The fruits of maximum pressure.

                     Last week we still dealt with the very imminent threat of a war erupting in Libya. Egypt for weeks now is threatening with a direct military intervention, which has the potential to transform into a full-blown war with Turkey. And that might bare unpredictable consequences to Europe.

            Though most evaluations put the chance of war smaller with each passing day, it is clear to see that still, neither side is willing to back down. The forces of the al-Wifāq government are still slowly pressing towards Sirt, thus provoking Egypt, while at the same time Egypt welcomed the Greek Prime Minister this week to add another ally to its challenge for Turkey.

            However, as we pointed out last week, while this was a key matter for most of the Middle East and Europe, at the other end of Middle East Iran was proving once again its famed proficiency in diplomacy. Three visits in particular can prove to be a watershed change in Iran’s standing.

            Ever since Trump came to power Iran’s difficulties were growing, which had much to do with the “hawks” surrounding the American president, some fell since then, like Bolton, while others, like Pompeo, are still very much active. With this new administration the policy of “maximum pressure” was introduced, and Iran could only succeed fending this off. The fall of the nuclear deal was more catastrophic for the Iranian internal politics, as it favored the hardliners, once again proving that Tehran cannot trust the West. The escalation last summer was a critical time, which Iran survived well, but the assassination of General Soleymānī was a major blow, for which it could still not hit back adequately. Tehran’s presence was shrinking in the Syrian folder, a key ally for Iran, and the new Israeli policy to openly force out the Iranian presence meant a new obstacle. All that was made worse with the Corona epidemic, from which the Persian state is still suffering.

            Iran seemed to be on a major downturn only a year before the next presidential elections, thus marking the end of the Rōḥānī era, when this month a visible change has started. First a new agreement with Syria, then with China announcing never before seen strategic partnership, and last week a visit by a huge Iraqi delegation. While the Syrian and Iraqi agreements are usually downplayed in the Western media as insignificant, the possibility of deep cooperation with China got their attention.

            In light of all the problems Iran is still facing can do these agreements mean anything substantial, or just a PR campaign? What advantages Iran gained recently, and in what ways it can still help its allies in Syria and Iraq?


It started with Syria

            As mentioned before, recently Tehran started to distance itself from its previous policy toward Turkey in Syria and hit a more critical tone. Which soon sparked a harsh warning from Ankara. This resurgent role showed in the last mediation attempt in June, but the real concern of Tehran in Syria, or the field where Tehran can help the most is not Idlib and the Turkish oppression there. The real question was how much can Iran ease the affects of the famous “Caesar Act” sanction imposed by Washington, considering Iran itself is under heavy sanctions. Already in June when the sanctions were imposed the two sides met in Tehran and the Iranians promised: “not to hesitate to take any measure necessary to ease the pressure on Damascus”. Thought soon Iranian ships were sent to deliver supplies to Syria, it was clear from the beginning that it is not the economy, where Iran can help the most.

            Then came the meeting on 8 June between Iranian Chief of Staff Major General Moḥammad Bāqerī, and his Syrian counterpart General ‘Alī Ayyūb, who signed new strategic security and intelligence agreement. That was seldom reported on in the Western media and even downplayed in the Arab press, as more of a PR trick, a symbolic gesture. And indeed there is nothing new in the military alliance between Damascus and Tehran, as this link was stabilized in the ‘80s, and greatly improved since 2006. As a result that Iran provided much-needed supplies and experts to Syria during the war since 2011. So what is new?

            First of all the main aim of the American sanctions and invasion of the oilfields in Eastern Syria to break the military resistance of the Syrian forces either accepting a “deal” or breaking. The agreement is primarily a message that regardless of the sanctions Iran will prove supplies, independently from all other partners. But Iran has a more significant thing to offer, namely the newly developed Sevom-e Hordād air defense system, a variant of the Iranian produced Ra‘ad system developed by the Pāsdārān’s own aerospace division. This is the one, which downed in June 2019 down the famous American RQ-4 Global Hawk drone. That was reportedly handed over later on to China, a point becoming significant later. Thus the system proved its might against the best opponents. Allegedly that is the new tool Iran is ready to provide to Syria, and it should not be forgotten that Syria has very significant missile development and production capability itself.

