“When I started to think about what the Middle East looked like from Beijing, the place suddenly looked very different.”
The Chinese Communist Party is seeking to, step by step, dominate the Middle East, says Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Doran—from building ports in strategic locations to expanding its naval presence in the region.
“They’re positioning themselves to be able to threaten the two major chokepoints for energy in the region,” Doran says. And they’re building a strategic alliance with Iran.
And while the world’s eyes are fixed on the Hamas–Israeli conflict, Iran is “piggybacking” on the conflict to weaken Israel, says Doran.
Jan Jekielek: Mike Doran, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Mike Doran: Great to be here. Thank you.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s been a long time; I’ve been wanting to do this for a while. You’ve written some pretty incredible pieces looking at the Iran deal, recently in your piece in Tablet Magazine, “The Realignment.” But I’m actually really, really interested in another piece that you wrote last year, where you made some pretty fascinating connections between Iran and China, common interests that they might share that may not be obvious to everybody. Of course today, we’re also going to talk a little bit about what’s happening in Israel, but let’s start there. Let’s talk about what you discovered in terms of these connections between China and Iran.
Mr. Doran: When I started to think about what the Middle East looked like from Beijing, the place suddenly looked very different, and the dynamics that were going on in the region took on a very different characteristic. I would liken it to the first time I saw a map of the world that wasn’t from a Mercator projection. It makes you put things together in a different way.
Most of the experts, I think actually all of them, as far as I could tell, were saying that the United States and China had the same interests in the Middle East, and that China was very comfortable with the American order. In fact, it was a free rider on the American order, because all China wanted to do was extract resources from the Middle East.
It didn’t want to become part of the political conflicts, the really divisive political conflicts; it wanted to do business with everyone on all sides of every conflict. And so, it was staying out of the security questions, and we started to see the Middle East as an extension of the contest with the United States for global primacy, but more directly an extension of the East Asian theater.
The Chinese want to push off beyond the first island chain. They feel sort of hemmed in, as you know well, by all of their adversaries in East Asia. All of their adversaries, every last one of them, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, they’re all dependent on Middle Eastern oil. China is dependent on Middle Eastern oil. China’s supply lines are highly vulnerable. The Chinese are dependent on oil that either comes from the Middle East or comes through the Middle East.
Their supply lines are exposed, but so are their enemies’. So, if China is thinking in terms of the possibility of war in East Asia or with India, they’re automatically going to think about their energy resources, their own energy resources and the resources of their adversaries.
And then another fact, that they’re in a global contest with the United States, they’re in a contest in East Asia with the United States. As the dominant power in the Middle East, the Chinese are vulnerable to the United States. They can’t like that; It has to bother them. They’re in a contest with the United States, so, they have to want to supplant the United States in the Middle East.
On the other hand, the conventional wisdom about there being overlapping interests between the United States and China in the Middle East is not entirely wrong. The Chinese do benefit from the American order, they do want calm, they do want a steady supply of oil, and so forth.
So there’s a kind of contradiction at work in their policy. On the one hand, they want to supplant America. On the other hand, they’re benefiting from it. And so, the goal of their policy is to manage that contradiction, and that’s the context in which I understand the Chinese-Iranian relationship.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, there were a few things in reading this article, which I recommend to people. It’s really a good long form deep read that covers all sorts of areas. You describe it as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, right? There is this specific corridor that runs from the port of Gwadar, which is of course in Pakistan, relatively close to the Iranian border just outside the Persian Gulf, right up into Xinjiang. This was a new piece of information. You described that as a crown jewel I believe of the Belt and Road Plan. Explain this to me a bit.
Mr. Doran: So, one of the things that the Chinese want to do is from that port in Gwadar, they want to go—Pakistan is their ally, and they’re turning Pakistan into an economic corridor. In fact, that is the jewel in the crown of the Belt and Road Initiative, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. They want to bring not just energy resources but also just goods from the port in Gwadar and then run them up to China through Pakistan.
And that will significantly shorten their supply lines, particularly their energy supply lines, and will also harden them so that they’re not as vulnerable to attack. In other words, you don’t have to take oil all the way through the Straits of Malacca, and then all the way up to the China Coast. You can just run it up through Central Asia.
