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How Significant is the $400 Billion Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between China and Iran

8 Apr

[Prefatory Note: the post below consists of my responses to questions posed by the Iranian journalist Javad Heiran-Nia Questions on the China/Iran Agreement (4 April 2021). The agreement, officially known as Comprehensive Strategic Partnership  was signed formally just a few weeks before it was announced that so-called ‘indirect talks’ between Iran and the U.S. were taking place in Vienna dealing with conditions relevant to the U.S. willingness to rejoin the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, that had been negotiated in 2015 to address proliferation concerns of the UN P-5 + Germany and the sanctions concerns of Iran. The U.S. withdrew from the agreement in 2018 in fulfillment of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge to do so because it was derided as a bad deal for the West. What accounts for such talks being ‘indirect’ is not covered in the interview, and seems like a hedge against directly failing to find enough common ground to commence overdue ‘direct’ talks.] 

  1. 25-year cooperation document between Iran and China was signed. What is the significance of this document for the two countries?

The agreement configured to be worth at least $400 billion, carefully negotiated, and significantly named Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, promises significant mutual benefit to both countries. For China it offers both a major extension of its Belt and Road Initiative, involving huge infrastructure and investment features, especially Chinese investment in Iranian energy infrastructure and an Iranian commitment to supply China with crude oil. It also extends China’s diplomatic presence to and economic engagement with an important country in the Middle East at an opportune time given the present global setting. The fact that the agreement covers a period of 25 years suggests that it represents long-term commitment by China to Iran and Iran to China, presupposing continuity of governing structures in both countries.

For Iran, it signals the United States that Beijing is not isolated, and possess policy alternatives that can encroach upon American strategic interests. It also sends the message that China will not submit to U.S. pressures with respect either to the restoration of JCPOA or curtail its regional diplomacy that runs counter to the positions of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.. The economic dimensions relating to infrastructure investment and trade also promise relief from the burdens imposed on Iran and its people by U.S. sanctions and threat diplomacy over a period of almost 40 years. The long duration projected for the arrangements also gives Iranian governing arrangements a vote of confidence as to stability and legitimacy. 

2. In terms of timing, what messages does the signing of this document have for the United States?

The timing seems important. Coming at the outset of the Biden presidency it sends a dual message: China is prepared to lend its support to countries that are placed under intense pressure by the United States and that China’s international policies will not be changed by the sort of bullying tactics that were exhibited by the American Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, at the recent bilateral meetings in Alaska. It also is an illustration of the difference between the U.S. emphasis on militarism by way of coercive diplomacy, arms sales, and overseas bases, and the very different Chinese stress on fashioning win/win economic relationships that result in mutual benefits without entailing intervention in internal affairs or abridgement of sovereign rights, although in this agreement it contains a provision on security cooperation including sharing intelligence and joint training exercises. At times, Chinese diplomacy may weaken national self-reliance and autonomous development of its partners, but its diplomacy seems to rest consistently on peaceful means and mutual benefits.

 3. The United States has expressed concern about the signing of this cooperation document. What worries America?

It seems inevitable considering the scale, scope, duration, timing, and even the name of the Iran-China agreement would cause concern in Washington.

The United States has two principal concerns: a weakening of its diplomatic leverage with Iran and a further display of Chinese competitive skills that expose the weakness of current U.S. hegemonic approaches to world order, and specifically in the Middle East. The fact that this cooperative mega-agreement is situated in the Middle East threatens to diminish U.S. regional influence in a crucial strategic setting where it has been unopposed since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. This observation is given added plausibility by the recent efforts of several important countries in the Middle East, including even Israel and Saudi Arabia, to enter into significant economic relationships with China. The recent good will visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, to the region also reinforced the impression of increasing China’s interests and activities in the region, which can only make Washington nervous about being displaced, or at least challenged. Mr. Wang set forth five principles delimiting satisfactory inter-governmental conduct, which he indicated that if accepted by the governments of the region, would encourage China to play a supportive role. These five principles, somewhat resembling the principles of peaceful coexistence drafted and endorsed by the UN General Assembly are rather benign, but convey aspirations for cooperative relations among states rather than conflictual or hegemonic international relations. [See Declaration of Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, GA Res 2625 (XXV), 24 Oct 1970] The five points set forth are mutual respect, upholding equity and justice, achieving non-proliferation, collective security, and accelerated development assistance. Only ‘achieving non-proliferation’ seems a bit peculiar considering that Israel already possesses nuclear weaponry [for elaboration see “Wang Yi Proposes a Five-point Initiative on Achieving Security and Stability in the Middle East,” PR China, March 26, 2021] In this spirit the Foreign Minister ventured to suggest China’s willingness to host a conference dealing with the security of sea lanes and oil facilities in the Middle East.