            This is a very important point because for long Syria was suffering from constant Israeli aggressions allegedly against Iranian targets, but mostly at times helping the armed factions fighting against the Syrian government. Thought the Russian presence and the delivery of the S-300 defense system supposed to put an end to this series of aggressions, it is hasn’t happened. One of the reported reasons is that Syria is cautious not to reveal its true capabilities until an open war starts with Israel to preserve the element of surprise. But probably the lack of Russian cover against such atrocities has much to do with the delicate and sensitive Russian-Israeli ties. But the matter is not a “simple courtesy” by Tehran. Recently in May, the still unstable Israeli government vowed to push Iran out of Syria and soon started to circulate that Iran is already pulling out. The recurring – mostly ineffective – airstrikes served to sell this theory. The recent agreement is a clear answer that is not happening, but instead, Tehran is stabilizing its position and its ally. On the other hand, the message is just as much to Moscow that now Iran is willing to give the much-needed support, both against the Israeli strikes and the Turkish drones. Given the fact that it is Iranian produced the supplies are more reliable, but it is still very questionable how much the sides are willing to reveal the true feature of this system.

            And this would have served as a military measure, a very limited message, with a questionable scope and supply possibility in light of the economic hardship in Iran. But yet another agreement in mid-July put this one between Damascus and Tehran in a very different light.


Then came China

            On 11 July The New York Times was first to report that Iran and China signed a $400 billion deal for the span of 25 years. The tone was understandably worried. It was supposed that in such a way Iran would allow Chinese military presence on its land, would lease the island of Kīš in the Persian Gulf, allow massive investments, and would practically become an economic dominion. Thought most of the deal is still not entirely clear, Iranian and Arab source denied the notions of Kīš – one of the biggest tourist resort in Iran – and the military presence but acknowledged the volume of the agreement and its fields of oil and gas purchase, massive investments in non-oil industry and in the infrastructure, and military cooperation with joint development and production.

            It should be noted that this is not entirely new either, as in 2015, just after the signing of the JCPOA President Xi visited Tehran and signed a massive $600 million investment agreement for a ten years span. That came within the Chinese New Silk Road project and was mostly infrastructure and industry-based, building upon the JCPOA. But that could never really move on, as the new sanctions – against both countries – sabotaged the plan. The fact that Beijing is highly frustrated with the current situation was clear earlier this year. As one of the still holding results of the JCPOA the UN weapons embargo imposed in 2007 is about to end this October. The US in June was pushing the UNSC to prolong the embargo, but that met with resistance, to which Washington warned Russia and China. The new deal, which has a very specific military aim as well, is a clear answer to the doubt. China will cooperate with Tehran and massively boost Iranian military capabilities. Conclusively also the Syrian’s. Furthermore, not only the investments but the 25 years assurance of the Chinese market for Iranian oil and gas promises stable income, a guarantee against any American sanctions.

            But why is China so interested in this? It has three main aspects. Military cooperation is one of them, which has the potential to be very fruitful for both. Chinese planes are the biggest matter, but it should be pointed out that military cooperation was on the way for some time. Here we should refer back to the American Global Hawk drawn allegedly handed over to China. And if anyone wishes to grasp the potential and the seriousness of the Chinese military cooperation, who should study the Chinese-Pakistani ties, and how many joints projects have they concluded.

            Beyond the direct military development cooperation, however, China has a very understandable strategic reason to boost Iran’s capabilities. Iran is not only the partner in the Middle East with the biggest potential, but it is also one at odds with the US, and so far relatively isolated. So to gain an ally, which pins down at least some resources of the Americans, China here doesn’t really have to compete with other potential allies. And by boosting Iran Beijing is forcing Washington to sacrifice more time and resources to the Gulf, which would otherwise go to the encirclement of China. Since Obama there was a constant talk America is turning away from the Middle East to concentrate on South America, Africa, and China most of all, and Trump greatly accelerated this. And it is easy to see a pattern as the recent protests in Hong Kong not only greatly resemble those in Iran and the “Arab Spring”, but some of the main protagonists are the same people.