The problem is that the Uyghurs are sitting right at the entry point from Pakistan into China, and you don’t want a restive minority at such a strategic juncture, where you’re bringing in all of those resources.
Mr. Jekielek: Or such is the mentality of the Chinese Communist Party?
Mr. Doran: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. And what do you get? So you get genocide?
Mr. Doran: Right. People are aware of the genocide, but they’re not connecting it to this push that the Chinese are making to the Middle East. The Middle East is the second most important region to China after East Asia.
Mr. Jekielek: Right. And this is very much not the conventional wisdom as you described earlier, but is this changing?
Mr. Doran: I think so. We were very heartened by the response to the article. It got a lot of attention. I don’t know how much the conventional wisdom has shifted. I was disappointed to hear when Secretary of State Blinken was in Anchorage meeting with his Chinese counterpart. He said to him that the United States and China have, I can’t remember the exact words he said, but basically we have the same interests with respect to the Middle East. Oh, he said it with respect to Iran.
With respect to Iran, we have the same interests. That’s even worse than saying in the Middle East, because I think on Iran, China and the United States have diametrically opposing interests as far as I’m concerned.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. Well, we’ll have to dig into that a little bit momentarily. I want to look a little more into the relationship between China and the Middle East. So, you’ve described the U.S.—I don’t know if this is the right way to say it, because I don’t know enough—but you’ve described basically the status quo that the U.S. has created in the Middle East as a kind of security system, right? And you’re saying that China actually is looking to have a different security system, ultimately. So, can you expand on that please?
Mr. Doran: They want to supplant America eventually. They want to become the dominant power in the Middle East, but they’re not in any rush to do that, because the disparity in power is such that if they were to rush it, then it would make the attainment of the goal harder, possibly because America might begin to fight back. So, what they’re doing I think, as part of their strategy is, one, just laying down. I call it laying down capabilities.
They are doing it in the most innocuous way possible. One way for example is, peacekeeping in Africa. So that it’s not in the Middle East, it’s in Africa. It’s peacekeeping, but what they’re doing is, they’re developing an expeditionary military capability.
They built a port in Djibouti. That should have been a huge wake up call for the United States, and it wasn’t, because when they built the port in Djibouti, it was regarded by the American Navy as a beneficial thing because the goal of American policy traditionally has been to turn China into a responsible stakeholder. The Chinese came in as part of an international effort to suppress Somali piracy. So, this was seen as a good thing for the global commons.
The military was aware that these capabilities could eventually be turned against us. They saw the initial intentions as a positive thing. Today, the Chinese are turning the port in Djibouti into—they’re upgrading the port so that it can handle an aircraft carrier.
So, clearly they’re thinking about projecting power. By the way, the base in Djibouti is the first base outside of China that they’ve ever built, which also tells you something. More or less, I think they had a base in North Korea once or something, but in recent times, this is the only base they’ve had outside of their traditional area of interest along the China Coast. So, it tells you something about their intentions.
Now, that base also got coded in the American mindset as an African base because it’s in Djibouti, but Djibouti is 20 miles from Yemen, and it guards the Bab-el-Mandeb, the strait that guards the approaches to the Suez Canal from the Indian ocean. The Chinese are also building what has been called their String of Pearls, those are ports all along the Indian ocean leading up to the Suez Canal. The last one in the String of Pearls is the port of Sudan, just across from Saudi Arabia.
The port in Djibouti is now clearly, I mean, this is a military base. The port in Gwadar in Pakistan is going to be a military base. It’s not yet, but it starts out being commercial and then one day we’re going to wake up and there’s going to be a Chinese naval presence there. And that’s within a relatively short distance from the Strait of Hormuz. So you have the Strait of Hormuz, where the Chinese are laying down capability near, and they’ve laid down capability right on the Bab-el-Mandeb.
So they’re positioning themselves to be able to threaten the two major choke points for energy in the region. And they’re also developing a strategic relationship with Iran. Their public messaging, their public diplomacy, is win-win China, happy Panda, we’re only interested in commerce; we have no strategic interests in the region, no military interests.
But they have a military relationship with Iran. Not just with Iran, also a growing military relationship with Russia. They’re running joint naval exercises with the Russians and the Iranians together in the Persian Gulf, and they are doing it at the moment of highest tension between the United States and Iran.