4- During Iran foreign minister Zarif’s visit to China, the Chinese Foreign Minister somehow tied the signing of this agreement to the settlement of Iran’s disputes with the countries of the region. But he has now traveled to Iran to sign the agreement. Has there been a change in China’s view since Biden came to power in the United States? In other words, has China been waiting for the policy of the new US administration?

That earlier Chinese reluctance to sign the agreement has not been mentioned very often in the Western assessment of the event, which had been tied to Iran’s successful overcoming of difficulties with Arab countries in the region. This somewhat unusual demand, and now the change of position on China’s part lends weight to the circumstantial evidence that formalizing the agreement at this time reflects a reaction to the wider political context. It particularly suggests that China is prepared to demonstrate its firmness and independence in relation to the United States. It is a warning to the Biden presidency that if the U.S. forcibly challenges China’s regional sphere of influence in the South China Seas, China has ways to retaliate. China may still be hoping for a de-escalation of tensions when the negative effects of starting a new cold war become better appreciated by the Biden leadership. This is speculative on my part as nothing formally articulated suggests that such a reconsideration is underway in Washington. The irresponsible allegations of ‘genocide’ allegedly being perpetrated by the Chinese government against the Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang area suggest a further worsening of relations, allegations certain to further inflame relations between these two major countries.

Nevertheless, Washington’s cautious signs of willingness to move toward the resumption of negotiations with regard to JCPOA may also be indicative of a new American interest in neutralizing China’s leverage and influence in Tehran. And beyond this, to keep open the possibility of limiting confrontations to peaceful forms of competition, regionally and globally.

The underlying agreement, officially known as Comprehensive Strategic Partnership  was signed formally just a few weeks before it was announced that so-called ‘indirect talks’ between Iran and the U.S. were starting in Vienna dealing with U.S. conditions and demands relevant to its willingness to rejoin the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, that had been negotiated in 2015 to address proliferation concerns of the UN P-5 + Germany and the sanctions concerns of Iran. The U.S. withdrew from the agreement in 2018 in fulfillment of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge to do so because it was derided as a bad deal for the West. What accounts for such talks being ‘indirect’ is not covered in the interview, and seems like a hedge against directly failing to find enough common ground to commence overdue ‘direct’ talks

5-One of the important issues raised for this cooperation document is Iran’s land connection to Iraq and Syria. In this way, China can connect to the Mediterranean Sea through Iran, Iraq and Syria. Iran has a strong presence in the Syrian port of Tartus, and pro-Iranian forces also control the Bokmal border crossing in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province and the al-Qaim crossing in Iraq’s Anbar province. How feasible do you think this path is?

I am not in a good position to make any informed judgment beyond expressing the view that this kind of projection is consistent with other arrangements concluded within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, which has taken advantage of Chinese capital and skilled labor for similar development projects in Asia and Africa. All of these countries benefit when such plans go forward, and it would strengthen the temptation to preserve political independence in Iraq and Syria to encourage such arrangements, which could be part of a broader strategy of protecting national security of vulnerable countries by practicing equi-distance diplomacy, that is, maintaining workable relations with both the U.S. and China without alignment with either one, and thereby retaining freedom of maneuver.

The Chinese agreement with Iran, officially known as Comprehensive Strategic Partnership  was signed formally just a few weeks before it was announced that so-called ‘indirect talks’ between Iran and the U.S. were taking place in Vienna dealing with conditions relevant to the U.S. willingness to rejoin the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, that had been negotiated in 2015 to address proliferation concerns of the UN P-5 + Germany and the sanctions concerns of Iran. The U.S. withdrew from the agreement in 2018 in fulfillment of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge to withdraw because the agreement was derided as a bad deal for the West. What accounts for such talks being ‘indirect’ is not covered in the interview, and seems like a hedge against failing to find enough common ground if the parties were to commence overdue ‘direct’ talks without adequate preparation. It is likely that these indirect talks are really to intend to explore whether negotiations had a reasonable prospect of success.

