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China’s ‘Aggressive Maneuvers’ In Middle East Irks Rivals US & Iran; Beijing’s Damage Control Adds More Fury In Washington

President Xi’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia has received widespread media hype in the Arab world. The visit carries some significant underpinning compared to the existing limited scope of their relations.

President Xi attended three separate regional summits – aside from the bilateral summit, a second summit with 21 Arab leaders and a third with seven rulers of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

Nearly three dozen energy and investment deals done during Xi’s visit will preserve the core of the strategic interests of Saudi Arabia and China.

They encompass frontier areas such as information technology, green energy, cloud services, infrastructure, and health and inject a greater sense of alignment between Riyadh’s economic diversification pivot (known as Vision 2030) and China’s Belt and Road Initiative-driven development of smart industries and high-quality infrastructure, including digital infrastructure, which has the potential to undergird regional connectivity in the coming decades.

The “three-in-one” signaled that Saudi Arabia stands at the heart of China’s Arab-world diplomacy.

MBS Xi Jinping
Mohammed Bin Salman-Xi Jinping

However, the impact of these successful meetings on an equally important player in the Gulf region — Iran — is what could be easily predicted.

China’s strong endorsement of the Saudi stance on Yemen is particularly noteworthy, stressing the importance of supporting the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council.

Iran has stakes in Yemen. President Biden’s one charge against Iran is that it is exporting terrorism to some countries, including Yemen. Additionally, mentioning three small islands in the Gulf region has caused resentment and anger in Iran’s political circles, which, though under Iranian control, have been disputed.

Nasser Kanaani, the spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry, has said that Iran conveyed its “strong discontent” with the joint statement China has issued with the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Chinese Ambassador to Iran, Chang Hua, was summoned to the Iranian foreign ministry over the joint statement issued following the GCC-China summit in Saudi Arabia, according to Al Alam.

Kanaani said during the meeting with the Chinese ambassador that the Iranian side expressed strong discontent with addressing Iran’s territorial integrity in the GCC-China statement. “It was emphasized that the three Iranian islands of the Persian Gulf are an integral part of the territorial integrity of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which, like any other part of Iran, has never been the subject of negotiations with any country and will never be.”

It is not safe to ignore or underestimate the impact of Sino-Saudi bonhomie on regional politics when we take note of the strategic importance of the Gulf region. Right or wrong, Iran has historical stakes in Yemen.

Iran also challenges the timing of the joint statement. Presently, relations between Iran and the US are low owing to differences in oil policy. Iran is embroiled in an anti-regime movement on account of the hijab enforcement policy for Iranian women.

The international community has disapproved of Iran using brute force to quell the popular insurgency. It appears that owing to these distractions, Tehran is not prepared to take cudgels with the GCC as forcefully as it is used to, at least for the time being.

Iran Nuclear Issue

The unkindest cut of all must be that although China is a participant in the negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the joint statement says Beijing and Riyadh “called on Iran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, maintain the non-proliferation regime, and emphasize respect for the principles of good-neighborliness and non-interference in the internal affairs of states.”

Elsewhere, the joint statement says in a veiled reference to Iran, “Chinese side expressed support for the kingdom in maintaining its security and stability and affirmed its opposition to any actions that would interfere in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and rejects any attacks targeting civilians, civilian facilities, territories, and Saudi interests.”

The undertone of a statement like this raises questions. Tehran has ignored all this and instead zeroed in on a particular passage in the China-GCC joint statement to vent its displeasure.

The relevant formulation stated: “The leaders affirmed their support for all peaceful efforts, including the initiative and endeavors of the United Arab Emirates to reach a peaceful solution to the issue of the three islands Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa, through bilateral negotiations following the rules of international law, and to resolve this issue by international legitimacy.”

Tehran’s real grouse could be twofold: one, that the China-Saudi relationship is acquiring gravitas and that it impacts regional politics.

Damage Controlling

Realizing the widespread displeasure in Iran of China’s pro-Arab geniality, Beijing has become resilient, indicating a change in its stance. It has urged the United States to lift sanctions on Iran and stop threatening Tehran to revive stalled negotiations on the 2015 nuclear deal.

Geng Shuang, China’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, also told a Security Council session on Monday that a new resolution passed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to press Iran to cooperate would do nothing but “escalate the conflict, undermine trust and cast a shadow over the negotiations.”

China News Service quoted Geng saying, “All parties should look at the long-term and overall situation and avoid any move that could escalate the situation and undermine the negotiation process.”

He added, “As the creator of the Iranian nuclear crisis, the US should recognize its responsibility and take the lead in taking practical measures. China calls on the US to fulfill its commitments under the agreement, lift all unilateral sanctions and ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ measures against Iran and third parties, and stop threatening to use force against Iran.”

The Arak nuclear plant in Iran. (Wikimedia Commons)

However, China’s warning words sound hollow and do not weigh changing Washington’s stand on Iran’s nuclear issue. Iran understands that Beijing offers lip service and makes a fake balancing attempt.

It is tantamount to blackmailing the US as China’s warning implies that not reversing its policy towards Iran allows Iran the opportunity of achieving its goal of nuclear capability.

Present Status

Iran is infuriated by the second resolution recently passed by the IAEA. Tehran’s latest move is in retaliation to last week’s resolution by the IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors ordering Iran to cooperate with the agency’s years-long investigation into the origin of uranium particles found at three undeclared sites.

“Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi has said that Iran had started producing high enriched uranium – UF6 (uranium hexafluoride) enriched up to 60% – using the existing two cascades of IR-6 centrifuges in the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant.” This report was the basis for the IAEA to pass the second resolution.

Tehran has reason to feel worried that the regional balance may shift in favor of Saudi Arabia. It cannot be lost on Tehran that the historicity of Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia lies in the recreation of the history playing out in West Asia since the secret meeting between then-US president Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia off Alexandria in 1945.

But finally, Iran also has much to blame itself for. It took an early lead over Saudi Arabia with its much-vaunted 25-year US$400 billion roadmaps for Chinese investments but lost the plot.

“China likely would have weighed that Saudi Arabia has far more to offer as an economic partner than Iran in the near and medium terms,” wrote the South China Morning Post on December 20.

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