That’s clearly sending a signal to everyone that they are beginning to challenge us quietly, but what they do is they put the Iranians and the Russians forward, so that the Iranians, especially the Iranians, are openly challenging the American security system in the region. The Chinese are quietly supporting them behind the scenes, using them as a stalking horse, never announcing that they’re using Iran and that they’re joining with Iran to undermine the American order. But that’s the effect that their actions are having.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, it’s very interesting. It reminds me a little bit of the development of these reefs in the South China Sea, where at the beginning: oh, no, it’s not going to have anything to do with the military. And fast forward to today, you actually have significant military buildup, and you have claims, “Look, this is our land. These are our waters as well.” It’s an odd misdirection that’s hard for people to understand repeatedly.
Mr. Doran: I don’t think it’s hard for them to understand. I think it’s in the nature of appeasement. You go back in the 1930s and looking at appeasement in the ‘30s, it’s not that people are stupid or don’t see it or hoodwinked a little bit maybe here and there, but that they want to be hoodwinked because they know that if they say it’s a problem, then they have to do something about it, and they don’t want to do anything about it.
It’s easier to tell yourself a story that it’s not really a problem, because it saves you the hassle of having to take actions that get you involved in a conflict that you just don’t want to have.
Mr. Jekielek: What is the end game in this? What would the final security system that the Chinese want look like in your mind, based on what you know now?
Mr. Doran: I think it’s really early days yet, and it’s going to—we’re much further into the process and into the competition with the Chinese than I think people were aware, but we’re not so far along that we can see the possible end games. A lot depends on how we play our hand. It’s my belief that the policy of the Biden administration, which I see as a continuation of the Obama administration, to engage Iran, to go back to the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, is we are strengthening Iran and we’re creating a rod for our own back.
We’re moving away from our traditional allies, strengthening Iran and therefore strengthening the Chinese. For example, to put it in a more concrete terms, when the Biden administration came in, it immediately indicated to strongly urged the Saudis to get out of Yemen, publicly castigated the Saudis, all but held them responsible for the war in Yemen, and for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen without ever making reference to the Iranians and to the role that the Iranians are playing, or even talking about the threat that the Iranians in Yemen pose to the United States and to America’s allies.
One of the first things they did, the Biden administration, was to lift the terrorist designation on the Houthis. What’s the response of the Houthis? They redoubled their effort, their campaign on the ground, and they continued to lob or increased their attacks on Saudi Arabia from Yemeni soil.
The United States has tilted toward Iran in Yemen, has castigated its own ally, including morally castigated their own ally. The United States dredged up the Khashoggi report, which is two years old. No new information, no new developments, but the administration raised it.
Why? Not because it was so concerned about that murder, but because it wanted to justify, through moral argument, the pressure it was putting on Saudi Arabia to get out of Yemen and to justify then the tilt toward Iran. So, here you have China and Iran becoming strategic partners openly, engaging now openly and increasingly engaging in joint military and intelligence activity.
Iran is becoming a dominant player in Yemen. China has a military base 20 miles from Yemen in Djibouti. So, the United States in strengthening Iran, going back to the JCPOA, giving it hundreds of billions of dollars, is creating a Chinese-Iranian Alliance that can challenge the United States more effectively than if the United States just contained Iran. That’s what worries me.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s fascinating. And so, in this recent piece that you co-wrote called, “The Realignment,” I learned a lot more from your article about the rationale you see behind the strategy for the U.S. behind the Iran deal.
Mr. Doran: The argument of the piece that I wrote with Tony Badran, “The Realignment,” says that the Biden administration represents the third term of Barack Obama, and that it’s finishing what Obama started. Now, when most people think about what Obama started, they think of the JCPOA, the nuclear deal. But what we’re saying is no, actually what Obama had in mind is a new order in the Middle East, and the heart and soul of it is not the JCPOA. The JCPOA is one of the primary instruments by which he was creating this new order.
But if you go back and you read his interviews carefully, you can see that he’s really talking about a new order, not just a deal on the nuclear program but even more. If you look at some of the articles that have come out from people who were in the Obama administration who are now in the Biden administration, you can see that they’re very clearly talking about a new order and about using the same ideas that the Obama administration has to create that order.