             And it is not only just about elevating American pressure, but as a third layer, there is a very important economic reason for this strategic partnership. Iran can be the gateway to the region and the transport hub toward Europe. It already started a strategic project with India with the Čābahār free trade port improved by Delhi. This serves as a key entry point for India to its mines in Afghanistan and to Central Asia, and it is also labeled as the “New Suez Canal”, which recently went into operation and will cut the time for transport between India and Europe, or Russia to half. China already has a similar project in Pakistan, and there is a rivalry about the two, which we discussed more than a year ago. Iran can be the center of the whole New Silk Road project in the Middle East, which will greatly improve its standing and the Chinese protection for it. No wonder the US and Israel are equally worried about the prospects, even though still very little exact detail is revealed.

            That is exactly the significance because stability for Iran means stability for the Axis of the Resistance, consequently, Iran’s political influence will expand rapidly. China practically replaced the EU in Iran, which aimed to have a big share in the Iranian economy, but let itself be sabotaged by Washington.


The first harvest: Iraq



            The last major achievement came this week when Iraqi Prime Minister Muṣṭafā al-Kāẓimī arrived in Tehran on 22 July for strategic negotiations. And it was not only him, but he practically took the whole government and even President Barham Ṣāliḥ accompanied him. While this on its own would not be overwhelming news, the details make this event a modest success for Iran now.

            First of all the new Iraqi PM was for long suggested to be a man of Washington, who will block the process of eviction of the American troops and instead will crack down on the paramilitary units close to Iran and now covertly attacking the American positions. Al-Kāẓimī, just like his predecessor, promised to focus on the sovereignty of Iraq and not to lean to any side. ‘Abd al-Mahdī eventually failed in that, but al-Kāẓimī with the intelligence services behind him might have more power to keep that. Either way, when he came to power these words were understood as steps against Iran. The visit proves otherwise. Why? Because by the original program al-Kāẓimī was supposed to start his trip in Riyadh, go to Tehran and conclude the tour in Washington. That was announced and finalized in June. Then on 19 July, so only days before the trip, Irani Foreign Minister Ẓarīf paid a surprise visit to Baghdad. What really happened here is less known, but a day later the trip to Saudi Arabia was canceled – officially postponed -, as the Saudi monarch was taken to hospital. That turned out to be true, as the following days he was operated, but it is noticeable that the meeting was not taken over by his son, Muḥammad ibn Salmān, who allegedly runs the state for years now. And since the Iraqi delegation is quite extensive, it was surely not planned to be a symbolic visit, but a series of deep negotiations. Instead of Riyadh, therefore, the Iraqi PM went to Tehran. Now whatever is the reason behind the change the appearance is very bad for Riyadh, as this is the Iraqi PM’s first foreign visit.

            It is also noticeable that the Americans are also downplaying the future trip, which will be a major strategic negotiation that hasn’t been conducted in ten years. The reason is that Washington wants to evade discussing the Iraqi Parliament’s decision to oust the American troops, which will surely be on the top of the agenda. While a month ago the American press was celebrating, the tone by now turned very bitter. But why is that change?

            Thought it was expected that al-Kāẓimī would turn away from Iran, he neither could nor wanted to do that. Beyond all political and security concerns, Iraq is highly dependent on Iran economically. Thought in April it was announced that the import of Irani electricity will be reduced by 75%, in June the two sides signed a renewed deal in which Iran extended its supply for Iraq. And now Iraq is taking 82% of the Iranian electric export. If for nothing else, in this way Iraq tied to Iran, and there is frustration with Riyadh now in Iraq, as after long accusations Riyadh promised to help reduce this reliance on Iranian electricity, but nothing came out of it.

            After high hopes for al-Kāẓimī his statements in Tehran proved that he will not be the man, who turns Iraq away from Iran, and currently that is almost perfect for the Iranians. They foiled the American plan. The Iraqi PM might not be their man, but at least not their enemy, and the economic and political realities will keep Iraq close. The victory is here, and that is understandable that while now Tehran celebrates, Riyadh and Washington are not enthusiastic about the Iraqi government.


