Soleimani’s Death: A Dilemma For The Chinese Communist Party

February 10, 2020 Updated: February 10, 2020
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Narration: An anti-government protest broke out in Iran after the downing of the Ukrainian airliner by the Irianian forces, it stood in stark contrast with the massive mourning of Soleimani a few days before. How do the Iranian people really feel?

Negar Mortazavi: It’s a very diverse and right now a very polarized country.

Simone Gao: So do you think Iran is on the verge of another revolution that could topple the regime?

Steve Bannon: it’s not going to happen overnight. But you’re seeing a new day dawn.

Narration: Soleimani was killed by American drone strikes, but who had been funding Iran’s terrorist operations?

Mr. Bannon: To me, the decisive factor there is the Chinese communist party because that’s what’s essentially keeping them alive.

Ms. Gao: So I think the worry is if the US gets dragged into regime change and nation building again, it won’t have enough energy to deal with the CCP challenge.

Mr. Bannon: I will tell you that President Trump will not get into nation building again.

Title: Soleimani’s Death: A Dilemma for China

Host: Welcome to Zooming In. I’m Simone Gao. Three weeks after a US drone strike killed Qasem Soleimani, the top commander of Iran’s foreign operations and the Quds Force, the US-Iran tensions are coming to a halt. Iran’s limited response came in the form of a barrage of missiles fired at U.S. bases in Iraq resulting no Iraqi or American deaths. The missiles were seen as a face-saving act designed to avoid escalation. Yet tensions within Iran have since escalated. Thousands came out to protest the government’s shooting down of a commercial airliner. They even called for the removal of the supreme leader. Is Iran on the verge of a revolution? Will America be dragged into another regional war? And what does China stand to benefit and lose from all of these? We explore these questions in today’s episode of Zooming In.

Part One: Is Iran on Verge of a Revolution

Narration: On Jan. 11, after three days of denial, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) finally admitted that it had shot down a Ukrainian plane killing all 176 passengers aboard in a “disastrous mistake”.

Among the passengers killed, 130 held Iranian nationality.

Since January 11, protestors and mourners have poured into the streets and universities of Tehran, as well as several other cities.

Protesters chanted “Where is justice?” and called for the removal of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Footage)

The anti-regime protests came in sharp contrast to the helicopter footage that showed huge crowds gathering in Iranian cities to mourn the death of Soleimani.

According to Iranian state TV, a million mourners marched onto the streets, weeping and holding portraits of Soleimani who was seen as a hero that defended Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.

Ironically, this “hero” was the same man who oversaw the deaths of more than 1,500 anti-regime protesters who demonstrated last November. Security forces including Soleimani’s Revolutionary Guards orchestrated the crackdown.

I spoke with Iranian American journalist Negar Mortazavi at a recent Arab Center event in Washington DC to find out how the Iranian people really feel.

Ms. Mortazavi: Well, there’s not one view. It’s a very diverse and right now a very polarized country of course. Soleimani belonged to the revolutionary guard, which was the hardliners. He was a very controversial figure when it comes to the view of the population. Part of the population is a fan of the core hardline base of the regime and part of the population hates IRGC.

Ms. Gao: What are the proportions?

Ms. Mortazavi: It’s hard to say there are no polls, but we know from the past two presidential elections that the majority voted for a moderate president. So there were hardliners running in the election and they didn’t win the majority of the vote. But is it an even split? I don’t think so. Is it a much bigger difference? Probably not. But again, um, some polling has shown that Qasem Soleimani was a fairly popular figure because as I explained in my talk, he was a commander who fought ISIS, the Islamic state, which was every Iranians nightmare. So not because of his other regional activities in Syria and Iraq, so many atrocities, but because of fighting this big enemy of the Iranian people, his support was beyond just a hardline base, this specific figure. So yes, you, we saw millions of people actually coming to this sheet to, and not only for his memorial, but also to condemn what they see as an aggression or as an escalation from the US that could lead to a potential war.

So there was this anti-war sentiment, also in Iranian street. And then at the same time there were anti government protests in November. And then just right now with the Downing of the civilian plane again by the IRGC was a major disaster, PR disaster, catastrophe, human disaster by the IRGC that people are protesting. So these forces are weighing in. Of course, when you come for the funeral for Qasem Soleimani, you have the safety, you have the security because it’s pro regime. When you’re protesting the hardliners, you’re basically risking your life, putting yourself in danger. So we’re going to see a smaller number that would actually exist. Um, but there’s these, you know, competing forces in the country for sure.

Narration: According to media reports, the regime launched a massive effort to mobilize as many people as possible for the funeral (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-51015795). It shut down government offices and schools, rallying students and demanding that government officials come out with their families. Free transportation was provided to round up scattered participants across the country.

Host: Steve Bannon was a young naval officer in the late 70s who was sent to Iran during the Iranian hostage crisis. He told me there is definitely a change in terms of how the Iranian people look at America.

