China, Russia and US: New Power Dynamics in Middle East After Soleimani’s Death

Iraq emerges as a new battleground of geopolitical opportunities
By Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya reports on wide range of issues. Her area of expertise is in Indian and South Asian geopolitics. She has reported from the very volatile India-Pakistan border and has contributed to mainstream print media in India for about a decade. Community media, sustainable development, and leadership remain her key areas of interest.
January 12, 2020Updated: January 15, 2020

The power dynamics in the Middle East after Qassim Soleimani’s death are likely to be redrawn between Iran, China, and Russia vis-a-vis the United States. Added to this paradigm is Iraq—sandwiched between the United States and Iran and increasingly being pushed toward China, according to geopolitical analysts who study the region.

“Frankly, the Iranian government will remain closer to Beijing than ever before. Because Tehran knows well that Russia could not be the only balance of power vis-à-vis the American hegemony in the Middle East,” Esra Serim, a Turkish analyst based in France, told The Epoch Times in an email.

Serim believes that Tehran needs the presence and support of both Russia and China following Soleimani’s death to “counterbalance Washington and Tel-Aviv in the region.”

“In addition to the economic relationship between Iran and Russia/China, Tehran also has robust military relationships with them, such as transference of military technology and equipment, and even infrastructure services to Iran’s nuclear facilities,” she said of the already existing relationship.

Kanishkan Sathasivam, a Massachusetts based Geopolitical analyst, told The Epoch Times that he expects a notable improvement in Iran’s relationship with China after Soleimani’s death, but it’s Iraq that is a greater emerging opportunity for both China and Russia.

“I would expect a significant upgrade in their relations,” said Sathasivam.

“By contrast, Iraq is a more open opportunity because it is an adversary state [to] the U.S., whose influence China would be supplanting. So, my expectation is that both Russia and China will now make a huge play for influence with the Iraqi government, offering themselves as a viable alternative to the U.S.,” he said.

Sam Bazzi, a Lebanese Middle East expert based in the United States, told The Epoch Times in a written interview that both Iran and Iraq will increasingly need China after Soleimani’s death because only it can come to their rescue in the face of increasing U.S. economic sanctions.

Epoch Times Photo
A man holds a picture of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with Iranian Revolutionary Guards Gen. Qassem Soleimani (L) during a demonstration in Tehran on Jan. 3, 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)

“The advantage that China offers is its willingness to engage in barter and exchange oil for the implementation of major projects such as reconstruction, infrastructure development, and industrialization, at a relatively low cost (in terms of oil value),” he said.

China and Iran recently found another way of bypassing the U.S. sanctions—last year China signed a multi-decade oil-supply deal that would inject $280 billion in the Iranian petrochemical industry—all to be paid in Chinese Yuan, thus bypassing the established petrodollar system, reported The Telegraph.

China and Russia Diplomatically Shield Iran

In the situation emerging after Soleimani’s killing, China and Russia acted diplomatically in ways to dilute the United States’ posture against Iran because the United States killing the Iranian commander on Iraqi soil has strategic implications for them as well, explained experts.

A day after Soleimani’s killing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in his call with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, talked about China playing a constructive role in maintaining peace and security in the Middle East, according to Xinhua, China’s state-controlled news agency.

On Jan. 5, Wang also spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, to discuss the emerging state of affairs in the Middle East. Wang opposed the abuse of “military force” and cautioned the United States against “military adventurism,” reported the Turkish Anadolu Agency.

Sathasivam explained that China and Russia were quick to respond because the U.S. strategic deterrence posture against Iran impacts them. Strategic deterrence is a “politico-military posturing of capabilities (military power and technology) and doctrinal principles that represents the grand strategy of the nation,” according to the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis.

Sathasivam said that the United States had been rolling back its deterrence posture for some time, but things changed with Soleimani’s killing.

“The U.S. has been slowly giving up its deterrence posture against Iran for many years now, from the GW Bush years through especially the Obama years … What Trump has now (seemingly) done successfully is to reestablish deterrence with Iran,” he said.

“And yes, when you establish deterrence with one state, that also helps establish deterrence with other potential adversaries, for example, China, Russia, and North Korea,” he added.

Iraq Airport Attack
A photo released by the Iraqi Prime Minister’s Press Office shows a burning vehicle at the Baghdad International Airport following an airstrike, in Baghdad, Iraq, early on Jan. 2, 2020. (Iraqi Prime Minister’s Press Office via AP)

Sathasivam, however, added that we can’t conclude from these developments that China and Russia are ready to go to war with the United States over Iran.

“A key realist view is that states help one another when interests are common, but will usually be willing to fight wars only for their own interests and never for another state’s interests. Even Russia is not at the point yet in its relationship with Iran where it will go to war against the U.S. on behalf of Iran,” he said.

Serim, a Senior Researcher, Ph.D., at the University of Aix Marseille, is of the view that China intervened because it cannot afford war between the United States and Iran.

“Any war in the region could likely harm China’s present investments in the Middle East, notably in Iraq and Iran, as well as in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Egypt. Since right now, Beijing has become a major power and game-changer in the region. China wants to rise by implementing soft power in the region,” she explained.

So while China and its ally, Russia, condemned the New Year’s Eve attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the duo also blocked a U.N. Security Council statement condemning the attack because it didn’t address the subsequent killing of Soleimani.