Alliance Blackmail: Israel’s Opposition to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

26 Jul

 

The Vienna Agreement [formally labeled by diplospeak as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)] reached by the P5 + 1 on July 14, 2015 has been aptly hailed as a political breakthrough, not only because it calms regional worries about Iran’s nuclear program, but more so because it has the potential to remove an ugly dimension of conflict from the regional turmoil in the Middle East. Such a diplomatic success, after so many years of frustration, chaos, and strife, should be an occasion for hope and celebration, and in many venues it is, although not in Israel or Saudi Arabia or among the neo-con kingpins in Washington think tanks and their numerous Republican allies in the U.S. Congress.

 

Which side will prevail in this dysfunctional encounter is presently obscure, which itself is an indication of the dismal conditions of political life in America. Many unanswered and unanswerable questions bedevil the process: Will this agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program be approved, and then implemented, or will it be blocked or unacceptably revised before coming into operation, or later on? Will Iran become associated more openly with Western attempts to defeat ISIS and in the desperate need to bring peace and humane governance to Syria where the people of the country have endured such severe suffering since 2011? Will these developments allow Iran to be treated as a normal state within regional and global political settings, and if this reduced atmosphere of external tension occurs will it also have moderating impacts on the internal governing process in Iran? Or will Israel and its allies succeed in keeping Iran in ‘a terrorist cage’ reserved for pariah states, and continue to insist upon a military option to wage war against Iran? Will Israel receive ‘compensation’ in the form of enhanced military assistance from the United States to demonstrate Washington’s unwavering commitment to the alliance? Will Israel’s secretly acquired nuclear weapons capability be called into question in an effort to achieve denuclearization, which is more consistent with peace and morality than calling into question Iran’s threat of nuclear proliferation? Further afield, will this gap between the American/European and Israeli/Gulf approach lead over time to new geopolitical alignments that broaden beyond policy toward Iran’s nuclear program?

 

At the core these many concerns, is the nature and health of the United States/Israel relationship, and more broadly the appalling balance of forces that controls political life from the governmental hub in Washington. The alliance bonding between the two countries have been called ‘unconditional’ and even ‘eternal’ by Obama, words echoed by every American public figure with any credible mainstream political ambitions, currently including even the supposed radical presidential aspirant, Bernie Sanders. And yet that is not nearly good enough for AIPAC and the Adelson-led legions pro-Israeli fanatics, which periodically lambaste this strongly pro-Israeli president for alleged betrayals of Israel’s most vital security interests, and generally take derisive issue with the slightest sign of accommodationist diplomacy in the region.

The most illuminating discussion of these issues from Tel Aviv’s perspective is undoubtedly the recently published memoir of Israel’s American born ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, who served in this key role during the period 2009-2013. Oren was elected to the Knesset earlier this year representing, Kulanu, a small centrist Israeli party focused on economic and social reform. Oren’s bestselling book, Ally: Managing the America/Israel Divide (Random House, 2015) succeeds in combining an intelligent insider’s account of the strained relations between the Netanyahu government and the Obama presidency with frequent vain and self-aggrandizing autobiographical reflections in the spirit of ‘Look Ma, I am dancing with the Queen,’ reinforced by analysis that justifies every aspect of Israel’s extreme right-wing and militarist approaches to security policy and diplomacy. To understand better the Israeli worldview that mixes genuine fears of its enemies with arrogant behavior toward its friends there is no more instructive book.

 

An American–born Jew, Oren conceived of himself both as a product of and an emissary to the Jewish diaspora in the United States, diplomat discharging his conventional government-to-government diplomatic role. Above all, Oren during his tenure in office (2009-2013) apparently did his best to keep political tensions between these two countries and their personally uncongenial leaders below the surface while unreservedly supporting the public claim that this special alliance relationship serves the interests and values of both countries. Oren ends his book with a dramatic assertion of this overlap: “Two countries, one dream.” Perhaps even more disturbing than the rationalization of all that is Zionist and Israeli throughout the book is the seeming sincerity of Oren’s sustained advocacy. A bit of cynicism here and there might have made Oren less of a self-anointed Manchurian candidate.