And what the order is, I would call it a concert system with the United States and Iran working in partnership to stabilize the most troubled areas in the Middle East, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and so forth. And the model is the model that the Obama administration applied to Syria in 2014, 2015, when they brought the Iranians formally into the negotiations. The Obama administration put pressure on the Israelis and on the Turks to stay out of Syria, and then tried to stabilize it with the Iranians, believing that if it worked that way, it would be able to exploit the overlapping interest between the Iranians and the Americans, which the Obama-Biden people believe exists, and then stabilize these trouble areas.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re saying you don’t believe it exists.
Mr. Doran: Oh, it absolutely does not exist. This is a fanciful idea. The Islamic Republic is dedicated publicly, has been from its inception, to undermining the American order in the Middle East. The idea that we can actually work with it to stabilize anything is to me an outrageous idea, and I think it’s one that has been proven in the laboratory of real life. I think Obama tried to stabilize Iraq after he pulled the troops out of Iraq together with Iran. That failed. I think the effort to stabilize Syria with Iran failed.
Now the effort to stabilize Yemen with Iran is also going to fail, and it’s failing right in front of us. Now, they don’t openly admit that this is what they’re doing. They have now I think openly admitted through some of these articles, but they have sophisticated or clever communication tricks to pretend that they’re not actually trying to do this when they are. The problem with it is not only does it empower Iran but it weakens our allies.
Under the Trump administration’s efforts to contain Iran, our allies were working together, and we were facilitating the allies working together, and we were coming in behind the allies and strengthening them. We’re now breaking up the allies, so that each one is on its own against Iran and Iran’s proxies while strengthening Iran. So, what this policy is doing is strengthening Iran and then downgrading our allies in American foreign policy.
Mr. Jekielek: Mike, why the alleged subterfuge here? Why is this hidden as you’re describing behind this messaging and so forth?
Mr. Doran: I think for a couple of reasons. One is simply the politics of this. This idea that Iran can be a partner to the United States has actually been in the national security elite for a long time. And not just among the Democrats. There’s long been a belief that the interests of Iran and the United States overlap.
Take for example, the Reagan administration. You remember that Ollie North and Bud McFarlane, the former National Security Advisor for Reagan, went on a special mission for Reagan to Tehran with a cake and a Bible, that was one of the things that became famous. It was part of the Iran-Contra scandal, and in particular the scandal of arms for hostages. So, they went to to Tehran and they took arms for the Iranians, who then were fighting the Iraqis in the Iran-Iraq war, and then in return for the arms, the Iranians released hostages in Lebanon. These are hostages that Hezbollah, we weren’t calling them Hezbollah at that point, but Hezbollah had taken.
That became famous as a scandal because Reagan went on television and told the American people first that he had not traded arms for hostages, and then he went on a primetime address. I remember it very, very well. I was young and I thought he’s lying. How could he not know this? He said, “Oh, dear American people. I told you that I didn’t trade arms for hostages, but since then, I’ve investigated, and I have to tell you that although my heart and my best intentions tell me that I didn’t do this, the facts are otherwise, and I did.”
And I thought, how could it possibly be that he did this and didn’t know he was doing this? And I’m older and wiser now, and I’ve done things that I didn’t intend to do, and so I understand how that can happen. I’ve also worked in government and I can see how this sort of thing can happen. What Reagan thought he was doing, he thought he was making a very intelligent strategic play, and he was making a connection with the moderates in Tehran.
And when McFarlane and Ollie North landed in Tehran, they were met at the airport by, among others, Rouhani, the same Rouhani who’s now playing the moderate to the Americans for the Obama people and the Biden team. So, there’s something deep in the American National Security elite, a memory of the Shah, or just a sense that Iran is a large stable country, that wants to find the diplomatic formula that can turn this enemy into, if not an ally, at least a country that we can do business with.
And the Iranians are very clever. They understand this. A guy like Zarif, the foreign minister, he spent a lot of time in the United States, and he understands. He’s got a lot of information about the United States. He understands this longing in the national security elite for Iran the strategic partner.
And that’s where it starts with this, there’s a bipartisan tendency, but the Obama team took it to another level. It’s a sort of article of faith among them, not just that maybe we should test the possibility that maybe we can do a deal, but that the deal is there in their own minds. It’s obvious that we can do this with Iran.
