After Soleimani, Russia and China Position Themselves for More Influence in the Middle East

Published January 12th, 2020 - 12:39 GMT
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani,  June 14 /AFP
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, June 14 /AFP

In mid 2018, Qassem Soleimani, the Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) extraterritorial Quds Force, warned American President Donald Trump: ‘Mr Trump, the gambler, I’m telling you, know that we are close to you in that place you don’t think we are. You will start the war, but we will end it’.

Mr Trump certainly lived up to his reputation as a gamester last Friday, revealing his willingness roll the dice in high risk situations with the targeted assassination of Mr Soleimani and the Deputy Leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

 

Historians and political analysts will likely spend years unpacking the lead up to last Friday’s strikes and their regional and global ramifications. Yet many have overlooked perhaps the most important long-term implication of Mr Trump’s decision- its effect on superpower competition in a region becomingly increasingly multipolar. More players sit at the table than just the President and his Iranian adversaries and commentators, and America’s loss in the region may prove Russia and China’s gain.

many have overlooked perhaps the most important long-term implication of Mr Trump’s decision- its effect on superpower competition in a region becomingly increasingly multipolar.

Much ink has been spilt in the last week over the effects of Mr Soleimani’s assassination to Iranian grand strategy. Mr Soleimani’s indispensability to Iran’s interests is the subject of keen debate. Some will argue that the depth of Mr Soleimani’s connections with foreign leaders and proxy forces, his close relationship with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the length of his tenure - Mr Soleimani has led the Quds Force since 1998 - make him a key loss for the Islamic Republic.

Others will rightly note that what binds Iran to its overseas allies and proxies is not personality but a commonality of interests and that, having been born in the fires of the Iran-Iraq war, the IRGC maintains a leadership structure designed to deal with the loss of key personnel. Mr Soleimani’s loss will of course be keenly felt in Tehran, yet the effect of his passing on the IRGC and the Quds Force are unlikely to be decisive.

the IRGC maintains a leadership structure designed to deal with the loss of key personnel. Mr Soleimani’s loss will of course be keenly felt in Tehran, yet the effect of his passing on the IRGC and the Quds Force are unlikely to be decisive.

Closer to home, analysts of Iranian politics will continue to ask what effects Mr Soleimani’s assassination will have internally. Mr Soleimani, even in his homeland, proved a complex and divisive figure. Many in Iran will associate the Major General with repression of Kurdish protests in the 1990s and crack downs on popular movements for political change such as the Green Revolution of 2009, as much as his decorated service in the Iran-Iraq war, and important role in orchestrating the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in recent years. 

But his death, if images of his well-attended funeral prove anything to go by, may reduce the pressure on Iran’s regime, exposed in recent months to destabilising popular revolts over corruption and the biting effects of sanctions.

Though Mr Soleimani may not have enjoyed the popularity suggested by some commentators, Iranians opposed to covert foreign intervention in their own backyard are likely to rally behind their increasingly beleaguered Republic. The internal ramifications within Iran’s opaque security apparatus are likely to prove just as important. The revelation of deep American intelligence access to the movements and activities of Iran’s most important military leader will cause much hand wringing in Tehran.

Iranians opposed to covert foreign intervention in their own backyard are likely to rally behind their increasingly beleaguered Republic

Given Iran’s extensive regional footprint, discussions of the potential for further upheaval and proxy conflict in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and most obviously Iran are unavoidable. Iran, in the knowledge that despite its military heft and surprising economic stability under a heavy sanctions regime will likely turn to its overseas partners, including Yemen’s Ansarallah movement, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraq’s majority Shi’a militia movement to exact revenge against its adversaries. Iraq’s Kata’ib Hezbollah, in response to the assassination of its leader and key power broker, Mr Muhandis, may choose not to wait for a green light from Tehran to engage in counter-offensive activity.

Iraq’s Kata’ib Hezbollah, in response to the assassination of its leader and key power broker, Mr Muhandis, may choose not to wait for a green light from Tehran to engage in counter-offensive activity.

Though Iraq and the Levant are central to Iran’s regional ambitions and have proved the key battlegrounds for proxy conflict in recent years, looking East is just as significant. Mr Trump’s decision may well have important implications for ongoing diplomatic efforts to build a peaceable Afghanistan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has attempted to keep his country out of a cycle of escalation between the US and Iran. But Iran, sharing close cultural connections and a long land border with Afghanistan may choose to squeeze the US in this volatile region.