Mr. Bannon: I’ve been there for a long time. I think here’s the huge difference. The most important thing of those protests last week was not simply the burning of the picture of General Soleimani. They had the American flag and they had the flag of Israel that the regime had put down for people to stomp on, painted on the floor as they usually do, and the young millennials avoided it.

They would not step on the American flag. They would not step on the Israeli flag. They said, “our problem here that’s holding us back from our freedom is not the United States, It’s not Donald Trump. It is people like General Soleimani, It’s Khamenei”, the Supreme leader of the Islamic Republic. It is the Mullahs that have taken away their freedom, just like it’s the CCP in China. Remember, the Chinese people are the most hardworking, decent people on earth. This is not about the American people versus the Chinese people, this is not even about America versus China. The Chinese Communist Party, the CCP uses China and its people as an instrument for its own self-gratification and the building of its own wealth. So I think you’re starting to see the people, whether it’s in Beirut against Hezbollah, whether it’s in Hong Kong against the CCP, whether it’s in Taiwan against the CCP, whether it’s in Tehran against the Mullahs, you’re seeing people, and particularly young people say, “I don’t want to do this anymore. And I don’t want to hear their lies. What I want. I want them gone. I want Liberty, I want freedom. I want the rule of law. And I want capitalism”.

Ms. Gao: So do you think Iran is on the verge of another revolution that could topple the regime?

Mr. Bannon: Listen, I think over time. Clearly the brutal repression you’re going to see is…I think there’s 1500 demonstrators that have been killed in the month of November and December. There’s obviously going to be brutal repression like there’s brutal repression in Hong Kong, like there’s brutal repression in mainland China, in these big cities when anybody tries to get up to protest. So it’s not going to happen overnight. But you’re seeing a new day dawn, right? You’re seeing a new day Dawn.

Bumper: Coming up, is massive military operation, nation building behind us? What is President Trump’s Middle East strategy after all?

Part 2: U.S. Policy Towards Iran

Narration: Following Iran’s admission to accidentally shooting down the commercial jet, angry protesters in Iran were met with tear gas and brutal arrests. (Footage)

While Iranian police denied firing at protesters, social media videos appeared to record gunshots and pools of blood in the streets of Tehran.

President Trump tweeted on Jan. 12, calling on the leaders of Tehran to stop killing  protesters.

A day before, Trump also tweeted in both Farsi and English that his administration is closely following the protests.

Ms. Gao: As you said, President Trump tweeted in Farsi and English in support of the protestors saying, “Iran, you cannot have a massacre against the protesters and do not shut down your internet”. It seems like the president is engaging the Iranian people and also separating the people and the regime. Do you think that’s a good move?

Mr. Bannon: I think because he speaks…I think just like here in the United States where he had a…remember he had a direct connection to working class people in this country that the elites had kind of abandoned and didn’t think about anymore. As president Trump’s going around and giving those rally speeches where he’s just very, right to the heart. He understands this, I think he understands what’s going on in Taiwan, I think he understands what’s going on in Hong Kong. I think he understands what’s going on in Tehran. So I think you’ll see more of this. I just think Farsi was so unexpected, right? People’s heads here are blowing up and clearly the Mullahs understand that President Trump is watching this. The leadership in Tehran, these radical Mullahs that have kind of suppressed the people in Iran, and particularly in Tehran ought to understand, president Trump already took out one of your generals with a drone strike. Okay? He was vaporized. And now he’s communicating via modern social media directly to the protesters in the streets. They should be very worried.

Ms. Gao: Talking about the potential Iranian retaliation. How do you compare the mindset Ali Khamenei and Osama bin Laden? Would Khamenei be contemplating something like a 911 against America on American soil?

Mr. Bannon: Look, Iran is the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. State-Sponsored terrorism. This is what they are. It was the Mullahs in Tehran that took our 52 hostages in 1979 and kept them for what, a year? Almost a year. They’re also the ones that take credit for blowing up the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983. So they’ve been engaged in war with the United States, to take as many casualties as possible for what, 40 some years or almost 50 years. And they’re adamant all the time that America’s the “great Satan” America is the devil. America has to be destroyed. This is not language Donald Trump or Steve Bannon or other allies of freedom and democracy and the rule of law are saying. This comes from their own lips. The other day they said, America has to be destroyed and that American is the great enemy.

So we always have to be on watch. We had to be on watch with ISIS. But remember, president Trump destroyed the physical caliphate within one year. Mosul, Raqqa, the whole physical caliphate. They had 8 million people enslaved. They had oil fields, had tax revenues, they were recruiting what, 20,000 people a month out of Europe…beheading people…putting Christians in cages like animals and then beheading them. Torturing Muslims that didn’t agree with them. And he killed al-Baghdadi with a drone strike. He understands and I think that’s why America is on guard. And at the first movement that general Soleimani was planning on something on the embassy… And people in your listening audience ought to understand that what Trump said is “No more Benghazi’s”. No Benghazi’s on his watch, and he’s also going to be proactive. And if you’re on the terror watch list, you better be concerned. Instead of worrying about killing Americans or Europeans or other Muslims in the middle East, you ought to be concerned about your own life because if you’re on the terror watch list, president Trump is going to come after you.

