The Resurrection of Two Empires – China and Iran

By: - June 21, 2021

“A strategic joint venture for 25 years, geopolitical dominance, economic colonialism, and the unknown fate of U.S. interests in the Middle East”

The U.S. administration, since assuming duties, has been struggling to keep up with the endless challenges on both levels, domestically and internationally. The political turmoil is caused by a combination of external and internal factors, resulting in an added pressure on the administration to address piles of unsettled issues requiring immediate attention.

Domestically, the aftermath of the pandemic, the country’s recovery process, and the fragile economy are the primary focus points. Yet, the foreign policy impacts on U.S. national security, interests, and alliances remain among the most significant issues of concern to both the public and the government institutions regardless of how the administration is approaching the situation. 

While Washington’s foreign policy focuses on China’s impacts on the U.S. domestically, China, Russia, and Iran are forming strategically perturbing alliances and actively expanding their territorial interests across the oceans. 

In the Middle East, the U.S. government, since reducing the number of its troops in Iraq in 2011, has suffered a remarkable incapacity to maintain a stable foreign policy and influential existence in the region. The gradually fainting U.S. leverage in the region led to significant losses on both; the tactical and diplomatic levels, not to mention the mutual economic interests with regional allies that have been diminished over the years. 

On the security level, the gap that the successive U.S. administrations left in the Middle East has been decisively exploited and rapidly filled by several major regional and international players. The Iranian expansion in the region was the major setback and the correlated emergence of ISIS and other radical groups. Yet, the U.S. foreign policy-makers are still focused on certain parts of the portrait and not the background, where the main message lies. 

Many in Biden’s team believe that China’s rapidly growing influence in the Middle East does not pose direct threats to vital U.S. interests. However, the tactical reality on the ground seems to be different. The deep alignment between Beijing and Tehran and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) harmony with anti-American Shiite militia groups in the region pose long-term risks to U.S. forces, allies, and strategic commercial interests. 

On March 27, 2021, both Iran and China signed a strategic agreement to strengthen their long-standing economic and political alliance and expand both nations’ economic and security cooperation for an initial phase of 25 years. The deal aims to significantly boost China’s economic and political influence in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA). However, the immediate threat lies in Iran and China’s aspirations to achieve comprehensive “commercial” control over major straits such as the Gate of Tears “Bab El Mandab” and “Hormuz Strait” as well as specific international maritime navigation passages through the “Gulf of Aden” and natural bridges that connect critical portions of eastern Africa from one side and southern Asia from the other. 

Iran has been actively involved in destabilizing the region, fueling sectarian conflicts, and cultivating proxies from the Middle East to Latin America, in addition to Iran’s intervention in strategically vital parts of Africa. The Iranian regime is simply pursuing the same strategy applied in Yemen to support extremist groups such as the Houthis and for the same purpose (long-term plan); expanding commercial control over geographically and economically sensitive areas through a network of proxies. China, on the other hand, is focused on increasing its territorial dominance, commercial ascendancy, and advancing its cutting-edge technology in the fields of data collection, surveillance, cyber espionage, information warfare, and artificial intelligence (A.I.). 

Furthermore, China has been actively pursuing a strategic observation position to advance the extent of its intelligence activities in the Middle East, aimed at keeping regional radical Islamic groups such as Al-Qaeda (A.Q.), Islamic State (I.S.), and others on Beijing’s radar. China has been overwhelmed by its militants, where the numbers of Uighur fighters who have joined ISIS and Al Nusra group in Syria have noticeably increased during the surge of ISIS caliphate. The Uighur fighters among both ISIS and Al-Nusra were recently estimated around 4000 members. Beijing is highly concerned about the potential threat of triggering a domestic radical concept that could lead to undesirable consequences. 

The balance of power in the Middle East has changed over time, and this diplomatic move, even if it was ink on paper so far, will gradually turn into a damaging reality, or in other words, a geopolitical disaster. Nevertheless, the U.S. administration doesn’t seem to fully realize the dimensions and the severity of this conspiracy and its grave consequences on the national security, economy, and the position of the United States among other nations for the coming decades and perhaps more. 

The agreement means strategic colonialism over large geopolitical areas, intelligence cooperation, military advancement, and diplomatic leverage for China to use its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to hinder any future decisions or possible sanctions against Iran in case of noncompliance or violations related to Iran’s nuclear programs. This scenario will be a devastating challenge facing the international society, rendering all remedies for Tehran’s malicious behavior ineffective. This is with China in the background, not to mention the possibility of having Russia in the driver’s seat occasionally, if not along the line. 