 

Given this posture of dedicated advocate, it is hardly surprising that Oren is a harsh opponent of those liberal groups that question AIPAC’s constructive influence on American policy debates or that he views initiatives critical of Israel, such as the Goldstone Report or the BDS campaign, as dangerous, disreputable, and damaging threats to Israel’s security and wellbeing. Even J-Street, harmless as it has turned out to be, was viewed as an anathema to Oren who turned down its invitations and regarded it as somehow exhibiting a leftist posture toward Israel. Only later when it became domesticated by denouncing the Goldstone Report and generally supportive of Israel’s use of force against Gaza did Oren feel it had joined what he calls ‘the mainstream’ of Beltway politics, which in his slanted vision is where he situates AIPAC and the U.S. Congress. Quite incredibly, even Martin Indyk, early in his career an AIPAC researcher and more recently the American ambassador to Israel, was viewed as a poor appointment as Special Envoy to the Kerry peace talks of 2013-2014 because he did not have a cordial enough relationship with Netanyahu. From my perspective, it was also a poor appointment, but for opposite reasons–an in-your-face display of pro-Israeli partisanship that undermined any credibility the United States claimed as a responsible intermediary at the resumed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

 

Central to Oren’s presentation of Israeli behavior is the one-way street that he treats as embedded in the word ‘ally,’ which for Oren expresses the peculiar and generally unacknowledged character of this ‘special relationship.’ It is well illustrated by Oren’s support for Israel’s effort led with undisguised bluntness by Netanyahu to undermine Obama capacity to negotiate a nuclear arrangement with Iran despite JCPOA being strongly endorsed as in the national interest of the United States, but also of France, United Kingdom, China, Russia, and Germany. The agreement also seems beneficial for the Middle East as a whole and indeed for the world. Such an encompassing consensus endorsing the elaborate arrangement negotiated was exhibited in a resolution of support adopted by the UN Security Council [SC Resolution 2231, 20 July 2015] by an unusual unanimous vote. Oren still complains bitterly that Israel’s rejectionist views toward an agreement with Iran were in the end circumvented, at least so far. At one point Oren even suggests that Israel was better off when the inflammatory Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran’s president rather than the more measured Hassan Rouhani. In his view, Iran remains just as aggressively disposed toward Israel despite the more moderate language of the present leadership, but that the West has been falsely reassured to the point of being willing to ease gradually the sanctions previously imposed in this latest diplomatic initiative, thereby raising the level of threat faced by Israel and accounting for Netanyahu’s frantic opposition to the agreement.

 

In the end, despite siding with Israel at every turn with respect to tension with the U.S. Government, Oren recognizes that Obama has been on balance been a faithful ally. Although indicting the Obama presidency the United States for being a disloyal ‘ally’ when the Iran chips were on the diplomatic table. It is not presently clear whether Netanyahu’s insistence that the nuclear deal (JCPOA) is ‘a historic mistake’ will overcome rationality and self-interest in the American setting either in the immediate future of approving the (non-treaty) agreement, or over a longer period should the United States have the misfortune of electing a Republican president in 2016 who are presently stumbling over one another in their competition to denounce more decisively.

 

More generally, Oren outrageously proposes that this alliance between Israel and the United States, to live up to its potential, should have three dimensions that would make it unlike all others: ‘no daylight’ on common concerns, that is, no policy differences; ‘no suprises,’ that is, advance notification to the other government of any international policy initiatives bearing on the Middle East; and never a public display of disagreements when policy differences between the two governments emerge as happened with Iran. The justifications given by Oren emphasize the usual litany of two states sharing commitments to political democracy, anti-terrorism, and having common regional strategic and security goals.

 

What seems superficially astounding is that the world’s number one state seems frightened to step on the smallest Israeli toe, while Israel is ready to do whatever it needs to do to get its way on policy issues in the event of a dispute with its supposedly more powerful partner. After negotiating a far tougher deal (on enriched uranium and intrusive inspections) with Iran than the realities warrant, at least partly out of deference to Israeli concerns, Washington still feels it appropriate and apparently necessary to indicate a readiness to provide ‘compensation,’ that is, enlarged contributions beyond the current $3.1 billion, offers of weapons systems designed to bolster further Israel QME (Qualitative Military Edge) in the Middle East. The White House additionally sends its recently appointed Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, to Israel with hat in hand, evidently to reassure the Israeli leadership that nothing about the agreement is inconsistent with continuing support of Israel’s right to defend itself as it sees fit, which appears to be a writ of permission in violation of the UN Charter and international law by granting Israel assurance in advance of U.S. support should it at some future point launch an attack on Iran. It should be noted that no state in the world enjoys such inappropriate benefits from an alliance with the United States. The whole dubious logic of QME implies a continuing willingness to put Israeli security permanently on an unlawful pedestal in the region that places other states in a subordinate position that makes them susceptible to Israeli military threats and hegemonic demands. It is tantamount to providing Israel with assured capabilities to win any war, whatever the pretext, that should emerge in the future, and also means that Israel is the only state in the Middle East not deterred by concerns about retaliation by an adversary. For years Israel has been threatening Iran with a military attack in flagrant violation of Article 2(4) that unconditionally prohibits “any threat or use of force” except in situations of self-defense as strictly limited by Article 51.

