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Strengthening Chinese positions in MidEast: What if US and Iran fail to agree?

Author : Georgiy Kuhaleyshvili

Source : 112 Ukraine

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on President Biden to lift or suspend sanctions against Iran. The statement came amid growing tensions in US-Iranian relations. Since April, Iran-sponsored Shiite groups have launched five drone airstrikes against US military positions in Iraq and attacked an airport in Baghdad and an air base in Balad on June 10. In response, on June 28, the United States launched airstrikes on targets of the Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada groups in the borderlands of Iraq and Syria
10:18, 2 July 2021

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On the same day, pro-Iranian militants fired rockets at the positions of the American military in Syria in the area of ​​the Al-Omar oil field, and they, in turn, covered their launchers with artillery fire. A series of these armed clashes occurred on the eve of the seventh round of talks in Vienna between Iran and Great Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China on the return of the Islamic Republic to the implementation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. A breakdown in negotiations could lead to ambiguous geopolitical consequences for the Middle East region.

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Political decision stalled

The essence of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Action Plan is that Iran renounced its reserves of enriched uranium, reduced its enrichment percentage to 3.67%, allowed IAEA observers to visit nuclear facilities in exchange for lifting UN Security Council sanctions. In 2018, US President Donald Trump withdrew from this agreement and introduced economic sanctions against Iran in order to force the country to dismantle nuclear facilities, refuse to sponsor terrorism, the missile program, and interference in the internal affairs of other states. In response, Iran increased the percentage of uranium enrichment to over 60% (90% is enough to create a nuclear bomb).

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Negotiations in Vienna without the direct participation of the United States have been dragging on since April 2021. Following the results of the sixth round, on June 20, the negotiators announced the coordination of technical issues, the readiness of the draft of the new agreement, but stressed the importance of making a political decision. Agreeing is hindered by the fact that the Americans and Iranians are not ready to make concessions. The current US President Joe Biden is not ready to be the first to lift the sanctions. There is a popular idea in American political and expert circles that after Iran returns to comply with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, negotiations on tougher restrictions should be continued.

The Iranian leadership does not want to restrict its nuclear program until the lifting of sanctions, which led to losses for the economy of $ 150 billion from 2018 to 2020. According to Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Said Abbas Arakchi, the position of his leadership has not changed, and they expect the US to lift the sanctions, after which they will be able to return to fulfilling their obligations. Conservative Ibrahim Raisi, who won the presidential election on June 18, is not against the continuation of negotiations in Vienna but refuses to extend any restrictions on the missile program. The inauguration of the president will take place on August 3.

With the latest attacks by Shiite groups on US military installations in Iraq and Syria, Iran wants to influence Biden's compliance. The Iranians do not need nuclear weapons to strengthen their influence in the Middle East, but maintaining the potential to create their means of delivery and the ability to resume the nuclear program at any time is necessary as a deterrent to the Americans so that they do not interfere in their affairs. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken fears that Iran may go so far in the uranium enrichment process that it will not be possible to return to the 2015 agreements.

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A weak point of Guterres’s proposal

UN Secretary-General António Guterres actually called on Biden to meet with Iran in order to save the 2015 nuclear deal, realizing that there is no other way to come to an agreement. The significance of the nuclear deal should not be exaggerated. It will help preserve the nonproliferation regime, but it will not make Iran's behavior more predictable and manageable. With or without a nuclear program, President Raisi's team, with the blessing of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will continue to sponsor the Hezbollah terrorist organization in Lebanon, Ansar Allah grouping in Yemen, Shiite groups in Syria and Iraq, together with Moscow to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad ...

The only difference is that after the sanctions are lifted, Iran will be able to sell its oil and other products to foreign markets without obstacles. With the commissioning of the Gure-Jask oil pipeline with a capacity of 1 million barrels per day in May 2021, Iran discovered the opportunity to deliver oil to terminals in the Gulf of Oman, bypassing the strategically important Strait of Hormuz. Iran has an effective lever of pressure on the international community. If the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps blocks shipping on the Strait of Hormuz, through which 1 billion barrels of oil are transported every day, the international community will suffer colossal losses and oil prices will skyrocket.

