China’s new footprint in the Middle East starts with Iran

Introduction

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022, in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province. Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.

A summary of the meeting, published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, underscored the point that the Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of a 25-year agreement known as “Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China.” This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister of the new Raisi government announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.

During the meeting there was a realization of the fact that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25-year “comprehensive cooperation agreement” was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people-to-people contacts, medicine, and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.

China-US and the Iran nuclear deal

The timing of this visit is interesting, as Iran is in talks with other signatories to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 (which includes China) for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview: “Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.” The US Secretary of State also indicated that if the negotiations were not successful the US would explore other options along with other allies.

During the course of the January 14 meeting Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Iranian counterpart that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain — and the Secretary General of the GCC (Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf) were in China from January 10-14, 2022, with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.

In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated that if the United States does not remove the economic sanctions it has imposed, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US). The Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia-centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.

Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (the US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by the UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and the GCC and play a role in improving links between both.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt that American influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.

Podcast Institute of Economic Affairs

I had a chat on classical liberalism, liberal international relations theory the standoff with Russia. It is about 25 minutes or so.

China’s new footprint in the post-American Middle East

Days after the UAE’s decision to cancel the agreement regarding purchase of F35 jets from the US, a CNN report (December 23, 2021) stated that assessments of senior US officials suggested that transfers of sensitive ballistic missiles had taken place between China and Saudi Arabia.

UAE’s reasons for cancelling the agreement for purchase of F35s

One of the reasons for the UAE to cancel the deal with the US was that it did not want to be caught in any sort of ‘cold war’ between both the US and China. Anwar Gargash, Diplomatic Adviser to the UAE’s leadership, said, while speaking at a think tank in Washington DC earlier this month:

I think we, as a small state, will be affected negatively by this, but will not have the ability in any way to affect this competition even positively really.

While the US has been uncomfortable with the UAE’s use of Chinese 5G technology, with Washington warning the Emirates that the latter’s use of technology will impact security ties between both countries, the findings of US surveillance that China was trying to build a military installation in Khalifa port, close to Abu Dhabi, led to serious differences. Although construction work on the site in Khalifa port was cancelled (though both the UAE and China insisted that the facility was purely commercial in nature), and both the Emirates and the Americans have publicly stated that their relationship is still strong, there is no doubt that recent events have cast a shadow on the bilateral relationship.

If one were to look at the case of Saudi Arabia developing ballistic missiles, it is important for a number of reasons. First, it shows the increasing security imprint of China on the Middle East, specifically two Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Both are considered to be close to the US, and the fact is that ties with China could emerge as a bone of contention in relations between Washington and Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

A senior Chinese official did not deny cooperation in the sphere of ballistic technology between Saudi Arabia and China, stating that both countries are comprehensive strategic partners. Said the official:

Such cooperation does not violate any international law and does not involve the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Interestingly, China also shares robust economic ties with Iran and has been pitching for revival of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal, while the UAE and Saudi Arabia, like the US, Israel, and other countries, have expressed worries with regard to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. China and Iran have also signed a 25-year cooperation agreement, referred to as “strategic cooperation pact,” in March 2021, which sought to bolster economic and security linkages between both countries. Iran has also hinted that if the JCPOA does not revive it would go ahead and trade with China and other countries.

Second, the development of ballistic missiles by Saudi Arabia will have a significant impact on the Middle East, and make it tougher for the US and other countries to prevent Iran from developing a ballistic program.

US ties with Saudi Arabia

While information pertaining to Chinese assistance for Saudi development of ballistic missiles was available to the US even earlier, the Trump administration did not put much pressure on the Saudis over this issue. The Biden Administration’s ties with Riyadh have been strained (as a result Saudi Arabia has been attempting to reorient its foreign policy significantly), though in recent months the US has been working on remolding ties. One of the reasons why Washington did not impose sanctions on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) even though declassified reports of CIA pointed to the fact that MBS was clearly involved in the Jamal Khashoggi murder (a number of Saudi officials were put on a no travel list, while financial sanctions were imposed on some officials), was that the US did not want to allow ties with Saudi Arabia to further deteriorate.