“It is a classic realist approach to international relations. If the Russian or Chinese embassy had been attacked in this way these states would be outraged. But because it is something happening against their perceived adversary, they have a different reaction,” said Sathasivam.

Members the Hashed al-Shaabi smash embassay
Members of the Hashed al-Shaabi, a terrorist group trained and armed by Iran, smash the bullet-proof glass of the U.S. embassy’s windows in Baghdad with blocks of cement after breaching the outer wall of the diplomatic mission on Dec. 31, 2019. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)

Serim said China is a rising threat to Washington in the Middle East, the way it is in the Pacific region.

“Because, for many years, Beijing, unlike Moscow, has been an implicit ally of Iran. For example, Beijing and Tehran have still been holding joint naval and military exercises in Strait of Hormoz where oil/gas tankers have been transiting. This is in the open.”

In major developments before Soleimani’s death, China decided to invest $120 billion into Iran’s transport infrastructure and also decided to deploy 5,000 Chinese security personnel to guard the Iranian assets and shipments of oil on tankers en route from Iran to China, according to The Telegraph.

Serim is of the belief that U.S. allies don’t want to get involved in China’s military activities in the region because of their own economic interests and don’t want to “antagonize China.”

“Almost all of the U.S. allies are still doing business with China, as an alternative power to the U.S.,” she said.

Sathasivam said that every situation like this has its unique dynamics and that it always comes down to influence and power.

“In today’s Middle East, and, for that matter, today’s world, the U.S. has the vast majority of influence and power. So every other state that wants to become more powerful automatically targets the U.S., and we have the U.S. versus everyone else situation. If in the future the U.S. has less power and influence and these other states have more, then surely they will start competing with each other as well.”

Iraq Wants US Forces Out, Where’s China?

Since Soleimani was killed on Iraqi soil and because it hosts multiple U.S. military bases, by default it became the target of the Iranian missiles. After the strikes, the Iraqi government tried to distance itself militarily from the United States and talked more about China.

After Soleimani’s killing, the situation between Iraq and the United States developed to the point that the outgoing Iraqi prime minister, Adil Abdul al-Mahdi, asked U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a phone call on Jan. 9 to make plans for troop withdrawals.

The Iraqi government seriously started talking about American troop withdrawal on Jan. 5 when the Iraqi Parliament passed a non-binding resolution to expel foreign troops from the country. The very next day, al-Mahdi received China’s ambassador to Iraq, Zhang Tao, who expressed a readiness to provide military assistance to Iraq.

“The outgoing Iraqi PM met with the representative of a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to gauge Beijing’s intentions in the upcoming phase as he most probably anticipated a military escalation,” Joseph A. Kéchichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, told The Epoch Times in an email.

“In turn, China is interested in taking Abdul Mahdi’s pulse as the caretaker PM tries to figure out how he may salvage what’s left of his country’s sovereignty,” he said.

Members of the Iraqi parliament are seen at the parliament in Baghdad
Members of the Iraqi parliament are seen at the parliament in Baghdad, Iraq, on Jan. 5, 2020. (Iraqi parliament media office/Handout via Reuters)

The day al-Mahdi met Zhang, Iraq’s U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Hussein Bahr Aluloom called on the U.N. Security Council to condemn the U.S. airstrike and the killing of Soleimani and a senior Iraqi militia commander.

It condemned the U.S. airstrike that killed Iran’s top military commander as a “flagrant violation” of the terms of the American forces’ presence in the country and “a dangerous escalation that might ignite a devastating war in Iraq, the region and the world.”

Bazzi, who is also the founder of Hezbollah Watch, told The Epoch Times that the meeting between al-Mahdi and Zhang is not a high-level engagement.

“But it was amplified to highlight the Axis of Resistance countries’ collective desire and determination to resort to China as an alternative to the United States and nations that deal in only hard currency, particularly the U.S. dollar. This is consistent with Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s call upon Beirut to open the door to Chinese investments in Lebanon,” said Bazzi.

The Axis of Resistance refers to the anti-Western and anti-Tel Aviv alliance between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy militia in Lebanon. “Nasrallah alluded to Chinese investments even in his speech in the aftermath of Soleimani’s liquidation,” said Bazzi.

Serim also expressed similar insights about Iraq’s economic dependency on China after Soleimani’s death. “China has still been very willing to invest and play both an economic and political role in Iraq as well as making big investments, along with the European firms/banks in Iran,” she said.

Epoch Times Photo
American soldiers taking position around the embassy in the capital Baghdad on Dec. 31, 2019, after supporters and members of the Hashed al-Shaabi military network breached the outer wall of the diplomatic mission during a rally to vent anger over weekend airstrikes that killed pro-Iran fighters in western Iraq. (U.S. Embassy in Iraq/AFP via Getty Images)

Serim said that Iraq will use its relationship with China and Russia as a “trump card” and will try to use it to “jump over U.S. sanctions.”

She said despite sanctions, “Baghdad will speed up to make oil and trade deals with both Russia and China.”

Kéchichian, however, believes that the developments don’t indicate that the Middle East is looking for an alternative to the United States. “This is wishful thinking at best but everyone is entitled to be delusional,” he said.

The senior analyst, who has authored several books on Saudi Arabia, also said that both China and Russia would draw a cautionary line as they go about their affairs with Iran and Iraq.

“Time will tell whether China and Russia will set their own markers in the area. For now, it looks like a rejectionist front, though both countries—permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—know that their long-term interests are with the leading Western economic powers,” said Kéchichian.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.