The Future Of Middle East Peace Process, Extremism, And China-Iran Deal

Arab-Israel Normalization of Ties and US Middle East Policy

Context

With the normalization of ties between UAE, Bahrain and Israel, the so-called ‘Outside-In Approach’ to the Middle East Peace Process is now in full swing. Most GCC and Arab nations are on the way to normalizing of ties with Israel. This was predicted as regional situation dramatically shifted during the war against extremism, and as a consequence of Arab Spring. During this time, the threat perceptions of the Arabs have also gradually shifted away from Israel and towards Iran. What was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, transformed in to an Arab-Israeli conflict, and now appears to have become Arab-Israeli versus Iran conflict.

At an event hosted by Atlantic Council on May 7, 2015, PoliTact’s Chief Analyst Arif Ansar asked the former US special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations Martin Indyk, about how the Iranian nuclear deal and the US-Gulf partnership can help or hinder the Middle East Peace Process.

Martine Indyk replied that the prospects of a solution emerging from an ‘Inside Out’ approach i.e., from within Israel and Palestine, and independent of whatever else is going on in the Middle East, are not good. However, the potential for an ‘Outside In’ solution which has emerged because of the possible Iran nuclear deal and Israeli and Arab countries being on the same side, might emerge with positive response because of the new strategic alignment in the region.

The regional and global shift in the balance of power have also played a key role in this evolution – and caries critical implications for the South and Central Asia – and the strategic ties of India and Pakistan with the Gulf region – and for Afghan reconciliation and Kashmir quagmire by association. While there is a time during which the balance of power is in transition, obviously, there comes a time when the power shifts decisively and a new alignment starts to manifest. This is exactly what has transpired.

While PoliTact has been writing about the waning American influence in the non-Arab Islamic world, it had continued to maintain its sway in the Middle East and GCC. PoliTact has also recently contemplated and examined a scenario that explores why US would even want to maintain its presence in the Middle East – as it is now self-sufficient when it comes to energy needs. Moreover, if the region was left to implode, the global adversaries of China and Russia are likely to be more impacted.

And as such there is no direct threat from the region to the US, whether it be in the form of extremism or WMD. While no such weapons were discovered in Iraq, any such threat from Iran was curtailed as a result of Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) reached in 2015 but later scuttled by President Trump. An argument can be made that the US policy towards Middle East now is mainly driven by protecting its regional ally Israel – and in turn its present and future allies. These new Arab allies will now likely take the frontal role in protecting Israel and could also become the main battlefield.

Future of War Against Extremism

The most used term during the Bush and Obama administrations that is no longer as popular is the War against Extremism. Several questions can be raised on why that is the case. Was the campaign won, the extremist ideologies that led to 9/11 eliminated, or were the organizations such as Al Qaeda (AQ) and Daesh (ISIS) dismantled. Moreover, what happened to the allies that were leading the fight against terrorists? The examination of these inquiries reveals clues about the emerging scenarios.

While the war against extremism has transformed, the risks to the Israel’s Arab allies are only quadrupling. The threats posed by the global extremists, such as AQ and ISIS and their associates, are only going to magnify after normalizing of their ties with Israel. After all the very premise these groups have used to inspire is their lack of action on the causes such as Palestine – along with allowing western military presence.

In addition, the dynamics of Arab Spring have been further aggravated by circumstances created by the Coronavirus pandemic and has limited the maneuvering space for many Arab states. Decreasing reliance on US for energy resources have left them further vulnerable and amenable to external pressures.

Nearly two decades of war against extremism has transformed societies and galvanized them towards nationalistic and conservative leaderships, such as Tayyab Erdogan in Turkey and Imran Khan in Pakistan. The political leaders close to the West, or needing their support, are no longer considered viable.

Global Power Dynamics

While the extending regional threat from Iran has been playing out in places like Yemen, Lebanon and Syria, the prospective China-Iran economic and security deal is a different ball game altogether. It has indicated that like Russia backed the Syrian regime, China appears willing to do that for Iran. And this is occurring at a time when Trump administration has completely reversed course on the Iran nuclear deal. It has exerted maximum pressure on the country to renegotiate the deal; now to encompass its missile program, accompanied by stricter monitoring, and wider behavior in the region.

The potential $400 billion China–Iran treaty must have been an ominous development from the perspective of the Arabs and the US. However, the talks have been proceeding for a while, and as has been the ‘Outside-In Approach’ to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has become an active player in the Middle East with strategic ties with a number of regional players, to include Saudi Arabia. As its influence increases gradually, it could become an active interlocutor between Israel and the Palestinians, and other conflicts of the Middle East. However, it’s not clear if China desires to get involved in the security affairs of the region, like Russia has in Syria.

Speaking at the Saudi embassy in China in July on the occasion of the 30 anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties, Saudi Ambassador Turki M. A. Almadi commented: “our relations are all-round, multi-field, not only about bilateral trade and mutual investment, but also extended to cooperation in the fields of culture, science and technology, and health.”

Zhai Jun, China’s special envoy on Middle East affairs indicated at the occasion that the bilateral trade volume between the two nations stood at $78.04 billion at the end of 2019. He added Saudi Arabia was the largest supplier of crude oil to China, and also the Arab nations largest trading partner.

Chinese analysts close to the government present a case the nation wants to be more involved in providing economic support than to get involved in security affairs of the Middle East. Nonetheless, it has good political and military relations with both Iran and Israel. As part of BRI, China has been extending its trade relations with Israel and lately US has objected strongly to some of them citing security concerns – such as the Chinese company Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) running a container terminal at the Port of Haifa – near an Israeli naval base that is frequently visited by the US Sixth Fleet.

If the China-Israeli economic ties are allowed to strengthen uninhibited, overtime China will be able to build leverages that potentially can undercut US primacy in the affairs of the Middle East. The Israelis disagree on this, stating that the nature of its ties with China and the US are of totally different nature.

Conclusion

While Saudi Arabia has delayed recognizing the statehood of Israel, and Qatar remaining closer to Turkey, the shifting alliance of most GCC and Arab nations towards Israel and the US represents a decisive shift in the balance of power – that has serious costs associated with it. Adopting the threat perception that centers on Iran, and without any clear give and take on the Middle East Peace Process yet, is likely to revitalize the non-state actors.

While China has made an economic entry in the Middle East, it has not decided to influence the security affairs – other than under the umbrella of UN and for maritime security purposes. In Syria too, it has adopted a non-interventionist approach and has supported the Assad regime.

However, economic leverages will eventually lead to influences in other areas. And China would have to use its sway especially when it has the most to lose if a conflict breaks out in the region. One measure of if it’s heading in that direction would be the establishment of military bases, like the one in Djibouti, and potential militarization of Gwadar port. And in this context, the Iran-China economic and security deal takes on an added emphasis.