In addition, it will be difficult for the Biden administration to establish contact with the team of the new Iranian president. Raisi is under US sanctions for human rights violations and is banned from entering the United States. As a prosecutor, in the 1980s he sentenced a large number of political prisoners to death. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett opposes the nuclear deal and is confident that it is impossible to agree with Raisi. In fact, the Iranian conservative himself is not eager to meet with Biden, judging by his rhetoric on the election results. The coming to power in Iran of an odious conservative suggests that Ayatollah Khamenei is considering a scenario of a protracted confrontation with the United States and does not put the nuclear deal at the forefront of foreign policy.

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Axis Iran - China

The flexing of muscles, the lack of stability and predictability in relations with Tehran are equally disadvantageous to Washington, as are unilateral concessions. The American threat is pushing Khamenei into an embrace with Beijing. In March 2021, Iran and China signed a 25-year Strategic Cooperation Agreement, which provides for investments in nuclear energy, ports, railways, and other infrastructure projects, the transfer of military technologies to the Iranians, and investments in the oil and gas sector in exchange for stable supplies of cheap oil. According to unofficial information, the volume of Chinese investments may reach $ 400 billion. In 2018, Chinese capital investment in the Iranian economy was $ 3.23 billion. China remains Iran's largest trade and economic partner and buys over 300,000 barrels of oil a day from it, according to Refinitiv Oil Research. This is a gray export, and according to the documents, oil is allegedly delivered from Oman, Malaysia, and the United Arab Emirates.

It is possible that China considers Iran as one of the partners as opposed to the system of alliances that the Biden administration is forming to contain the economic, military, and technological power of the Celestial Empire in the world. Indian expert Mahim Dougal fears that in the foreseeable future Iran may become a continuation of the Sino-Pakistani Economic Corridor project, if an Iranian-Pakistani gas pipeline is built, and part of the Quint pact, which is being worked out together with China, Turkey, Russia, and Pakistan to contain the regional the influence of India. In his opinion, the China-Iran axis can become a counterbalance to US influence in the Middle East. In this case, the US-Iranian confrontation will become one of the fronts of the US-Chinese competition.

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The expert's opinion is debatable. China cooperates not only with Iran but also with its opponents, including Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Israel, which are taking part in the global Chinese investment initiative "One Belt, One Road". China wants to capitalize on the confrontation between the United States and Iran, but spoiling relations with other countries in the region is certainly not in its interests. China and other countries have achieved significant economic interdependence, and separation into opposing blocs is not beneficial to anyone. Iran can use to its advantage access to Chinese investments to bring the economy out of the crisis and weapons to renew its military equipment in the context of partial international isolation.

Joe Biden's recent meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan are just designed to reduce the degree of tension in bilateral relations and achieve their neutrality in the US-Chinese confrontation. The Biden administration is trying to mend relations with Pakistan, China's longtime partner in South Asia. During the Trump presidency, US-Pakistani relations deteriorated sharply and the White House accused the country's leadership of the ineffectiveness of the fight against terrorism. In May 2021, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke by telephone with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmoud Qureshi on security issues. In one of his most recent statements, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed interest in developing a special relationship with the United States like Britain has.

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 Double problem

The confrontation between the United States and Iran will continue regardless of whether they can agree on a nuclear deal or not. The United States is already working on a scenario of a protracted confrontation with Iran, as during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013). The Biden administration has asked Congress for $ 752.9 billion in defense spending for 2022. Among the items of expenditure - the development of missile defense systems to contain the potential of ballistic missiles of Iran and North Korea.

Iran is armed with missiles that are capable of hitting American military bases in the Middle East within a radius of 2 thousand km. Until recently, Biden relied on a nuclear deal with Iran and decided to withdraw some of the anti-aircraft missile and anti-missile systems, aircraft from military bases in Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia in order to use them to contain China in the Asia-Pacific region. However, the United States will apparently have to scatter resources on two fronts.

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