August 2021

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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In August, the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan almost completely monopolized the attention of Chinese media and commentators.This is why this issue of the ChinaMed Observer is shorter than usual. However,this does not mean that we did not find some interesting commentary.

We begin with the review of how Chinese experts discussed the election of Ebrahim Raisi to the Iranian presidency after winning 62% of the vote in the first round. In general, the assessment of how the situation will evolve under Raisi, both at the domestic and foreign policy levels, is not very positive. Liu Zhongmin, a professor and senior scholar at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University, published along article in The Paper about this.[1] According to Liu, a country in Iran’s situation must open up both domestically and externally but Iran’s ideological system is an obstacle to that. Both the openness of the government and, especially, the support to the economy that Raisi promised during the electoral campaign will have hardly materialized. Liu believes that the strong influence of religion and anti-Western sentiments on its foreign policy will prevent any real integration of Iran with the rest of the world. The lack of economic resources will undermine the attempts to reduce the economic pressure on the weakest social groups. Liu writes that this contradiction between Iran’s national interests and ideology is at the basis of the cyclical alternation of conservatives and reformists in power. The formers are more sensitive to the needs of the poor, and gain legitimacy from their ideological fervor. However, their policies need economic resources that can be obtained only through better relations with the world, which is something that ideology makes very difficult. As to the reformists, they have historically proven unable to make real progress in opening their country up, thereby leading to the rise of popular discontent and their fall from power. Liu arguesthat Raisi is meant to be groomed to replace Ali Khamenei as supreme leader of Iran. Therefore, this is the beginning of a new long cycle of “helpless” conservative rule. Liu Lanyu, an expert on Iran at Tsinghua University, and Fan Hongda, a colleague of Liu Zhongmin at SISU, told to Xinhua that Raisi’s Iran will focus on strengthening the relations with neighbors, as well as countries like China and Russia.[2] Interestingly, Liu’s article mentions the same but his assessment suggests that this will not be enough for Iran.

Tang Zhichao, instead, put forward a somewhat more optimistic view about Iran’s situation.[3] Although he agrees with the other just-mentioned scholars about the fact that tensions between Iran and the United States will not decrease, he wrote that“time is on Iran’s side,” at least when it comes to the future of the nuclear deal. Despite the serious economic and social problems, Tang argues that Bidenis more concerned with the resumption of the agreement than Iran. This is because the economic pain inflicted by the sanctions has been normalized andIran can survive it. On the contrary, Biden made reviving the nuclear deal a key element of his foreign policy platform during the past elections. Moreover,he needs to complete the refocus of American energies on China as soon as possible, and this requires stabilizing the relations with Iran while ensuring that Israel will not make hasty moves that could further undermine the negotiations. That said, Chinese scholars argue that the relations between the United States and Israel are at a crossroads, and, though Naftali Bennett’s foreign policy will remain similar to that pursued by Benjamin Netanyahu,Israel’s behavior will somehow be more cautious over both Iran and the Palestinian issue.[4]

The changes that are taking place in the region should be seen against the background of a shift in the role played by the United States,from constructive to destructive.[5] This is the main trend in American behavior in the Middle East and North Africa since 2011, argues Liu Zhongmin. Motivated by what Wang Jin, a scholar at Northwestern University, describes as thirst for power and a strong feeling of cultural superiority, the United States has expanded and protected its interests in those regions through (failed) armed promotion of Western democracy in those regions. Today, as that strategy has clearly failed, the United States has given up any attempt to stabilize the region but this does not mean that it is really withdrawing from there. Rather, the contradiction between wanting to reduce the strategic investment in the region, and preserving regional dominance have made the United States less inclined to adopt an impartial position in regional disputes, as well as emboldened regional actors, such as Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia to pursue more independent foreign policies that risk causing more instability and conflict. Other experts expressed similar positions and ideas about both the motivations and outcomes of American actions, as well as the fact that the United States will surely plan to ensure that it can continue to exercise influence in those regions.[6] The assessment that Western countries’ attempts to protect their hegemonic rolehave not only failed, but also greatly contributed to the rise of instability also holds in the case of France in Mali as the French President, Emmanuel Macron,announced the end of Operation Barkhane in the Sahel in early June.[7] Journalists of The Paper published a scathing account of the French failure to stop terrorism and stabilize Mali.

[1] Liu Zhongmin, Lái xī láile: Bǎoshǒu pài qiángshì huíguī, yīlǎng néng fǒu tiàochū tǐzhì zhī kùn 莱希来了:保守派强势回归,伊朗能否跳出体制之困 [Raisi is here: Can Iransolve its structural problems with the return of the conservatives?], The Paper, August 6, 2021, link.

[2] Wang Shoubao, Miànlín nèiwài tiǎozhàn yīlǎng xīn zǒngtǒng néng fǒu pòjú 面临内外挑战 伊朗新总统能否破局 [Can the new Iranian president make a breakthrough as he faces internal and external challenges?], Xinhua, August 3, 2021, link.  

[3] Tang Zhichao, Tángzhìchāo: Dāngxīfāng zāoyù lái xī, chōngtú huì shēngjí ma 唐志超:当西方遭遇莱希,冲突会升级吗 [Tang Zhichao: Will the conflict escalate as the West meets with Raisi?], Global Times, August 9, 2021, link.

[4] Zhang Quan, Yǐsèliè zǒnglǐ jiāng fǎng měi, yòu dǎ yīlǎng pái? 以色列总理将访美,又打伊朗牌? [The Israeli Prime Minister visits the United States, will he play the “Iraniancard”?], Liberation Daily, August 25, 2021, link.

[5] Jia Pingfan, Zhìzào dòngluàn, shì měiguó wéichí zìjǐ zài zhōngdōng lìyì de shǒuduàn 制造动乱,是美国维持自己在中东利益的手段 [Creating chaos is the way the United States protects its interests in the Middle East], People’s Daily, August 14, 2021, link.

[6] Jia Pingfan, Fādòng liǎng chǎng zhànzhēng, měiguó huǐle liǎng gè guójiā 发动两场战争,美国毁了两个国家 [The United States ruined two countries by starting two wars], People’s Daily, August 12, 2021, link.

[7] Wang Lunyu and Yu Xiaoxuan, Chèjūn mǎlǐ,“fàguó de āfùhàn” zhī shāng? 撤军马里,“法国的阿富汗”之殇? [Withdrawal from Mali, the end of “France’s Afghanistan”?], The Paper, August 12, 2021, link.

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Published with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation pursuant to art. 23-bis of Presidential Decree 18/1967. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
Published with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation pursuant to art. 23-bis of Presidential Decree 18/1967. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
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