GCC countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have shared strong economic and strategic ties with the US, have been altering their foreign policy within the Middle East (one important example of this has been attempts by both countries to improve ties with Iran) as well as outside of it. One of the propelling factors for the reorientation in foreign policy of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is the belief that the US will be less involved in the region in the future. In the past the China factor has never been a major issue in US ties with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, but greater security and technological cooperation between the GCC states and Beijing could prove to be a thorny issue. Apart from its increasing economic clout, the biggest advantage that China possesses in the Middle East is that, apart from strong ties with Gulf countries, it also has good relations with Iran.

The Aussie-UK Free Trade Agreement

Introduction

Australia and the UK signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on December 17, 2021 (an in principle agreement had been announced in June 2021). This FTA will drastically reduce tariffs on a number of Australian exports to the UK and reduce duties on a number of British commodities to Australia. Significantly, it will also make it easier for both Australian and British workers to work in each other’s countries under the working holiday scheme (WHS).

According to estimates of the British government, the FTA could increase trade between the United Kingdom and Australia by approximately $19 billion “in the long run” while the UK’s GDP may increase by about $4.2 billion by 2035.

There are some important provisions which could benefit workers from both countries. Firstly, in an important step, both countries have increased the working holiday visa’s eligible age to 35. What is especially significant is that there is no pre-requisite for applicants under this category to be employed in any “specific work.” Second, Australia will permit up to 1,000 workers to come from the UK in the first year of a new “skills exchange” trial.

Symbolic importance of the FTA

In a post-pandemic world, society is becoming even more insular and borders are becoming more stringent, so encouraging professionals and workers is important. In June 2021, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had said:

We’re opening up to each other and this is the prelude to a general campaign of opening up around the world.

The UK’s Secretary of State for International Trade, Anne Marie Trevelyan, described the deal as “a landmark moment in the historic and vital relationship between our two Commonwealth nations.”

The geopolitical significance of the FTA

From the UK’s point of view the FTA is important because the UK has been seeking to become more pro-active in the Indo-Pacific. Australia has been one of the most vocal proponents of the Free and Open Indo Pacific, and is also one of the members of the Quad (the other three members are the US, Japan, and India). From an economic standpoint the FTA is agreeable because the UK is seeking to get on board the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) (members of this group have a combined GDP of $13.5 trillion), and this deal will only bolster its chances. The UK has already signed trade agreements with two members of the CPTPP — Japan and Vietnam – in 2020. Interestingly the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership), the precursor to the CPTPP, was conceived by former US President Barack Obama, but the US withdrew from the agreement during the Trump Administration (pulling the US out of the TPP was one of the first decisions taken by Donald Trump after he took over as President). The trade agreement had also been opposed by a number of Democrat leaders including Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

For Australia, this agreement is especially significant because ever since the souring of relations with China, the bilateral economic relationship has been adversely impacted. China has imposed tariffs on a number of commodities, such as wine and barley, and also restricted imports of Australian beef, coal, and grapes. Under the Australia-UK FTA, tariffs on Australian wines will be terminated immediately, and the FTA will give a boost to the sales of not just wine but a number of other commodities boycotted by China. The FTA with the UK may not be able to compensate for the economic ramifications of strained ties with China, but it could pave the way for Australia exploring similar arrangements with a number of other countries.

In conclusion, the agreement between Australia and the UK is an important development and a clear reiteration of the point that the UK has an important role to play as a stakeholder in the vision of the “Free and Open Indo Pacific.” Second, the Indo Pacific needs to have a strong economic component and FTAs between countries are important in this context. Third, countries like Australia willing to bear the economic ramifications of a deterioration in ties with China need to look at alternative markets for their commodities. Finally, while there are certain areas where only the US can provide global leadership, US allies need to chart their own course, as is evident not only from FTAs signed between many of them, but also by the success of the CPTPP without the US being on board.

The Quad of West Asia: New Developments, Old Problems

Introduction

The signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020, through which Bahrain and the UAE normalised ties with Israel, was a significant development which analysts believed had the potential of altering the geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East. In December 2020, Morocco also signed an agreement for normalising relations with Israel, while in January 2021, Sudan followed suit. The 2020 accords, which many believed was more about symbolism than substance, drew criticism for ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (the events of May 2021 clearly reiterate this point) and overlooking other complexities of the region.