 

Oren, of course, sees things much differently. He repeats without pausing to entertain the slightest doubt, that Israeli is the only democracy in the Middle East and joined at the hip to American foreign policy as a result of these shared interests and values. He insists that the UN is biased against Israel, and is thankful for American blanket opposition to all hostile initiatives, whether justified or not, that arise within the Organization. For Oren UN bias is clearly evident in the greater attention given to Israel’s alleged wrongs than those of much bloodier international situations and worse violators. He also faults Obama, as compared to George W. Bush, for being a weak ally, too ready to please the Palestinians and indeed the entire Islamic world, and supposedly causing an unspecified ‘tectonic shift’ in the alliance with Israel during his presidency. In this regard, the Iran Agreement is the last straw for Oren, and the most damaging example of a departure from the alleged alliance code of no daylight and no surprises (epitomized by recourse to secret diplomacy between Washington and Tehran that left Tel Aviv out of the loop for several months leading up to the agreement). Of course, Oren is unapologetic about Israel’s obstructionist behavior. He treats Netanyahu’s conception of Israel’s security as essentially correct, if at times unnecessarily confrontational. He believes that in this instance Israel’s worries are sufficiently vital and well-founded as to deserve putting aside diplomatic niceties. This was the case when the Israeli leader was invited by the Republican leadership in Congress to speak on Iran at a special joint session convened for this purpose in early 2015 without even informing the White House in advance of the invitation, a violation of political protocol.

 

Deconstructing the Oren view of alliance politics makes it clear that its operational code would be better observed if the Congress and not the President represented the United States in matters of foreign policy. Netanyahu and a majority of the U.S. Congress do seem to see eye to eye, including of course on whether the Iran Nuclear Agreement, as negotiated, should be approved. Across the board of foreign policy in the Middle East, Netanyahu and Congress are bellicose, inclined toward military solutions despite the dismal record of failure, and inclined to decide about friends and enemies on the basis of geopolitical alignment and religious orientation without the slightest concern about whether or not supportive of democracy, human rights, and decency.

 

Should a Republican with these views be elected president in 2016, then Oren’s dream of the alliance as based on ‘no daylight, no surprises, and no public discord’ would likely come true, illustrating the proposition that one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare. More carefully considered, it would seem probable that if Hilary Clinton gets the keys to the White House her approach to Israel will be closer to that of Congress than that of Obama even recalling that Obama backed away quickly from his early demand that Israel freeze settlement expansion and has significantly increased military assistance for Israel without exhibiting much concern about peace and justice in the region, or with regard to the Palestinian ordeal. U.S. response to the Sisi coup in Egypt is indicative of a strategic convergence of approach by the Obama White House and Netanyahu’s Likud led government.

 

Two realities are present as surfacing in response to the Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA):

-the presidency is on one side (along with Clinton) and Congress/Israel is on the other side;

–yet more broadly conceived, the alliance remains as unconditional and bipartisan as ever, defiant toward the UN and the constraints of international law whenever expedient.

 

A final point. JCPOA imposes more restrictions on Iranian enrichment capabilities and stockpiles, and on inspection and monitoring of compliance, than has been imposed on any country in the course of the entire nuclear era. Its regional justifications, aside from Israeli security, emphasize the avoidance of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East involving Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. And left out of consideration altogether was the nuclear weapons arsenal of Israel acquired with Western complicity and by covert means, as well as through operations outside the Nonproliferation Treaty regime, which is used to tie Iran’s hands and feet. Such are the maneuvers of geopolitics, that underpin the alliance so strongly celebrated by Michael Oren.