It’s just down to us to show the willingness and then it will happen, and then we can stabilize the Middle East. They talk about it as if it’s crazy to want to try to contain Iran. This is ridiculous. Why would you ever want to do this? This is just going to lead to more turmoil. The smart way to stabilize the region is to work together with Tehran.
Mr. Jekielek: Again why this misdirection that you’re alleging here?
Mr. Doran: Because there’s this idea in the national security elite and the people who hold this idea. They think that they are sophisticated, unlike the rubes in the flyover states who think that a country that says it’s dedicated to the destruction of the United States is an enemy and should be treated as an enemy. And unlike the ideologically motivated elements in our society like the supporters of Israel or the evangelicals. There’s a great example of if you see yourself as a sophisticated guardian of the national interest, and then you see the evangelical community that is saying, “No, no Iran is an enemy,” in our culture, those people feel more sophisticated.
And the Iranians are very clever. They whisper to those people, and they say, “We understand each other, we’re men of affairs, we’re men of the world, and we understand that often enemies or countries that are in conflict with each other have shared interests. We can exploit those shared interests together.”
But the people who believe this in the United States, they understand that if they openly admit to what they’re doing, they’re going to have a political problem at home, because a very large percentage of the American public thinks that Iran is an enemy. Why? Because Iran tells us it’s an enemy all the time. We have a lot of evidence for that. So, they have to have these cute little tricks to hide it from the public.
Mr. Jekielek: So, when I was reading your piece on the “realignment,” it struck me like I got some deeper insight into what’s happening in this current Israel-Hamas conflict that we’re seeing. Why don’t you tell me how you see that? I think that’s on everybody’s mind right now.
Mr. Doran: Sure. If it’s okay with you, let me tell you the conventional take and then I’ll add my value, if that’s okay.
Mr. Jekielek: Please.
Mr. Doran: The conventional take, which I don’t think is wrong, is that this conflict between Israel and Hamas is started. Hamas attacked Israel because Hamas is looking to supplant Fatah—that’s the organization of Mahmoud Abbas, the President of Palestinian authority—as the leading element in Palestinian politics. It wants to become the dominant representative of the Palestinians among the Palestinians first and foremost, but then also with regard to the outside world.
Mahmoud Abbas, he’s old, he will not be the leader of Palestinian authority much longer. He was going to hold elections. He canceled the elections because he knew Hamas was going to win. And so, Hamas has ginned up a claim that Jerusalem is under threat. The holy places of Islam are under threat, the Jews want to take control of the Islamic holy places. And it is presenting itself at the current moment as the defender of Jerusalem among the Palestinians, and it wants to use that conflict in order to sideline Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, his organization.
I don’t think that’s wrong. I don’t think that’s wrong at all. But I think there’s an additional element here, which is the Iranian element. Iran is the primary supplier of weaponry and weapons technology to Hamas, and I think it may be the sole supplier actually. And there’s also Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran, which is also operates in Gaza and works in an Alliance with Hamas.
And so, Iran is piggybacking on the Israel-Hamas conflict in order to weaken Israel. What Iran wants to do is, it wants to return the Palestinian question to the center stage in Middle Eastern politics. The Trump administration sidelined the Palestinians, and it moved instead in the Arab-Israeli arena toward peace between Israel and the Gulf states through the Abraham Accords.
The Abraham Accords had four main participants, overt participants. That’s the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Now, all of those states are either subordinate to or very close to Saudi Arabia. So the Abraham Accords were really a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Now, for all kinds of reasons, Saudi Arabia wasn’t ready to go public with this, but that’s what was happening. The next logical step was for the United States to work for a more overt, open normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
This was a very wise thing to do for two reasons. One, it would help contain Iran. But number two, it would—Saudi Arabia is the most influential Arab country. It’s also the guardian of the holy places of Islam to which every Muslim in the world prays toward every five times a day. Millions of Muslims make pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia every year.
If that country has a normal relation with the Jewish state, it changes the attitude of all Muslims, has a significant impact and influence on all Muslims. And in fact, changes the relationship between Islam and the other religions, not just Jews but also Christians. I mean, the radical Islam, whether in its Shiite form coming out of Iran or in its Sunni form in groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, says that all non-Islamic influences in Muslim societies should be eliminated. This is by definition an attack, an assault on radical Islam of that kind.
