a rare eye for complexity

A Middle East in Motion
Alastair Crooke, Strategic Culture, Apr 19 2021

If we view the Middle East as a complex network system, it is possible to discern a number of dynamics that now are touching on their potential to shift the regional matrix entirely, to put it on a fresh path. Some of these ‘seeds’ were sown, a while past: President Putin, in 2007 at Munich, told the largely western audience that the West had taken an adversarial stance toward Russia, challenging it. ‘Ok’, said Putin: We accept the challenge, and we shall prevail. His statement was met with open derision from the Munich audience. Now, many years later, following the contentious exchanges at Anchorage, Putin’s riposte has emerged fully-fledged: China told Washington flatly, that it refused the imposition of western values and hegemony. China thus accepted, with Russia, the ‘western challenge’: It had its own values and vision that it intended to pursue, and noted that the US was in no position of strength to demand otherwise. China (or Russia) does not seek war with the US, nor want Cold War, either, but both stand steadfast by their ‘red lines.’ They should be taken literally (ie they were no ‘posture’), China indicated. Two days later, the Chinese FM and Lavrov advised other states not even to contemplate siding with the US against the Russia-China concerted ‘team’; it would be pointless. A few days later Wang Li was in the Middle East; Saudi Arabia, UAE and then Tehran. The message was uniform: throw off the yoke of hegemony; resist ‘pressures’ on human rights issues; and embrace your own sovereignty. A Rubicon crossed.

In Iran, FM Wang Li signed up, in principle, to $400b in transport and energy infrastructure projects. From the perspective of China, a Eurasian spider’s web of inter-connecting rail tracks and pipelines potentially slashes the costs of transportation; creates new markets, whilst investment in Iranian energy gives China energy security. The Chinese-Iranian roadmap however, also envisages security co-operation (with China endorsing Iranian full membership of the SCO), joint naval exercises, intelligence sharing, and more. Even more significant perhaps will be Iran’s incorporation into the Eurasian Digital Silk Road, incorporating telecommunications, fibre optic cabling from China to France, 5G, ‘Smart City’ AI systems, digital payment platforms (US hedge fund manager Kyle Bass argues that China’s digital payment systems will reach an estimated 62% of the world’s population), cloud storage analytics, and ‘sovereign’ internet structures. Iran, although not yet a part of the Digital Road, effectively is already (loosely) digitally ‘Chinese’, as is much of West Asia. Some estimates suggest that one-third of the countries participating in BRI—138 at this point—are cooperating on DSR projects.

Western narratives generally overestimate the extent to which DSR-related projects are part of a coordinated Chinese strategy. Projects lumped under DSR however, are largely private sector-driven, and allow Chinese companies to take advantage of policy support provided under the DSR brand (a type of franchise), while responding to growing demand in BRI countries for digital infrastructure. Until recently, BRI was understood largely in the more traditional mode (ie railways and pipes), than as a digital ‘road’; but it is the latter that ultimately will separate a ‘Chinese standards Eurasia’ from the West. Just to be clear, whichever way you slice the RBI snakes and ladders matrix of interconnectivity, either, east-west or north-south, Iran lies plumb-centre on the map. The point here is that much of the northern tier of the Middle East, from Pakistan to the Caspian, to the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and Europe, is on Moscow and Beijing’s drawing board. As the physical and digital network emerges from its chrysalis, no Gulf State will be able wholly to disregard this unfolding geo-political entity stretching from Vladivostok to Xingjian. In fact, they are not; they are cautiously (mindful of Washington’s ire), extending tentacles out to Moscow and Beijing (Saudi and UAE are already on the DSR), but they seem unlikely to go the whole hog of the full engagement, as Iran has done with China. How long it is viable to juggle both Chinese protocols and standards with those of the West, is an open question, eventually duplication of standards becomes clumsy, and expensive.

It is against this ‘right-side-of-history’ context that the JCPOA negotiations with Iran should be seen. The State Dept indicates that Biden circles insist the US will come into compliance; yet officials also say contrarily that some sanctions will remain (unspecified as to number, or typology). This is hardly surprising. There are some 1,600 sanctions that have been added post-JCPOA, together with those already in forceunder the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010, Section 1245 of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2012, the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, the Iran Freedom and Counter-Proliferation Act of 2012, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, and the CAATSA Act of 2017! The Obama administration implemented most of the US sanctions relief provided under the JCPOA by executing a series of national security waivers. The latter also left a number of sanctions in place, including the embargo on most US trade with Iran, sanctions on the IRGC, and other sanctions on Iran’s alleged support for terrorism, and linked to Iran’s ballistic missile programme. These national security waivers, however, are time-limited in duration, generally for either 120 or 180 days, depending on the specific sanction, and some require the Administration to justify any waiver and advance an argument in support of such, for prior Congressional review.

In short, US sanctions are easily done, but not easily undone, even temporarily. Very deliberately, lifting them completely is institutionally almost impossible. It is not at all clear that the US administration can come into full compliance, even if it so wished (and even the extent of Biden’s motivation to lift them is opaque). There have been recently two bi-partisan Congressional letters addressed to Blinken expressing opposition to any reactivation of the ‘deal’ (one containing 140 Congressional signatures). We must wait to see. Yet, Iran notionally in the Accord but with the US ‘out,’ nonetheless will be a regional game-changer, especially should a conservative be elected Iranian President, in June. The consequences will be felt across the region. The pressures to oust US forces from the northern tier states will augment significantly. A third dynamic (from Obama times), is that US, grudgingly, is dis-engaging from the region. This, of course, has given impetus to normalisation by some states with Israel, to shelter under its security umbrella.

Another is that the end to the era of Netanyahu (with his fixation on confronting Iran) may be approaching. Israel now is wholly fragmented at the decision-making level: the security cabinet does not meet; there is no oversight to the PM’s go-it-alone, decision-making; and security institutions are pushing into the void vying to have one-over on their rivals. Netanyahu possibly is attempting to signal to Washington that he has a veto over any Iran ‘deal’, and is suspected by Israeli commentators also to be inducing a crisis atmosphere in Israel order to bludgeon small parties into joining a government led by him. He has less than three weeks to find 61 Knesset seats, or face the possibility of imprisonment for bribery and corruption. (The trial already has started). The reality is that cohesion will not readily return to Israeli politics, whether or not Netanyahu survives. Israel is bitterly divided on too many fronts. Many Israeli officials, in short, are fearful that its various agencies, vying to prove their mettle, and absent any real oversight or policy co-ordination, may over-reach, and enter the state into a risky escalatory military cycle with Iran.

Washington is in a hole: Netanyahu and Mossad have sold to team Biden the meme that secretly the Iranians now are begging for the US return to the JCPOA. It is not true. Netanyahu insists on this line to validate his long-held hypothesis that maximum pressure would bring Iran to its knees. He want to prove his point through max-pressures continuing (maybe ‘forever’). Netanyahu’s premise always has been that Iran, on its knees, would beg to be allowed to return to the JPOA. He was wrong, and many Israelis now accept this. But perhaps it was this politically gerrymandered Israeli analysis that caused team Biden to imagine that Iran would accept to go to full JCPOA compliance, whilst the US didn’t. And further, that Iran would acquiesce to “certain” sanctions staying.

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