ALL Roads Lead to Tehran
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Overturning the Obama era JCPOA nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) in 2018, President Trump brought back the Iranian issue to centre stage of global and middle eastern politics. He firmly endorsed the Israeli and Saudi assessment that the deal brokered by Obama Administration would lead to Iran becoming stronger and perhaps even closer to achieving and crossing the nuclear threshold. They were more worried about Iran’s continuing missile and drone capabilities that could hit any target in the region especially with its arsenal of 3 Hs-non state actors (Hezbollah, Hamas and Houthis). Hence, more modern arms were pumped into their biggest client Saudi Arabia led Sunni bloc to contain the Iranian expanse. Another big concern was the strong and powerful Iran backed militias in their backyard be it Houthis in Yemen; Hamas in Gaza; Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria; or for that matter Iran backed militias in Iraq and elsewhere. Trump forgot that one of his Republican predecessors had given Iraq on a platter to Iran by the sheer folly of invasion of Iraq. Terrorism and its more sanguine and sophisticated Avatars from AQ to ISIS have spanned across region and beyond. Hence, Deal of the Century and Abraham Accords were expedited.

Also the US withdrawal and imposition of more severe sanctions enabled Iran’s resolve to get closer to acquiring weapon grade status through higher enrichment levels. More so, Ayatollah Khamenei’s genetic mistrust of the West especially that of Trump and his disdain for the deal as it forced hardening of positions on both sides leading to a near war which could have been catastrophic by any stretch of imagination. While arguably Trump was inclined to go to war but avoided it Tehran and its moderate section of leadership retained a strategic patience hoping that Trump may not return to the White House in the ensuing elections. President Biden, who had been supporter of JCPOA as Vice President, vowed to return to the deal provided Iran retracted to the permissible enrichment levels and complied with the provisions of the deal. Tehran maintains that US must withdraw all sanctions before any discussion could take place. And to keep US guessing and the JCPOA as an important agenda it is reportedly started enriching Uranium with a fourth cascade of IR2m centrifuges at its underground facility at Natanz as Zarif advised US “Nasty habits die hard. But time to kick this one” as he feels US is continuing with the Trump tactics in disguise.

Worrisome for Tel Aviv too that had allegedly removed the top Iranian scientist Fakhrizade a few months back to slow down Iranian nuclear quest by a couple of years. Even though Biden Administration has shown flexibility by way of certain Confidence Building measures (CBMs) like rescinding declaration of Houthis as terrorist group; not pressing for sanctions against Iran at the UN; keeping the door open for informal and formal talks via E3 and even seeking Chinese and Russian help; apart from keeping Tel Aviv especially Netanyahu under check; and suspending last minute Trump authorised sale of F-35s to UAE and 3000 missiles to Saudi Arabia. Only last week US allowed Iraq to import gas and electricity from Iran extending the waiver by 90 days. Humanitarian relief could be part of incremental opening up of negotiations. However, these acts have reinforced the prevailing view in the region, which is beset by its problems, that its arbiter of security- the US was not fully on board and hence they needed to hedge their bets.

Prevailing mistrust and the upcoming Iranian elections appear to have slowed the process down further as perhaps US does not wish to lose the traction if a more conservative regime sets in Tehran. However, it would prefer moderates to regain power and indications are that given the difficult economic and pandemic condition in the country more and more people turning against continued state of confrontation even if they would not like to compromise or belittle their sovereignty under any circumstances. But for Tehran losing steam may be counterproductive.

Meanwhile, geo-politics and geo-economics and sabre-rattling are on full display as other major powers China and Russia are moving into the strategic space and corners being vacated by a reticent Washington DC. Hence US also looks at Iran as a crucial Queen on the regional chess board in the global competition dynamic. Biden Administration also understands that Iranian civilisational pride may not allow them to be a surrogate of Beijing or Moscow surely not that of Washington as it could move in between the houses with uncomfortable ease. Tehran hoped to get investments and market access for its oil and gas with the signing of JCPOA with the West and hence kept the Economic and Security Cooperation Agreement with China under wraps since the visit of President Xi Jinping in 2016 but Trump’s withdrawal changed that and rumours became afloat once again. Though Iran does not prefer over-reliance on any partner having learnt from its past but if Biden Administration is not able to sustain the Iranian attention and honest return to the deal - closer collaboration between Russia-Iran and China is going to be a reality even in the context of security cooperation within the ambit of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) of which Iran is currently an Observer only. Signs are quite visible, and window seems to be closing too. It is in this context that Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit to the region might be to keep its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) flock together while adroitly navigating the sui generis complexities and animosities among various actors in the region.

The fears that accrued in August last year that China and Iran were going to sign the strategic pact with $400 bn in Chinese investments and assured supply and import of Iranianoil and gas for 25 years among several other critical elements of the deal. Many just dismissed these secret parleys as sabre-rattling by the two countries under sanctions from Trump. But on March 27, during his visit to the Middle East, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi signed the 25 years Cooperation agreement with his counterpart Javad Zarif. Iran like most West Asian countries supports China’s ambitious BRI project, and it is in this context not only China will secure regular energy supplies from Iran but ensure infra and strategic investments along with closer military collaboration with Tehran.