This was the wisest thing for the United States to do, but the Biden administration turned its back on that option and instead strengthened Iran, which is the leader. It’s either the direct leader of all of the most malignant forces in the Middle East, or its interests are aligned with those forces. So this is a step backwards to strengthen Iran.
Iran recognizes the opportunity that the Biden policy is giving it, and it sees the opportunity to elevate the Palestine question again and to burst up the Abraham Accords, and in a sense the Biden administration and Iran have a shared interest in bursting up the Abraham Accords. I’m not saying that the Biden administration is consciously working with the Iranians to do this, but that’s the effect.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. There was a lot of interest and a lot of excitement, frankly, about these relationships that were fostered in the past years. So, you expect all of this to basically go by the wayside?
Mr. Doran: I think that the Abraham Accords will continue as there’s new economic relations being formed between the UAE, for example, and Israel that are of mutual benefit to both sides. There’s no reason to scrap them, and there is no threat to the Biden administration from those economic ties, but the Abraham Accords were built as an instrument of Saudi-Israeli rapprochement, built on the notion of containing Iran.
And so, the administration does not want that at all. It’s not going to build on the Accords, it wants them to kind of wilt, maybe not to completely die on the vine, but certainly not to grow and become more robust because if they did, then the Saudi-Israeli axis would become a lobby within the American alliance system for the containment of Iran. And the realignment that the Biden administration is carrying out is a repudiation of containment.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay, so what’s the end game here?
Mr. Doran: The end game, I don’t know how it ends, but I think that we’re definitely for the next four years going to have a very tense relationship between Israel and the United States. Because first of all, there’s the problem of the JCPOA. The administration claims that the JCPOA blocks all pathways to a nuclear weapon.
It’s not true. The JCPOA limits certain aspects of the Iranian nuclear program for a limited amount of time. But we know that they have a military program, a program to build a nuclear weapon. We know that big parts of that program have not been dismantled because of the JCPOA, and their research and development continues during the JCPOA.
So, their march toward a nuclear weapon is continuing even during this period of restrictions. That’s how the Israelis see it, that’s how the Saudis see it, that’s how America’s leading nuclear expert, David Albright, sees it. So, the Israelis are not going to accept the arguments of the Biden administration that this somehow blocks the pathways.
The Biden administration doesn’t believe that. It’s now talking about, “We need a longer and stronger nuclear deal.” It doesn’t offer any way to actually get that, but it’s rhetoric, it is admitting that the nuclear deal as it exists, doesn’t actually do the job that it was originally claimed to do. So, the Israelis are going to continue their clandestine program, their clandestine operations, to weaken the Iranian nuclear program, if not stop it completely.
But the United States is cutting a deal with Iran over the nuclear program. So there’s going to be an effort by the United States to shut down Israel’s clandestine operations. Similarly, with regard to Israeli operations against Iran in places like Syria or on the high seas. Those are also going to become points of friction between the administration and Israel. How far the Israelis are going to take that is not clear.
A lot will depend on how the political crisis in Israel gets resolved. If Prime Minister Netanyahu remains the prime minister, then we know that there will be significant tension with the Biden administration, because we’ve already seen that movie under the Obama administration. If somebody else becomes prime minister, they may not have the appetite for friction with Washington. We’re just going to have to watch it and see. However it develops, it’s not going to be a pretty picture.
Mr. Jekielek: Now, what about the Chinese question here? How is China involved or not involved or just watching from your perspective under the Chinese Communist Party?
Mr. Doran: China is building up Iran through purchases of oil, and now there’s this new or enhanced military to military relationship. They don’t have to actually take strong positions on any of the conflicts to benefit from the rise of Iranian power, because what happens naturally is that countries that want to limit the Iranians are going to be going to Beijing to talk about that.
As long as the United States is actually working with China to build up Iran, which is what the Biden administration is doing, whether it thinks it’s doing that or not. That means that a country like Saudi Arabia which feels threatened by Iran, is going to have to look to Beijing and to Washington simultaneously to try to moderate the Iranians. That’s by definition, a weakening of the American security system.