The significance internally

            It should be understood that back in 2013 when President Ḥasan Rōḥānī came to power the Iranian political climate was changing and was willing to give a chance once again for the policy of reconciliation with the foreign opponents after the confrontative administration of Aḥmadīnežād proved to be catastrophic. That is actually not new, as in 1989 President Rafsanğānī, who since then became a symbol of pragmatic hardliner Iranian politics also walked that way and made gestures to Washington, only to be turned down very bitterly. That step haunted Rafsanğānī’s administration, and the same scenarios seemed to repeat itself, though in a more complex way.

            To give space for a major reconciliation the more moderate elements with the otherwise not charismatic Rōḥānī was given a chance for negotiations, and a government was made up by the best experts from the Rafsanğānī (1989-1997) and Hātamī (1997-2005) administrations. That yielded the famous JCPOA, the nuclear deal in July 2015, which was a major compromise on Iran’s behalf but had the potential to relax the sanctions. Thus giving a chance to reform many of the Iranian social and economical abnormalities that existed since the revolution and the war with Iraq. That was to give the opportunity to reform the state itself, raise living standards, ease the social pressure and consequently pave the road for a smooth transition of power from head of state Grand Ayatollah ‘Alī Hāmeneī to a new, younger leader. That all was ruined with the victory of Trump, who for still unclear reasons made the United States quit from the deal and impose newer and newer sanctions. Which with ever more lackluster attempts to shake Iran still goes on today. Exactly because of the internal significance of the JCPOA, the Rōḥānī government hoped to save the deal with the European partners at least, for which the INSTEX model was agreed on, but that never really yielded any tangible benefit for Tehran. Though in theory the JCPOA is still alive and could be saved in practical terms it is dead.

            It should be understood that for Iran that is catastrophic not for the economical result or should be said the lack of economic benefits and the lost time and effort put into it, but for the mentioned internal political results. Sanctions are nothing new for Iran and by now there is a “tradition” of experienced techniques on how to circumvent any blockade. But the circles of moderation and negotiations lost, as it was clear to see in the last parliamentary elections, and the “hardliners” once again on the rise. Of course in Iranian politics it is notoriously hard to guess election results, especially a year in advance, the hardliners seemed to have found their new “champion” in Moḥammad Bāqer Qālībāf, former mayor of Tehran and newly elected Speaker of the Parliament. Qālībāf has been for long a mid-level hardliner, though far more rational than Aḥmadīnežād, ran for president both in 2005 and in 2013[1], and coming from the military circles enjoys excellent connections with the Pāsdārān. And exactly in this context the agreements with China and India, but to a lesser degree even with Syria and Iraq recently are very important.

            Retrospectively the whole era of Rōḥānī, which will come to an end in the summer of 2021 might have been proficient but was a major gamble of reconciliation with the West, which failed and put Iran back where the government started in 2013. But the agreement with China means that finally, this administration can let the painstaking and very unproductive INSTEX negotiations with the EU go, as there is a substitute. The message is clear that if the West, especially the EU, which was the original idea in the first place is not willing to deliver the economical means for reform and the security guarantees to Tehran than China will. Pouring $400 billion investments is just the smallest thing, but excess to the Chinese banking system, security cooperation, guaranteed revenues for the next 25 years along with the launch of the Čābahār free trade port means that the Rōḥānī government can still salvage some of its vows in the very little time it still has. The new agreements with Iraq mean that this administration didn’t lose in this top priority matter, though present Iraqi PM al-Kāẓimī, who was still head of the Iraqi Intelligence at the time of General Soleymānī’s assassination, is considered by many as a man of the Americans. Also, the new agreement with Syria and a stronger tone with Turkey here means that Tehran can finally break with the desperate reliance on the Turkish economic cooperation, which for long was hoped to be the most potent substitute for the JCPOA benefits. But that is not needed that much anymore.

