Analysis |

Strategic Pact With China Gives Iran Breathing Room at a Critical Time

Meanwhile, many members of Israel's defense establishment have reservations about Netanyahu's tough stance against Jordan

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Missile launch in a drill in Iran earlier this year
Missile launch in a drill in Iran earlier this yearCredit: ,AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The main strategic development over the weekend took place in Tehran, where the foreign ministers of Iran and China signed an agreement on military and economic cooperation, at an estimated value of billions of dollars. The two countries have been holding negotiations over such an agreement for several years. Last year, shortly before Joe Biden was elected U.S. president, a draft of this agreement leaked out and was published in U.S. newspapers.

The Iranian decision to sign this agreement was apparently driven by the widespread economic pressure exerted on Tehran by former president Donald Trump. The expectation of Trump and his associates that sanctions would lead to Iranian capitulation and to a return to the nuclear accords under more stringent conditions was not realized. It’s doubtful that the regime in Tehran was even close to the breaking point, as Trump and his friend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were hoping for. Now, the combination of sanctions and a deepening economic crisis due to the spread of the coronavirus epidemic pushed Iran into signing the agreement with the Chinese.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, sign agreements after their talks in Tehran, IranCredit: Ebrahim Noroozi,AP

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According to reports, the agreement includes an Iranian commitment to supply oil to China at low prices for the next 25 years. China, in exchange, will carry out extensive infrastructure projects in Iran, including the paving of roads, construction of ports and the setting up of advanced communications networks. It appears that the agreement also has a military component that includes military cooperation, the joint development of weapons and what is called “war on terror.”

For the Iranians, this is critical and long-term economic aid which arrives at a particularly worrisome period. China, one may assume, sees things differently. Its investments in Iran are only a small part of its larger strategy called the “Belt and Road Initiative.” Its main aim is to ensure Chinese influence and open channels for moving Chinese goods from East and Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe. Beijing is exploiting the animosity between Tehran and Washington, as well as the overall American policy of reducing its interest in the Middle East. The announcement about the signing of this deal arrived shortly after a tension-fraught Chinese-American meeting was held, with the impression given that the Biden administration is bent on pursuing a tough anti-Chinese stance.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) welcomes Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to the presidential palace in Tehran, last weekCredit: Photo by HO / Iranian Presidency / AFP

For Israel, the main significance of this agreement is the bolstering of Iran’s economic opportunities. It doesn’t portray China as a country that is hostile towards Israel. China is not an enemy of Israel and is interested in economic ties with all parties in the region, regardless of ideology. In contrast, Israel will have to continue viewing Chinese investments in this country with caution, both due to increasing American opposition and due to concerns that Chinese involvement in sensitive projects will end up with leaked information that would be better off remaining in Israel’s hands.

In the meantime, there are no reports of a breakthrough which would allow the return of the U.S. to the nuclear accords between Iran and the powers, which the Trump administration withdrew from in May 2018. Last week, Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei said that the U.S. must first remove its sanctions before Iran complies with the accords (Iran started violating the agreement two years ago, in response to Trump’s move). Before assuming office, Biden said that Iran has to make the first move.

However, a senior official in the U.S. administration said over the weekend in an interview to Reuters news agency that the order of these moves was unimportant. For now, it seems that publicly, the U.S. is showing more willingness to return to negotiations than Iran is, even though it’s unclear if this will happen before Iran’s presidential election in June.

U.S. President Joe Biden, last weekCredit: Evan Vucci / AP

Relations worsen with Jordan

The delay in Israel’s response to Jordan’s request to receive water from Israel, reported in Haaretz before Passover, reflects another stage in the deterioration of the relations between the two countries. There is a serious crisis prevailing between Amman and Jerusalem, exacerbated earlier this month after the Jordanians disrupted a visit by Netanyahu to the United Arab Emirates by holding up a plane sent from the Gulf to pick him up at Amman Airport.

Many members of Israel’s defense establishment have reservations about the tough stance adopted by Netanyahu in relation to Amman and view his decisions, such as closing Israel’s airspace to flights from Jordan for a few hours and the holding up of Jordan’s request to receive vaccines against the coronavirus, as personal vengeance directed by Netanyahu against King Abdullah.

Senior officials have told Haaretz that the king’s policy enables maintaining Israel’s eastern border quiet and secure against infiltration by terrorists or weapon smugglers. There are only three Israeli battalions deployed along a border that is more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) long. Jordan deploys much larger forces along the border, consisting of several brigades. It is investing great efforts into preventing infiltration into Israel. Jordan’s assistance is also allowing Israel to save on investing resources in rehabilitating its border fence, after decades in which it has not been upgraded. In contrast, billions of shekels have gone into the fence along the borders with the Gaza Strip, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordanian King Abdullah IICredit: Sebastian Scheiner and Yousef Allan / Various sources / AFP

Netanyahu associates talk about Jordan with derision, usually in closed forums, describing it as a country in decline that is increasingly dependent on Israel. However, Israel’s relations with Egypt should attest to the need to maintain Jordan as a stable and friendly country.

In 2011, after the fall of Mubarak, army generals assumed power, followed by the Muslim Brothers, who were deposed in a military coup staged by Egypt’s current ruler, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in the summer of 2013. Over those two years, Egypt neglected what was happening along its border with Israel and did not exert pressure on Hamas to restrain its operations. The clear result was an increase in smuggling, terror operations and increased tension along the border. A weakening of the royal family in Jordan could also impact Israel and the long and stable border between the two countries, in a manner that will oblige the IDF to allocate more resources, manpower, and intelligence efforts.

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