China and the US in the Gulf

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

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In response to a wave of domestic and foreign criticism, Iran has been underplaying the deal it signed with China as a mere bilateral agreement like any other, but that doesn’t seem quite true. Per the deal, nearly all of Iran’s oil, gas, provisions, trains, projects, and markets will go to China for a quarter of a century. In return, China promises funding, weapons, and political support. This strategic bilateral agreement will force Western countries to rethink their vision for the region in accordance with their interests, which are now more threatened than ever before.

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Did Washington lose Tehran? You cannot lose what you do not have. Many analysts believe the US had Iran, but I beg to differ. The relationship between the US and Iran is reminiscent of a divorce that dates back 40 years. During all those years, Iran did not establish strong relations with another power. That is, until last week, when it signed its ambitious deal with China. Right now, it is too early to tell whether this deal will be crowned with success.

In any case, it was not the US that lost Iran, it was Iran that decided to turn its back on the US. In Washington, the movement supporting reconciliation with the Iranian regime and the revival of the nuclear deal was dealt a huge blow. However, it was only natural that no agreement would happen between the extremist, religious regime of Iran and the liberal, capitalist system of the US. Not to mention that Iran, like Vietnam, is just a lost cause.

In the end, Iran looked to the East. The US must now do some damage control in the region, and China is not the only reason for that as the US must share in the blame due to its harsh policies against its main allies.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) meets with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi (R), in the capital Tehran, on March 27, 2021. Iran and China signed what state television called a 25-year strategic cooperation pact on today as the US rivals move closer together.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) meets with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi (R), in the capital Tehran, on March 27, 2021. Iran and China signed what state television called a 25-year strategic cooperation pact on today as the US rivals move closer together.

The lack of trust in the US is one of Washington’s biggest problems in the region after it turned its regional allies to rivals. Ever since it ended its large military presence in Iraq, it has been vocal about its intention to progressively retreat from the region under the pretext that US interests there are declining. This decision came when the US became a self-sufficient, petroleum-exporting country. At the same time, Washington wants to contain the Chinese expansion in Asia and Africa because it now sees Beijing as the main source of threat in the south and east of Asia.
However, the US finds itself without strong allies as a result of its policies and insistence on intervening in the internal affairs of once-friendly countries, like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, on the pretext of upholding American values. Additionally, the US is no longer an essential market for Gulf-producing countries like Saudi Arabia, and thus, it has found itself replaced by the Chinese market. The Kingdom is China’s biggest oil-exporter, and its share in the Chinese market is anticipated to grow as China’s oil imports are expected to reach 16 million barrels by the end of this decade.

Though Riyadh and its Gulf partners are not likely to run into China’s arms like Tehran did, commercial interests will give the Kingdom more latitude away from US influence. Last week, the Chinese Foreign Minister proposed an initiative that was designed specifically to accommodate the needs of Gulf countries. With this initiative, which has a double goal of winning over Iran and reassuring Saudi Arabia, China can guarantee peace in the Gulf.

On the opposite side, the US is struggling to manage its relations with its regional allies after losing special, decades-long relations by intervening in their internal affairs.

US President Joe Biden (Reuters)
US President Joe Biden (Reuters)

Nonetheless, this does not mean that the Chinese project will not encounter bumps on the road. Controlling Iran’s aggressive behavior in the region will not be an easy feat, at least not during the first few years of the partnership. The military and religious regime of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not stop triggering conflicts in neighboring countries, nor will the big promises of oil and gas revenues and trade profits drive a change in its domestic policies to the extent that it endeavors to improve the situation inside the country. Therefore, I do not foresee any changes in the internal conflict dynamics.

By striking a deal, China and Iran, both surrounded by the US, established a partnership born out of necessity. After all, Iran and China are ideological adversaries: China’s ruling Communist Party is pragmatic and realistic and is no longer adamant about exporting its ideology to the world, while the religious, otherworldly regime of Iran strives to impose its beliefs on the world and fight everyone. China’s objectives of the partnership under the Belt and Road Initiative are clear: resources and markets. Thus, Beijing will have to work hard to support the Iranian regime and face the whole world if it wishes to maintain this relation as Iranian state institutions, beneath their warlike and untied surface, are filled with cracks and discords.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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