The Strategic Cooperation: 

Iran has a tremendous role in destabilizing the Middle East and North Africa’s regional security. The Iranian activities are mainly concentrated in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Libya, not to mention the massive Iranian desire to control major straits and strategic maritime navigation pathways such as “Hormuz Strait” and “The Gate of Tears.” On the other hand, China has always aspired to extend its control over the ports of maritime navigation for Beijing to manage the international commercial and economic traffic through the straits and ports, especially those that connect Asia and Africa. The common goals that led to this agreement between the two historic empires may be the gate through which both empires return to restore their lost glory. 

The Energy Cooperation:

China will become the major consumer of Iranian oil and gas, which, in turn, will adequately restore the Iranian economic system to a state of stability that Iran has not witnessed for several decades. China will purchase Iranian oil and gas at a relatively low cost, providing China with sufficient reserves and Iran with adequate liquidity. 

Iran also controls large portions of Iraq’s “Unofficial” oil revenues and other petroleum resources located in the territories and provinces that had been occupied by ISIS previously. Oil and gas smuggling operations are on the rise in Iraq and under exclusive supervision and command of Iranian-sponsored militias in Iraq and complete coordination of semi-government entities and individuals in Baghdad. China has also been aggressively expanding in southern Iraq and signing multiple agreements with Baghdad to develop several oil fields and build refineries in the southern region. This joint venture will grant both China and Iran complete control over the Iraqi resources under comprehensive legitimacy provided by the Iraqi government. 

The Economic Cooperation:

The China-Iran agreement will remarkably establish a connection line between the two economies. It will eventually lead to a more stable currency in Iran, granting the Iranian economy and currency an independent status and particularity away from the international community’s influence. China is heading to the region at full speed with an estimated investment of approximately $400 Billion in development projects in Iran, mainly to build and develop seaports and offshore installations to pursue the historic Chinese desire to establish a naval dominance over the regional waters. 

Iran is not the only partner for China in the Middle East. Major countries in the region are actively engaged in strategic partnerships with China, and most of them are considered major U.S. allies on many levels. 

Saudi Arabia represents the most prominent trading ally and the leading oil supplier for China in the region. UAE is another major trading ally and the logistics partner for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Iraq is also one of the leading oil suppliers to China and is one of the new business hubs that China has heavily invested in. Egypt is a strategic partner due to the volume of trading exchange with China and the naval location. Israel has a solid trading relationship with China, extensive military cooperation, and strategic coordination on security issues and anti-terrorism affairs. 

The Intelligence Cooperation:

Both China and Iran have well-established intelligence services and are internationally recognized for their capabilities, decisiveness, and deceptiveness. The Iranian intelligence is a powerful, resourceful, and highly secretive group of complex clustered structure organizations. A joint intelligence effort or strategic intelligence cooperation in the region and internationally will grant Iran an iron shield, competitive advantage, and superiority over their opponents. On the other hand, China will continue expanding its global intelligence, influence operations, and elections interference activities to systematically serve its growing political, economic, and security interests and isolate the United States from its allies regionally and internationally. 

China’s aspirations do not stop at extending its economic influence and geopolitical power over strategically vital territories. China continues to emphasize its cyber power and works on expanding its capabilities and quantitative information reserve. The imminent threat to both the U.S. national security and international security is China’s endless aspirations to achieve comprehensive technical intelligence dominance through open access to signal and communication intelligence and the potential to intercept, contain and control, data and information on all levels; governments, corporates, and individuals, both commercially and clandestinely.

Cyber-Espionage Cooperation:

China is a significant cyber-espionage threat, armed with exceptional cyber-warfare capabilities, and presents a growing influence threat. China’s cyber warfare capabilities will increase the risk to the U.S. domestically and threaten the U.S. system, both economically and on the national security levels. Any hostile cyber-attack will cause excessively damaging disruptions to critical U.S. infrastructure. The new alliance will provide Iran with the necessary technology and means to advance its cyber power and expand Tehran’s aggressive reach beyond the conventional military measures.

Beijing’s regime will continue to conduct highly sophisticated cyber-espionage operations to compromise and target high-tech companies, telecommunication services, and specialized software providers to engage in intelligence collection, electronic espionage, or influence operations. The joint venture between Tehran’s regime and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will put the interests and security of the United States and its allies at significant risk.  

The new partnership between Beijing and Tehran will put a treasure of information and technology in the hands of Tehran’s intelligence and opens a path of opportunities for Beijing to expand into the Middle East and beyond for decades and decades to come. 

The Military Cooperation: 

Regionally, Iranian-sponsored militias, proxies, and covert operators are all over the Middle East and North Africa. Iraq is the most extensive base for Iranian activities, where there are more than 30 groups publicly declared by the Popular Mobilization Units Committee (PMU) in Iraq. 

During the conflict in Syria, the number of Iranian-sponsored militias and proxies has rapidly escalated to reach 70,000-80,000 fighters. Hezbollah forces are ranked first in terms of the large numbers of combatants in Syria, followed by Iraqi Shiite militias (PMU), then Afghan and Pakistani Shiite recruits all operating under the command of Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and specifically the “Quds Force Branch.” 

