other signatories to JCPOA (the US is participating indirectly) have made significant progress, Raisi could ask for them to start afresh, in which case the US has said that it may be compelled to take strong economic measures, such as imposing sanctions on companies facilitating China’s oil imports from Iran (ever since the Biden administration has taken over there has been a jump in China’s oil purchases from Iran).

It would be pertinent to point out that pressure from pro-Israel lobbies in the US, as well as apprehensions of Israelis themselves with regard to the JCPOA, were cited as one of the reasons for the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy vis-à-vis Iran, as well as the Biden administration’s inability to clinch an agreement with the Hassan Rouhani administration. While at one stage the Biden administration seemed to be willing to get on board the JCPOA unconditionally, it is not just domestic pressures, but also the fervent opposition of Israel to the JCPOA which has acted as a major impediment. While GCC countries Saudi Arabia and UAE were fervently opposed to the JCPOA and also influenced the Trump administration’s aggressive Iran policy, in recent months they have been working towards improving ties with Iran, and have softened their stance.

Washington should refrain from taking any harsh economic steps

At a time when the Iranian economy is in doldrums (the currency has depreciated and inflation has risen as a result of the imposition of sanctions and of Covid-19), Washington would not want to take any steps which result in further exacerbating the anti-US feeling in Iran. While commenting on the attack on the Israeli managed tanker, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said:

We are working with our partners to consider our next steps and consulting with governments inside the region and beyond on an appropriate response, which will be forthcoming

There is no doubt that the maximum pressure policy of the Trump administration of imposing harsh sanctions on Iran did not really benefit the US, and Joe Biden during the presidential campaign had been critical of the same. Reduction of tensions with Iran is also important given the current situation in Afghanistan, and Tehran’s importance given its clout vis-à-vis the Taliban.

US allies and their role

US allies themselves are looking forward to the revival of the JCPOA, so that they can revive economic relations with Iran. This includes the E3 (Germany, the UK, and France) and India. As mentioned earlier, GCC countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE, which in recent years have had strained ties with Iran, are seeking to re-work their relations with Tehran as a result of the changing geopolitical environment in the Middle East.

The role of US allies who have a good relationship with both Israel and Iran is important in calming down tempers, and ensuring that negotiations for revival of JCPOA are not stalled.

Conclusion

It is important for Biden to draw lessons from Trump’s aggressive Iran policy. Biden should not allow Israel or any other country to dictate its policy vis-à-vis Iran, as this will not only have an impact on bilateral relations but have broader geopolitical ramifications. Any harsh economic measures vis-à-vis Iran will push Tehran closer to China, while a pragmatic policy vis-à-vis Tehran may open the space for back channel negotiations.

Raisi on his part needs to be flexible and realize that the most significant challenge for Tehran is the current state of its economy. Removal of US sanctions will benefit the Iranian economy in numerous ways but for this he will need to be pragmatic and not play to any gallery.

China and the Taliban

Introduction

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with a nine-member delegation of the Taliban on July 28, 2021. The delegation was led by Abdul Ghani Baradar, who heads the Taliban’s political office in Doha. In July 2021, the Taliban had visited Russia and the Kremlin envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, had met with the delegation. Kabulov said that the Taliban had assured him that the territory of Afghanistan will not be used against Russia or any of its allies in Central Asia.

The meeting between Yi and the Taliban delegation is the first high level public meeting after the Taliban has managed to gain control over a significant portion of Afghanistan’s territory, including Badakshan province, which shares a border with China’s western Xinjiang region (given the changing geopolitical dynamics, Beijing had of course opened its back channels earlier with the Taliban). It would be pertinent to point out that China has previously hosted Taliban delegations in 2015 (Urumqi, Xinjiang) and in 2019 (Beijing).

Significance of meeting

Wang Yi’s meeting with the Taliban delegation is significant for more than one reason; it comes days after Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had undertaken a two-day visit to China (July 23-July 24, 2021) for a strategic dialogue. During this meeting, both sides had agreed to work jointly to address the security challenges posed by the situation in Afghanistan. Apart from supporting peace talks and reconciliation, China had also made it clear that action needed to be taken against terror groups, which pose a security threat to Beijing, and both Islamabad and Beijing need to work jointly in this direction. In a press release posted on the website of the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi said:

We will work together to combat terrorism and push all major forces in Afghanistan to draw a clear line against terrorism, firmly combat the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and other terrorist forces, and resolutely stop Afghanistan from becoming a hotbed of terrorism.

China believes that the recent terror attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK province), which had resulted in the killing of 13 individuals (including 9 Chinese nationals) in a bus explosion (engineers and staff working on the Dasu Project were in the bus), was a possible handiwork of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Beijing also sent a delegation to Pakistan to be part of an enquiry being conducted by Islamabad into the attack.

Finally, the meeting between Wang Yi and the Taliban delegation took place at a time when US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was in India, and during his discussions with the Indian side Afghanistan was high on the agenda. Blinken had expressed concern about the rise in atrocities committed by the Taliban, and also said that the Taliban could not gain legitimacy by such steps and ultimately:

There’s only one path. And that’s at the negotiating table to resolve the conflicts peacefully, and to have an Afghanistan emerge that is governed in a genuinely inclusive way, and that is representative of all its people.

Beijing’s recognition of Taliban’s importance

At the same time, Wang Yi was unequivocal in flagging the threat to China from ETIM, and asked the Taliban to ‘completely sever ties’ with the group. The Taliban, on its part, assured Wang Yi that Taliban will not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against China. Wang Yi’s meeting send outs a strong message that Beijing clearly recognizes the role of the Taliban in resolving the current situation. The Taliban had also assured China earlier that it would ensure the safety of Chinese investments. Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen had, in a media interview in July 2021, stated:

China is a friendly country and we welcome it for reconstruction and developing Afghanistan…if [the Chinese] have investments, of course we will ensure their safety.

Difference between China-Russia and the US

The US approach vis-à-vis Afghanistan has been different from that of Beijing. While flagging its concerns, Beijing, realizing the ground realities, has sent out a clear message that it is willing to do business with the Taliban; the statements of Blinken, on the other hand, indicate US hesitancy vis-à-vis the Taliban. What is extremely interesting, however, are Blinken’s remarks during his visit to India stating that China’s involvement in Afghanistan could be positive. Given the fact that numerous commentators have been arguing that China and the US need to find common ground and that a zero-sum approach will not benefit anyone, this is a very interesting remark and should be welcomed since all stakeholders will need to work jointly in order to find a solution.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the situation in Afghanistan is perpetually evolving and requires all stakeholders in the region and outside to adopt a nuanced approach. The priority in the short run is to navigate the turbulence. In the midst of strained ties between Washington and Beijing, the US Secretary of State’s remarks regarding Beijing’s role in Afghanistan need to be welcomed.

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.

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.