When you force your allies to go to a rival Capital to look after their interests, then you weaken yourself. Obama did this in Syria when he created the conditions for the Russian-Iranian Alliance in Syria, and all of a sudden you found that the Israelis and the Turks had to go to Moscow to try to work with the Russians to moderate the Iranians in certain ways.
We’re going to have a similar kind of erosion with regard to Beijing. We have to watch closely. Beijing has an eye on Israel, because the Chinese want to become the leading—we know from the Made in China 2025 program, that the Chinese want to become the leader in the most technologically advanced industries, those industries that they think are going to be crucial to economic advancement over the next century, and also to military advancement over the next century. They want to become the leaders.
They look at Israel, and they see Israel as a cyber superpower. It’s one of the leading powers in artificial intelligence. Militarily, it’s very advanced. It has a unique vantage point into the American military and the American military industries. If China can pull Israel away, that will be a strategic prize for them. One of the biggest prizes in the Middle East for them, actually, given their view of the importance of artificial intelligence and technology.
Mr. Jekielek: I just find it difficult to imagine how the Chinese could convince Israel that they are benevolent given, again, we were just talking about the genocide in Xinjiang as a tool of power, so to speak.
Mr. Doran: I don’t think they’re convincing anyone that they’re benevolent, but you look already in the Muslim world, everyone knows that they’re committing genocide against fellow Muslims. How much outcry is there in the Muslim world about it? There’s much more outcry in the Muslim world today about Israel and Gaza. I’m sure that they paid attention to that in Beijing.
I’m sure that they’re actually doing everything they can to make sure that there’s more attention given to that than to the genocide that they are carrying out. But China is now the number one trading partner of every country in the Middle East with the exception of Israel, and in Israel, depending upon how you calculate it, it’s number three or number two. So, everyone is feeling the power of China.
They use their economic power as a tool of coercion. So nobody wants to get on the wrong side of Beijing. The advantage the United States has over China in the Middle East, is America’s hard power and the vulnerabilities of China’s supply lines in the Middle East.
Now, America’s hard power advantage is going to last for a long time, for some time to come, and China’s vulnerability is not going away. They can take mitigating steps, but the vulnerability is going to remain. That’s a great strategic advantage for the United States, and it shouldn’t squander it.
Unfortunately, when it works with China to build up Iran, it is squandering it, and it’s putting its allies in a position where if they want to moderate the Iranians, then they have no choice but to go to Beijing. They’re not going there with any illusions, they’re going there out of necessity. What we should be doing is making sure that they don’t have that necessity. The problem with the Biden administration’s policy is it actually creates the necessity.
Mr. Jekielek: Wow. A lot of information to take in here from all sorts of international actors. Any final thoughts before we finish up?
Mr. Doran: I think it’s important to realize that this realignment toward Iran is as much a domestic policy as it is a foreign policy. That’s part of the answer to a question you asked before about, why all these communication tricks? Why are they not admitting what they’re doing and trying to stabilize the region with Iran? Well, part of it is because what they are really doing is simply appealing to the progressive base in the United States.
They have created a mythology about the Middle East, which says that the evangelical Christians together with the neoconservatives together with security-minded Republicans are making common cause with Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and Bibi Netanyahu, characters that the progressives in America hate anyway. And they’ve created a kind of war coalition that is dragging America into war, and that is making the conflicts in the Middle East worse. And so, the way to bring about peace is to distance the United States from Mohammed bin Salman and the Israelis, and to reach out to the Iranians.
It creates this imagery of our traditional allies as the camp of war, and the Iranians not so much as the peace camp, but as the targets of diplomacy, the objects of diplomacy. And the progressives want to believe, or they do believe, that they have an alternative to traditional military containment, military deterrence, hard power, that there’s a diplomatic alternative to these hard power solutions to a country like Iran.
That’s part of the explanation for why some of this thinking, which is really bad international analysis, is so attractive, because it has an inherent attraction among the woke in the United States. That’s another place where you can see an overlap between Chinese interests and this policy, because I think woke, the rise of progressivism in the United States, works very much to the advantage of the Chinese globally.
Mr. Jekielek: Mike Doran, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Doran: It’s been great to be here. Thank you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.