As the US begins to enforce what are possibly the strongest on Iran to date, headlines have been dominated by the of the Trump administration and Tehran. This comes on the heels of Washington’s from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, alongside Britain, France, Russia and China.
While the most recent round of sanctions aims to put further pressure on Tehran for and to support , such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, they also have an indirect beneficiary in the form of the US’s biggest global rival, China.
And this has wider implications for the region.
The Middle Kingdom meets the Middle East
While Chinese imports of Iranian oil have initially experienced a slight , it is possible that this is one of Beijing’s ploys to see whether deals serving China’s interests are offered by an increasingly isolated Iran. For while Iran has been receptive to Chinese investment in the past, it has equally sought European investment to this out and to prevent China from playing too dominant a role in the country. The sanctions have now made China’s dominance all the more likely.
China increasingly is building its in a region that has traditionally been dominated by the US. This may see Tehran become more amenable to Chinese global initiatives, such as the Belt and the Road Initiative () and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation ().
But while these moves follow the common pattern of Chinese foreign policy, most notably Beijing’s willingness to take and conduct business in shunned nations, they have wider implications for the region and the wider world.
The way of Mao
Beijing has long been adept at developments in the international system for its own benefit – and Iran is the latest example of this. In this case, it is filling the void left by that have been scared off by the threat of sanctions.
This raises questions about the of sanctions at a time when they have become a cornerstone of the Trump administration’s diplomatic arsenal. While there have been cases of sanctions being successful, most notably in apartheid rule in South Africa, they have changing state behaviour in recent years.
But possibly the most significant implication is how sanctions have led to widespread , whereby the dominant global status of the dollar has been challenged. Since sanctioned states are no longer attached to the established system, it is easier for them to adopt an alternative way of operating. An example is the – whereby China’s oil imports have been priced in yuan rather than in dollars – which has been adopted by oil-rich states targeted by sanctions, most notably and . The sanctions on Iran will only exacerbate this process.
The Petro Yuan is evidence that China is challenging the established US-centric system and seeks to provide an . This is reminiscent of strategies for guerrilla warfare, where an insurgent seeks to make the government irrelevant over a long period of time before overthrowing it. By building ties with sanctioned nations and creating , China is deploying a similar strategy on a global scale in an effort to bypass the the US.
As a result of this, there has also been wider , such as in . There, China is poised to play a role in rebuilding the country alongside Russia’s military assistance to it, having found common ground in their concerns over Islamic militancy .
Russia and China were also signatories of the Iran deal and have been dissatisfied with Washington’s abandonment of it. Trump’s present strategies have often been described as a “”, seeking further ties with Russia to counter China. But the situation in Iran is more likely to see China and Russia jointly the US.
By withdrawing from the deal, Trump has also split the Western world and while it is easy to turn Iran away from the table, it will be tougher to get it back there.
As a result of these developments, China has become one of the wild cards of the Middle East, challenging and changing the established system there. This also questions the utility of sanctions in the long-term since nations under longstanding sanctions are more open to alternative systems.
By providing an alternative, China seeks to challenge the established system by making it irrelevant. While China has abandoned Mao’s ideology, his strategies continue to be influential.
While the sanctions were seen as an attempt to preserve American dominance in the region, they will have consequences that will indirectly challenge this. This is one US play that could badly misfire.
(This story has been published in an arrangement with The Conversation.)
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