Chinese military existence in Iran will clone the Russian presence in Syria and strengthen the Iranian tactical position by making any military confrontation with Iran almost suicidal militarily and catastrophically expensive. Chinese-Iranian military cooperation also means that Iran will be able to obtain highly advanced military technology, capable ballistic missile systems immediately, and advanced Air Force capabilities to extend their influence in the region and perhaps to pose a fundamental threat to the national security of the countries of the region, such as the Gulf States and the State of Israel as well as the interests of the United States and its allies in the area. 

Regional States at Stake: 

Iraq:  

China and Iraq have also signed a framework cooperation agreement based on several MoUs signed earlier in 2019. The cooperation agreement between Iraq and China was officially signed on September 23, 2019, in Beijing and will extend for 20 years. The deal is based on the principle of “oil for reconstruction,” Where Iraq agrees to pay Chinese companies for infrastructure reconstruction in Iraq with oil. 

Iraqi officials had minimal information to share about the agreement, and the few who knew about the deal were hesitant to share any details about it. However, the fact on the ground is obvious; the agreement is official and in full effect, and the funding amounts of nearly two billion dollars have been placed in the Iraqi Federal Budget Law of 2021. An aggressive Chinese expansion into Iran (the world’s 2nd largest natural gas reserve and the 4th largest oil reserve) and Iraq (the 5th largest oil reserve) is a serious geopolitical move that will change the global equation and power balance politically and economically and for so long. 

Saudi Arabia:  

The kingdom has deep-rooted relations with China and long history of cooperation, purchasing Chinese advanced military equipment, technology, and ballistic systems for Riyadh’s government. Saudi Arabia has significantly developed its ballistic missile capabilities through its collaboration with China and expanding the Saudi medium and long-range missiles inventory. Also, Saudi Arabia is considered the largest trading partner and the leading oil supplier for China in the Middle East. However, and despite the assurances provided by Beijing to Riyadh during the recent visit of the Chinese foreign minister, Saudi Arabia remains concerned about the rapprochement that led to the agreement between Beijing and Tehran and its impacts on the kingdom’s national security. 

The question is, does the Beijing-Tehran marriage have anything to present to Riyadh as a goodwill gesture? 

Yes, China at some point will offer full control over the Houthis ruled Yemen, providing assurances and guarantees to Riyadh that the Iranian-Sponsored Houthis will not pose any threat to the interests and security of Saudi Arabia as long as Yemen (The Naval Navigation Pathways) is under the Chinese economic administration (economic colonialism).

Israel: 

The new alliance between Beijing and Tehran could also put Israel’s national security and stability in jeopardy. Israel’s position in this equation is critical and will require maintaining a precise balance between force and diplomacy. 

Israel and China have mutual strategic business interests, extensive military cooperation, and coordination agreements on security and counterterrorism affairs. Israel is highly capable of managing a balanced foreign policy concerning China. However, Iran is always on a mission to disturb, undermine, and devastate the Israeli national security, safety, and stability. 

Recently, the Israeli approach has changed drastically, taking an overtly reactive turn due to the sensitivity of the threats they are facing. The current strategy that entails an open confrontation with Washington over Tehran’s potential threats needs to be re-routed to a strategic operations room to ensure maintaining coordinated efforts and mutual interests, rather than resorting to individual actions that may drag both countries and the region to further chaos, or perhaps causes geopolitical damage that may be irreparable. 

The (Acquisition): 

Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, has been actively working with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Oman, and Turkey. The minister has numerously offered China’s help in resolving ongoing disputes and major conflicts, including Iran’s nuclear program, as well as China’s willingness to host direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians while referring to the American dominance in the region as a factor that hindered peace and development.

Beijing is simply targeting every weak spot Washington left unattended and engaging in every single opportunity Washington decided to disengage. China is playing the game they master professionally. Namely, the acquisition. This is simply the new unconventional warfare; this is the Acquisition War

There is no doubt that Biden’s administration faces enormous challenges, and the coming days may carry more perplexity. The United States faces a serious challenge and a worrying threat by this development at the international level, as is the case for many Arab countries and Israel at the regional level. The current U.S. administration is in urgent need of performing a comprehensive re-evaluation of its foreign policy, reconsidering its political calculations, and balancing its alliances with other nations away from partisan pressure, lobbies influence, and interest group proclivity. 

Washington faces a tough test; the impacts of success or failure in this critical test will extend for generations and decades. The U.S. administration has to adequately protect American interests and maintain the U.S. diplomatic and strategic alliances. Washington has a golden opportunity to build a more cohesive and influential counter-coalition with both Arab states and Israel as well as other international allies to develop a comprehensive strategic partnership on the political, diplomatic, economic, military, and intelligence levels and based on mutual goals and interests to confront the catastrophic effects that could result from the “Resurrection of the Two Empires”.