Hailed by the Biden Administration

The Abraham accords, which have been dubbed as one of the significant achievements of the erstwhile Trump Administration, were welcomed by Biden (who was then not President) and have been hailed by him and by senior officials within his administration repeatedly. Commenting on the Abraham Accords at the one-year anniversary, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said: “Today, a year after the Accords and normalization agreements were signed, the benefits continue to grow.”

Israel opened a consulate in the UAE in June 2021, while the UAE opened a consulate in Tel Aviv in July 2021.

Abraham accords and UAE-Israel ties

The accords have also given a boost to economic ties between both the Emirates and Israel (Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that bilateral trade between both countries had surpassed $600 million in June 2021, less than a year after signing of the Abraham Accords). In the past year alone there has been a significant jump in Israeli tourists visiting the UAE (Israel, on its part, is also trying to woo tourists from the UAE). In October 2021, the Foreign Ministers of the US, the UAE, Israel, and India met and discussed potential areas of cooperation – specifically trade, infrastructure, technology, and maritime cooperation. This grouping has even been dubbed as a new ‘Quad’ in West Asia. US State Department spokesperson Ned Price, while commenting on the thrust of the meeting, said that the four countries:

discussed expanding economic and political cooperation in the Middle East and Asia, including through trade, combating climate change, energy cooperation, and increasing maritime security.

UAE’s outreach to Iran and its impact on UAE-Israel ties

While improving ties with Israel, the UAE has also been reaching out to Iran (economic ties between both countries remained robust even in the midst of tensions). Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said, in a telephonic conversation last month with UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, that Tehran attached great importance to its ties with the UAE and that it was important to give a boost to bilateral economic linkages.

National Security Advisor of the UAE, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, led a high profile Emirati delegation to Iran on December 6, 2021 and met with his counterpart, Admiral Ali Shamkhan (the Iranian National Security Adviser), as well as Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, and discussed bilateral and regional issues. This visit came days after the Vienna talks pertaining to the revival of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action)/Iran nuclear deal had broken down on December 3, 2021 (both the US and several EU countries had blamed Iran for its rigid approach). Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE’s president, said that Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s visit to Iran:

comes as a continuation of the UAE’s efforts to strengthen bridges of communication and cooperation in the region which would serve the national interest.

While the UAE is a key player in the Middle East and could play an important role in talks pertaining to the Iran Nuclear deal, both Israel and the US would be watching the attempts by the UAE to reach out to Iran. Many analysts argue that the Emirates could show lesser interest in getting other Gulf countries to normalize relations with Israel (Saudi Arabia, arguably the most influential country in the Arab Gulf, has also stated that it could not normalize ties with Israel without a sustainable resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict).

UAE-China-US trilateral

Another important point to bear in mind is that there have been differences between the US and the UAE after the former alleged that China was building a military installation inside the Khalifa port, not far from the capital city of the Emirates, Abu Dhabi (this construction was halted after discussions between senior US officials and their UAE counterparts).

The UAE shares close strategic ties with the US (the latter has 3,500 of its troops based at Al Dhafra air base, which is 30 kilometres from Abu Dhabi), but the sale of fifty F35 stealth fighter planes (worth $23 billion) has been delayed for a number of reasons: Abu Dhabi’s use of Huawei 5 technology, the presence of China at strategically important points, and the offer of military technology by Beijing to the UAE. The agreement for the sale of F35s to the UAE had been signed during the Trump Administration.

The UAE has the ability to reinvent itself and this has stood it in good stead in the economic sphere; it will now need to recalibrate its foreign policy and keep it in sync with the geopolitical developments in the Middle East (the geopolitical landscape of the region has changed significantly ever since the signing of the Abraham accords). Its biggest regional challenge will be to maintain cordial ties with Israel and Iran, and at a global level ensuring that its strategic ties with the US do not get impacted by its cordial ties with China. In the midst of all the challenges and complexities, the UAE could leverage its ties with Iran to reduce tensions between the West and Tehran.

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