Although competitive in geo-political sense it is also likely that after the Biden-Xi and 2+2 Meeting at Anchorage and Biden-Putin discussions getting Iran to the table and to support the moderates may have been a side show as well. Iran derives a comfort level and negotiating edge in the bargain. Chinese vaccines have also been welcomed by Iran while Khamenei banned the satanic vaccines of the West. Russia and China have been asking the Americans to lift all sanctions while urging restraint to the Iranians. President Rouhani also thanked Beijing for standing up to “American unilateralism”. Beijing is looking to expand its outreach through Jask and Chabahar strategic ports while going full steam on Gwadar and CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor).

In the meantime, China has continued to increase its Iranian oil imports and a Reuters report quoted the Chinese Commerce Ministry that they had received no notices of sanctions on Iranian oil from the Biden Administration and that China will defend its legitimate Sino-Iranian interests and safeguard its oil deal. Reportedly, in March China has moved record volumes of Iranian crude via Oman, UAE and Malaysia and continues to do well on economic and technology fronts in its quest to upstage US from the numero uno position. This is what constitutes the Chinese attraction for the embattled Iranians who despite internal dissensions over the Chinese deal are aiming to move forward on their “Act East “policy. No wonder ‘Tehran Times’ published an article entitled “China is an ideal partner for Iran’s Pluralistic Diplomacy” and Zarif called China “a friend of difficult days “. Ipso facto it applies to other major countries in the region who are working closely with their big and reliable market who has the capacity to withstand US pressure and is ideologically neutral in its conduct. Short to medium term hedging is evident.

Iran was just one stop for Wang Yi. His itinerary, from March 24-30, of the Middle East included Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman to enrich its economic ties that have been built over decades quietly while it stayed clear of the US pathways or rather created its critical outreach under their very noses without being judgemental. He also spoke to Foreign Ministers of Iraq and Jordan. His visit to the region was to reinforce Chinese continued engagement as the Americans are being perceived as diverting their primary role to the Indo-Pacific. UAE has agreed to manufacture Sinopharm vaccines in Abu Dhabi apart from carrying out extensive tests for the Chinese vaccines. Already it has provided over 17 mn vaccines to the region. Oman which has been close to Tehran also inched more closer to China which has emerged as its biggest trading and investment partner including strategic collaborations in defence and security as well as at the Duqm port. Unveiling the statue of Chinese Navigator Zheng He was instructive of the depth of relationship as China works on a Sino-GCC FTA at an early date .

In an interview to Al Arabia TV, FM Wang discussed China’s 5 Point Plan that seeks to prioritise security and development in the region. It includes supporting China’s idea that each country has its own characteristics and should not be judged through Western values. The characteristics, models and paths of the Middle East must be respected. It is important to change the traditional mindset and see Middle East countries as partners for cooperation, development and peace, instead of perceiving the region through the lens of geo-competition. The second point deals with the Palestinian question "Nothing represents equity and justice in the Middle East more than a sound solution to the question of Palestine… In its presidency of the UN Security Council this May, China will encourage the Security Council to fully deliberate on the question of Palestine to reaffirm the two-state solution." Wang already offered to host the Israelis and Palestinians. The third point is to pressure the U.S. to return to the JCPOA and to lift sanctions against Iran. The pressing task is for the US to take substantive measures to lift its unilateral sanctions on Iran and long-arm jurisdiction on third parties, and for Iran to resume reciprocal compliance with its nuclear commitments, to achieve early harvest. The fourth point is to encourage equal dialogue and consultation, mutual understanding and accommodation and improved relations among Gulf (Persian Gulf) countries. Wang said, "We propose holding in China a multilateral dialogue conference for regional security in the Gulf (Persian Gulf) region to explore the establishment of a Middle East trust mechanism," Finally, he emphasised the need to accelerate development cooperation. China will continue to hold the China-Arab Reform and Development Forum and the Middle East Security Forum to increase the sharing of governance experience with Middle East countries. It is commendable that Iran’sarch-rival Saudi Arabia also welcomed Chinese active efforts to promote peace and development in the Middle east.

On the issue of Uighurs and Xinjiang he seems to have got the Islamic countries including Ankara tongue tied by stating that “We oppose imposing ideology on others and using human rights to interfere in other nations’ affairs and smear them.” All are in the same boat especially as US democratic Administration will overtly take recourse to human rights issues. It has already put Mohammed bin Salman on the backfoot in the Khashoggi case. This provides a value neutral China an edge. So far China has been able to balance the competing stalwarts in the region but as the stakes grow higher and regional dispute settlement and conflict resolution mechanisms remain inefficient and dormant, China may find itself locked in the hornet’s nest. It is trying to build an inclusive security architecture in the region while trying to act as a mediator between the Gulf and the Biden Administration. How will it eventually play out remains to be seen. For the time being rubbing each other’s back indeed helps.

India needs to be closely watchful and more pro-active so as to preserve its critical and strategic interests in its extended neighbourhood that will eventually come under pressure with increased Chinese bonhomie in the region. It does have the potential of becoming a zero-sumgame.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image Source: https://www.aljazeera.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/000_1M56TE.jpg?resize=770%2C513

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