The Chinese initiative and the lack of a regional alternative

Dr. Ebtesam al-Ketbi

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Both Arab and international media described the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signed recently between China and Iran as a “game changer” whose impact on the political balance of power in the Gulf will be significant.

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In this context, the Chinese Foreign Minister proposed on his recent visit to the Middle East a Chinese initiative that would serve as a solution to the Middle East crisis. The most prominent of the initiative’s five themes is the crisis between Iran and its Arab neighbors in the Gulf. What this means is that the comprehensive Chinese approach not only defines the Chinese outlook on the Iran issue and the complex safety and security crisis in the Arabian Gulf, but also sets the direction for strategic cooperation agreements between Beijing and the regional powers.

Former US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May 2018 and his subsequent call to “comprehensive talks” with Iran was a turning point for the Iran dossier. The Republican administration viewed the deal made by the Obama administration as incomprehensive, having overlooked a major point of contention between Iran and the international community and practically given Tehran enough latitude to become a nuclear power in a short period of time. In contrast, the Trump administration widened the scope of its criticism of Iran to include non-nuclear dossiers, such as Tehran’s missile program and regional expansion plan, which are two subjects the Trump administration considered paramount to be tackled in any future agreements with Iran.

For its part, Tehran firmly maintained its earlier traditional positions rejecting any dialogue with Washington “under pressure” and without any flexibility whatsoever. As a result, some regional and international powers tried to bridge the widening gap by proposing alternative initiatives and mediations in light of the failed dialogue, the impossible return to the former version of the nuclear deal, and the occasional escalation of tensions to critical levels. The first of such efforts was the Russian initiative, which was then followed by Pakistani, Iraqi, Japanese, and French mediation attempts.

US President Joe Biden announces plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, April 14, 2021. (AP)
US President Joe Biden announces plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, April 14, 2021. (AP)

In the wake of the Democrats’ win in the US presidential elections, Tehran had welcomed the victory with cautious optimism, believing Washington would soon return to the nuclear deal and the crisis that led to these initiatives would end. Instead, the path of returning to the deal proved to be still fraught with obstacles, as the disputes between Tehran and Washington raged on beyond the nuclear deal to focus on new issues that needed to be taken into account, per the international discourse on the Iranian dossier. As such, the raison d’être of alternative initiatives remained.

At first glance, one can look at the Chinese initiative as another chain in the series of regional and international initiatives born from the deadlock in the Iran crisis. With the government of Hassan Rouhani looking more like a caretaker government in the last few months of its mandate, it is safe to assume that it will fail to pave the way for the revival of the P5+1 talks. Thus, China’s will have more chances than other initiatives to get Iran’s blessing. This is especially true because Europeans prefer to wait until the presidential election in Iran is over before taking any serious steps regarding the Iran dossier; not to mention the increased chances of Tehran’s ultraconservatives winning the presidential election in a month. During the consultations held ahead of the signing of the Strategic Cooperation Agreement, Beijing had opted to talk with the ultraconservative movement instead of with the Rouhani government, according to former Foreign Minister of Iran Kamal Kharazi. The movement also proved more favorable to heading east than opening up to the West.

Iran’s next conservative government will likely prefer the Chinese solution over Western ones, especially if the agreement, which gives China the upper hand in Iran, is indeed implemented. Tehran will then rely on pushing the strained Gulf countries toward accepting the Chinese solution to the protracted Iran impasse, as if through a war of attrition.

In any case, the Chinese initiative will be one of the main frameworks and outlines of the future of Arab-Iranian dialogue if the conservatives come to power in Iran, taking into account the latter’s refusal to engage in any direct talks with the United States, at least so far. The critical atmosphere in the region will determine the orientations of the various parties regarding mediations and alternative solutions as the chances of a direct dialogue between Washington and Iran dwindle, thus giving way to either the regional initiatives that should be discussed at a later stage, or to the Chinese initiative; after all, Beijing is a strong economic partner to the various regional powers. However, before leaping to justify the
Chinese initiative, several key points must be taken into account:

First: if the recurring reports on the contents of the Sino-Iranian agreement are true, Iran will become a “colony” of sorts for the Chinese economy. In the least, this will raise Iran to the rank of China’s closest “strategic ally” in the region, where it intends to invest hundreds of billions in return for priority access to Iran’s oil and economy. As such, this will likely turn Beijing’s initiative from neutrality to an outright bias to Iran, despite the major economic partnership China has with Gulf countries.

Second: China is considered to be Iran’s second supplier of weapons and first supplier of missile technology. Though Russia supplied Iran with missile defense systems, a large volume of Iran’s missile technology historically comes from China, especially the ballistic missile arsenal mainly pointed toward the Gulf. The leaked information on the contents of the bilateral agreement predicts a huge leap in in-kind military cooperation, such as the establishment of Chinese military bases on Iranian territory and the erection of surveillance and radar systems in the Gulf. In theory, China would tip the military balance in the Gulf in favor of Iran.

In the geopolitical context, China’s initiative needs to be viewed as a continuation of the interference of world powers in the Gulf region, which historically proved futile in finding a strategic solution to the crisis. More often than not, it falls in the context of a “dominance plan” that these powers try to carry out in the region, thus rekindling the regional and international competition and polarization.

Developments in Iran’s domestic scene indicate a rise to power for pro-China conservatives, a deepened lack of trust between Washington and Tehran that is likely to increase, and a profound desire to reach a solution among the various parties to this regional crisis. In total, this makes the success of the Chinese initiative likely, but we must not forget that the reason why China and others proposed their alternative solutions in the first place is the protracted unsolvable Iranian dilemma. After all, the Chinese initiative, like others, relies on the exhaustion that pushes parties on both sides of the Gulf to adopt any alternative that can put an end to the crisis. As such, the region has two options: either look for solutions in the international proposals, each of which has its own personal agenda -- in other words, largely disregarding regional interests; or think of a regional proposal that emanates from common national and regional interests, devise a plan for its success, and encourage the various parties to adhere to it.

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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