This may be the preference of Esmail Ghaani, Mr Soleimani’s replacement as commander of the Quds force, known to have a considerable interest in Afghan affairs. A cycle of escalation in Afghanistan may further empower the Taliban, derailing the prospects for peace, and encourage an ongoing, unpopular American presence in the country, likely to provide succour to groups who rally support from their opposition to foreign interference. Even further afield, America’s increasingly belligerent Middle Eastern strategy may provoke wider resistance from majority Muslim nations.

In response to Mr Soleimani’s assassination, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called for solidarity amongst Muslim nations against violations of international law. Mr Mahathir, in a press statement to reporters last week, argued ,‘The time is right for Muslim countries to come together. We are no longer safe now. If anybody insults or says something that somebody doesn’t like, it is all right for that person from another country to send a drone and perhaps have a shot at me.’

‘The time is right for Muslim countries to come together. We are no longer safe now. If anybody insults or says something that somebody doesn’t like, it is all right for that person from another country to send a drone and perhaps have a shot at me.’ - Mr Mahathir

Mr Mahathir’s statement goes to the heart of the wider geopolitical ramifications of Mr Trump’s decision making. Mr Trump, who made his decision to strike Mr Soleimani not from the Oval Office but from his Florida Golf Club, Mar-a-Lago, has been roundly criticised by American policy makers for his lack of consultation with the so-called Gang of 8, Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress, yet America’s foreign partners have proved even more incensed by Mr Trump’s failings to subject his decision to international scrutiny. America’s international partners were left to come up with ad-hoc, panicked responses to a situation which threatens to spiral out of control.

A perception of America as a pariah state, unwilling to consult with international partners and willing to flout the principles of international law inadvertently opens opportunities for the US’s other key international rivals. The Middle East has become an increasingly multipolar space for international competition in recent years. Mr Trump’s decision may improve the fortunes of other American rivals in the region, most notably Russia and China.

Joint naval exercise in the Gulf of Oman were carried out by Iran, Russia and China late in December, and Chinese and Russian authorities have been especially vocal about Mr Soleimani’s assassination.

The relationship between Iran and these powers has become increasingly close in recent months. Joint naval exercise in the Gulf of Oman were carried out by Iran, Russia and China late in December, and Chinese and Russian authorities have been especially vocal about Mr Soleimani’s assassination. A statement by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi insisted that China would stand with Iran ‘against unilateralism and bullying’.

China has become an increasingly popular partner for a range of states in the Middle East - its focus on non-interference, alleged opposition to the use of force to resolve international disputes, and its state led model of economic development make it an attractive partner for states in the region. It's approximately $125 billion worth of investments in the region make it a formidable economic force, perhaps more willing than ever to accompany its financial integration in the Middle East with an increasing security and diplomatic presence.

Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani (C) in Tehran, Iran on September 18, 2016 /AFP


Though Iran will hope that is erstwhile rivals will provide important backing in the event of more open conflict with the United States, Russia and China are aware of the risks that may come from too openly identifying themselves as supporters of the Islamic Republic.

China has become an increasingly popular partner for a range of states in the Middle East - its focus on non-interference, alleged opposition to the use of force to resolve international disputes, and its state led model of economic development make it an attractive partner for states in the region

Yet an increasing perception of China and Iraq as more collaborative partners may pay dividends elsewhere in the region. As Iraq looks for new security and economic partners, China may become an increasingly important ally.

In September, Iraqi PM Adel Abdul Mahdi revealed that his country was signing on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, whilst the Commander of Iraq’s PMF, Qais al-Khazali claims on his YouTube channel after Mr Soleimani’s assassination, that ‘the Iraqi government can provide military support and advice without depending on other sources’, citing Russia and China as important future partners. Shi’a lawmakers in Iraq’s commitment to rid their country of American forces may bring questions of future security to the fore over the coming months.

Russia and China have both increasingly positioned themselves as defenders of sovereignty and international law in the Middle East and both have expressed interest in recent days for matching their words with actions. Reports have emerged in recent days that Russia and China have both offered to arm Iraq with S400 Air Defences. A statement issued by the Kremlin asserted that the possession of long-range surface to air missile systems would help ‘ensure the country’s sovereignty and reliable protection of its airspace’.

Reports have emerged in recent days that Russia and China have both offered to arm Iraq with S400 Air Defences. A statement issued by the Kremlin asserted that the possession of long-range surface to air missile systems would help ‘ensure the country’s sovereignty and reliable protection of its airspace’.

As America becomes increasingly associated with violations of international law and putting its own interests above those of its allies and partners, it may find itself outfoxed by more savvy international rivals in a region where its supremacy is increasingly subject to competition. China and Russia may yet prove the beneficiaries of America’s penchant for unaccountable and rash foreign policy decision making.


The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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