            Surely there is no time anymore for the promised social and structural reforms, which were promised in 2013 and partially initiated after 2015 with very little success, but now there is a chance to lay firm foundations for the next administration. Thus it can be hoped that another extreme result, like Aḥmadīnežād, can be prevented, and this administration will leave with modest success, instead of historical failure.


The message for the region

            The regional message is also very strong and cannot be underestimated. To see this more vividly a comparison has to be drawn, as this is presented by many experts in the Arab world. From the Iranian point of view, though this is shared by many of its partners, there are two overall approaches in the Middle East for regional politics and for the attitude toward the West. That of the “Axis of Resistance” between Iran, Syria, and allies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, promoting self-reliance, inner regional cooperation for development and the rejection of the Western presence in the region; and that of the Western allies lead by the Gulf states, relying heavily on Western support, products, cooperation and even security provided by it.

            In fact, the latter is two separate blocks by now, while many are not strongly committed to any camps. There is the Saudi-Emirate lead block, which indeed bases its strategy on full incorporation into the Western economic web, playing a lucrative, but secondary and subservient role. Much the same way by building strong security ties with the West with the US at the top of the list it practically “buys” security, and the fulfillment of some of its interests. The other block is the recently emerging Turkish-Qatari tandem, which is also gaining partners, or bridgeheads in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Oman. That constitutes a middle ground. This camp also has good connections with the Western economic system but has a much wider portfolio with stronger inner productivity, self-reliance on security, openness to the all other partners, and a very strong ideological program, that of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudi-Emirati block not only lacks but with the growing ties with Israel loses faces.

            During the last decades of confrontation in the region of the Persian Gulf Iran could not only survive, even the “maximum pressure”, but it managed to develop on a considerable scale. And whatever happened, it still enjoys a great level of freedom to take decisions by its own will and gains benefits from this policy. On the other hand, the utter reliance on the West yielded very little progress for Saudi, Egypt, and even for the Emirates. Instead, it leads these states to many failed and destructive quests, like the “Arab Spring”, the war on Yemen, or the blockade against Qatar, only to fail and get entrapped in these quagmires.

            Only two recent examples show how fundamentally different are the approaches. Recently the Emirates celebrated its first Mars program. This is a very ambitious project indeed and has a great scientific significance, but adds very little to the strategic or economic capabilities of the state, and it is mostly manned by Japanese and European scientists. It is even run from the Japanese Tanegashima Space Center. On the other hand, Iran launched its first observation satellite “Nūr” in April 2020. That was not only completely domestic and launched from Iran, but even Israel labeled it successful and dangerous. Former commander of the Pāsdārān Moḥsen Reẓā’ī in June announced that the “Nūr” monitors the region with great precision, thus significantly improving Iran’s defense capabilities. In the same context, in light of the recent conflict in Libya recently the Egyptian media started to show power that Russia produces Su-35 warplanes specifically for Egypt, and the first batch has recently arrived. On the other hand, Turkey itself produces American warplanes, and most of its fleet and deadly drone arsenal are domestically developed and produced. While Egypt became a prime weapons market, Turkey took the time and effort to improve itself. And here once again the difference in capabilities and power projection shows.

            What the deal with China, and even previously with India and the Čābahār project means that in time resistance and defiance pays off, while compliance and cooperation even on a secondary level don’t. Thought on a somewhat different scale the experience of Turkey with EU for decades and in the region during the last one decade shows the same lesson. It is true that the Emirates is running on a much more impressive course, but its economic prospects are not at all reassuring. But much more than that, the always excellent cooperative partner Saudi Arabia for its compliance by now only receives mocking by Trump, a very questionable future, and very weak support if there is no direct American interest behind it, as it was shown by the recent attacks on Riyadh by the Yemenis.

            It is very hard to guess how many will follow, or how many are actually capable of following the Iranian and Turkish lessons, but it is clear that for very different the experience of Turkey now in Libya, and the Iranian deal with China is a breaking point. There are emerging – so far regional – powers in the Middle East, which now openly defy the West.



[1] He also ran in 2017, but that was widely considered to be a symbolic act, as he soon withdrew in favor of the conservative candidate.