US Airstrikes on Iran—The China Factor

Written by Twumasi Duah-Mensah

Forget about the airstrikes on Iran, forget about the general the United States killed, forget about the ballistic missiles Iran fired on American bases in Iraq—forget about everything that happened in the past week. You won’t be able to understand any of it if you don’t understand what the US wants to do in the Middle East.

Everybody Loves Iran

The United States’ interactions with the Middle East are, traditionally, a little similar to Johnny Bravo’s interactions with women: they don’t end well for either side. Much like the alpha male cartoon character, the US flexes its military muscle, hoping Middle Eastern countries back down and let the spirit of democracy take over. These countries, however, are interested in deciding upon their own governments like a, erm, country, so they, of course, reject the US’ offer. America only gets into deeper trouble when it tries to support Israel, a country almost no Middle Eastern nation is fond of. Similar to Johnny’s advances being shot down after making a suggestive comment to the woman he’s pursuing, any chance of a breakthrough in relations is eviscerated, and America further entangles itself in a mess they, some believe, had no business creating in the first place.

Iran, in contrast, is more charming. Similar geographic region, similar culture, similar disgust with Israel—the foundation for every Middle Eastern nation to love Iran is there. They’re not easy to sweep away, either: the country’s influence has helped them establish a political and military hold in Lebanon, for example, a country that has seen the success of Hezbollah, a political party and militant group who aligns with Iran’s vision.

China & Iran, sitting in a tree…

Iran’s clout in the Middle East is so attractive that big-name suitors like China are plotting ways to join its entourage. In its attempt to surpass the US as the preeminent superpower, China is scheming to engineer the most ambitious economic project in world history: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the key to the Southeast Asian juggernaut growing its hold on the Eastern Hemisphere and, by extension, the world economy. Similar to why they’re winking and blowing kisses at Turkey, China values Iran as the first half of the bridge between the Eastern and Western hemisphere. If those two link up more and more, China would hit a crucial milestone in their quest to complete the $26 trillion project. That spells doom for the US’ reign as the biggest shark in the global ocean, and President Donald Trump and his administration have used the US’ position in regions like the Middle East to stall progress on the BRI, as was covered in an October Herald article.

The US had two options to quell China-Iran economic cooperation: weaken China’s ability to foster further collaboration, or weaken Iran’s. Weakening China would require a new trade deal that both countries have been trying to negotiate for a while now. Weakening Iran would not only hurt Iran’s ability to work with China but hurt China’s leverage in a trade with America, as they would suffer a major setback to the BRI. That’s why the Trump administration has preferred “maximum economic pressure” as opposed to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which kept Iran from building up its nuclear program in exchange for an economic sanctions lift.

Wait, Iran still has nuclear weapons, then! Isn’t that, like, really bad?

Correct. Trump withdrew because he thought the deal wasn’t strong enough, especially with “sunset clauses” that would’ve allowed Iran to develop its nuclear program after a certain period of time. He preferred to put Iran in an economic chokehold and force them to negotiate a better deal. 

To pressure Iran, Trump has set goals such as cutting Iranian oil exports to zero. That would mean complete economic collapse for Iran, the fourth-largest oil producer in the world. And the worst part for the Iranian people? It looks like it’s working. A banking crisis, a rapidly aging population with an economy giving no reason to have kids, young Iranians not being able to find jobs and support the aging population, doctors and nurses jumping ship, and shortages of much-needed medicine leading to prolonged illnesses, less productivity, and less confidence in having kids. “Maximum economic pressure” sometimes feels more like maximum humiliation, as Iran’s families struggle to find necessities like baby diapers, and its women find feminine hygiene scarce, forcing them to use cloths “like we used to in the old days,” 

And another pressure point… 

ISIS. The US and Middle Eastern countries have teamed up to eliminate the Islamic State. If Iran’s ally, Iraq, follows through with its threat to force US troops out of the country, the country will go without the powerful American military, and ISIS fighters might escape from capture and rally to wreak havoc in the Middle East again. American troops have already halted anti-ISIS operations as they prepare for a possible retreat. If ISIS regains control in Iraq, Iran will concede control over one of their strongest allies in the Middle East.

So why hasn’t Iran come to the negotiating table yet?

China has acted as a crucial lifeline for Iran. As one of the world’s biggest oil consumers and one of Iran’s closest allies, China’s purchases from the oil-rich Iran and their pursuit of infrastructure projects have helped Iran not completely cave into American pressure. 

But now, Iran has a decision to make. General Soleimani was beloved by many across the nation; the Iranian people expect a much harsher retaliation than the missiles fired onto American bases in Iraq. If they do retaliate, though, they risk inviting US sanctions that have already ravaged their economy. Killing General Soleimani was necessary for the US to create this Catch-22, where the only way out would be for Iran to yield and come to the negotiating table. China would have to do significantly more to support Iran than they are now to avoid losing them to a US deal. Evading US sanctions keeps relations alive, but how long can Iran wait for something more substantial?

So we’re not going to war?

Probably not. Yes, the US-Iran conflict has had unprecedented flare-ups in recent weeks, but it’s not as significant as the proxy conflict between the US and China which just so happens to involve Iran. Make no mistake: anything these two countries can do to gain significant leverage in a trade deal, they’ll do it, because any trade deal they agree upon will set the world order for the rest of the century.

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