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By: Kaveh L Afrasiabi
In the aftermath of President George W Bush’s recent tour of the Persian Gulf, coinciding with a similar trip by France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, culminating in a deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for a small French base, Iran’s security calculus has changed. It has almost reached the point of Tehran considering the option of reciprocating the perceived excess Western intrusion into its vicinity by allowing a military base for China at one of Iran’s Persian Gulf ports or on one of its islands.
Without doubt, this would be a significant geopolitical move on both Iran’s and China’s part, bound to unsettle the US superpower that enjoys unrivalled hegemony in the oil region and which has unsettled China with its recent civilian nuclear agreement with India, widely interpreted as a long-term “containing China” initiative.
In the tight interplay of geopolitics and geo-economics, with China heavily dependent on energy imports from Iran and other Persian Gulf states, the trend is definitely toward China’s naval complement of its flurry of energy deals in order to secure its precious oil and (liquefied) gas cargo ships exiting through the narrow corridors of the Strait of Hormuz.
Presently, China’s strategy is confined to the port city of Gwadar along the southwestern coast of Pakistan in Balochistan province, strategically located near the Hormuz Strait. Yet, due to the close US-Pakistan relations, it is highly improbable the US would permit Islamabad to enter into strategic relations with Beijing so that China, still lacking a formidable navy, could utilize it for power projection in the region.
Not so with Iran, which is constantly threatened by the US, and now France, and which already enjoys observer status at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), headed by China and Russia. Iran’s bid to join the SCO has been stalled partly as a result of the standoff over its nuclear program, but will likely succeed in the not too distant future should the present patterns of Iran-Russia and Iran-China cooperation continue.
Regarding the latter, China has already surpassed Germany as Iran’s number one trade partner. Sinopec, China’s largest oil refiner, has just finalized a multi-billion dollar deal to develop the giant Yadavaran oil field, and this is in addition to the “deal of the century” contract for natural gas from Iran’s immense North Pars field. Chinese contractors are also busy constructing oil terminals for Iran in the Caspian Sea, extending the Tehran metro, building airports, among other projects. And this while China arms sales to Iran have included such hot items as ballistic-missile technology and air-defense radars.
The growing Iran-China cooperation on the energy and trade fronts is bound sooner or later to spill over into more meaningful military cooperation and, in turn, this depends to some extent on the ebbs and flows of Iran-US and China-US “games of strategy”, particularly if China feels additional pressure from the US on the geopolitical front.
For sure, Iran’s willingness to show a greater willingness than hitherto to embrace China’s naval vessels making port calls to Iran is now in the cards, this as a prelude to more extensive agreements up to and including provisions for a small Chinese naval outpost on one of Iran’s Persian Gulf islands.
Again, such a scenario, sure to raise the serious ire of Washington, depends on a number of intervening variables. These include future US moves in the Persian Gulf, for example, whether or not the US military will end up utilizing some of the man-made artificial islands set up by the UAE. If so, thus enhancing the US’s power projection capability with regard to Iran, Tehran may be more inclined to try to offset the US’s leaning so heavy on it by playing the “China card”.
To reiterate, France’s bold new move in the Persian Gulf is equally unsettling to Tehran, which finds the new pro-US turn of French foreign policy detrimental to its national interests. The net result is the cognitive bifurcation of “West” versus “us”  that nicely dovetails with the new “eastern orientation” of Iran under President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. This is part and parcel of an energetic new “globalist” approach that includes new strategic openings with certain Latin and Central American nations.
In other words, it is sheer error to misinterpret Iran’s “new foreign policy” as one-dimensionally regional or continental in nature, despite its narrow focus on Iran’s immediate regions.
“Iran cannot remain indifferent to the aggressive geopolitical maneuvers against it by Western nations [who are] targeting Iran in no unmistakable language,” says a prominent political science professor at Tehran University.
The professor loudly wondered how France would react if all of a sudden Iran started setting up bases near its coastline or, for that matter, how Washington would respond to an Iranian base in Iran-friendly Nicaragua? “They definitely need a wake-up call that national security is not a one-way process.”
While Iran’s political pundits are not yet willing to concede that Iran is now at the stage to allow a Chinese base along its vast Persian Gulf coastline, nonetheless quite a few agree that with the changing geopolitical milieu representing potentially serious national security threats to Iran, all options must remain open.
1. After all, Sarkozy has stepped down from his predecessor’s talk of “multiploarism” and, instead, per an article in this week’s New York Times, “has tempered that notion with talk about France’s place within its ‘Western family’, an expression welcomed in Washington”.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of “Negotiating Iran’s Nuclear Populism”, Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote “Keeping Iran’s nuclear potential latent”, Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran’s Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction
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