Host: Nevertheless, President Trump was heavily criticized for lacking justification to kill Soleimani and risked dragging America once again into a regional war. Will that happen? How does President Trump compare to President Bush when it comes to the Middle East policy? I spoke with retired Air Force Brigadier General Robert Spalding, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, about this. Let’s take a listen.

Robert Spalding: I would say the difference between the two is that president Trump is far less likely to want to get entangled in a long conflicts or even to want to use military force. He could have used military force when the Saudis were there or oil fields were bombed by the Iranians. He could have used military force when shipping was attacked in the Persian Gulf by the Iranians. So there’s been several times, or even when the U.S. Drone was shot down over international waters in the Persian Gulf, any of those times he would have been justified in using military force you know, to retaliate against Iran. Nevertheless, he chose not to and has been quite measured in his response in terms of using military force as opposed to president Bush, which was obviously, of course he had to deal with nine 11, but also was very willing to use military force and actually quite heavily.

Bumper: Coming up, what are China’s stakes in the Middle East? Stay tuned.

Part 3: China’s Dilemma

Narration: Over the past two years, China’s expansive global ambitions have led to a major foreign policy shift in the Trump administration, who is now focused on the China threat.

Following Soleimani’s death, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson urged the US “to remain calm and exercise restraint to avoid further escalation of tensions,” adding that “the stability and peace in the Middle East gulf region should be maintained.”

China is Iran’s top trading partner and was also its largest buyer of crude oil prior to US sanctions on Iranian oil, which took effect in May 2019. Despite US sanctions, China continued to import oil from Iran, though in much smaller volumes.

In recent months, a large share of Iranian oil flowed to China via the UAE (United Arab Emirates) and Malaysia, both of which are popular hubs for ship-to-ship transfers.

China was also offloading Iranian oil from its bonded storage in Dalian, located in the north of the country.

Last September, the Trump administration imposed new sanctions on Chinese entities and individuals transferring oil from Iran in violation of Washington’s embargo.

On Jan 10, prior to the signing of the US-China phase one trade deal, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Fox News that China has effectively cut its state purchases of Iranian crude to zero.

In recent years, Iran has expanded as a trading hub linking East and West, thanks to China’s Belt & Road Initiative.

Iran finds itself strategically at the center of China’s geopolitical plans.

During President Xi’s landmark visit to Tehran in January 2016, China agreed to deepen its strategic relationship with the Islamic Republic over the course of 10 years by raising the level of China–Iran bilateral trade to $600 billion.

Host: During the past two decades when the U.S. was trapped in the Middle East quagmire, China experienced the greatest expansion economically, politically, and militarily. Via its Belt and Road initiative, the Middle East becomes an important part of China’s global ambition. Unlike the United States, China exerts its influence through economic means in the region. Where is China in this renewed conflict between America and Iran? And If America once again got tied up in the Middle East war, would that diffuse its energy that should be focused on China? I asked Steve Bannon these questions.

Ms. Gao: So I think the worry is if the US gets dragged into regime change and nation building again, it won’t have enough energy to deal with the CCP challenge.

Mr. Bannon: I will tell you that President Trump will not get into nation building again.

Realize that he continues to talk about the $7 trillion that we spent in the middle East already. He’s actually saying that we need to restructure our relationship with Afghanistan. What he’s going to do is confront these regimes, particularly where we have the high ground in technology, capital markets, currency and trade, right? (He’ll) Use economic and information warfare to really change their behaviors. I don’t know if he’s so much into regime change as (he is into) dramatic change of their behaviors. That is what you’re starting to see. You’re already seeing in the streets of Tehran where the young people are coming and supporting president Trump. The riots that Soleimani, the 1500 that they arrested a few weeks ago or actually killed I think over the last couple of weeks has come from Soleimani and the Republican guard, to put these protests down. So president Trump’s very savvy. That’s why he did a drone strike, a surgical drone strike to take out General Soleimani and remember some of the top leadership in the Shiite militias (as well).

So president Trump’s not going to…he’s too savvy and he understands. He does not want an overburden of commitments in the Middle East because he’s very focused on what’s happening in China.

Host: Trump’s intention for Iran is clear: He is not for massive military operations or nation building, but he doesn’t mind a regime change either, if that’s what the Iranian people want. For the Chinese Communist Party, the US-Iran tension presents a dilemma. It might seem as an opportunity to drive the US attention away from itself. But any dramatic destabilization in the region could potentially jeopardize China’s expansion scheme. More importantly, Soleimani’s elimination is a reality check for the CCP that America is willing and able to remove bad actors to restore order. Thanks for watching Zooming In. I’m Simone Gao. See you next time.