The US plan to counter China and Iran in West Asia

Mohamad Hasan Sweidan, The Cradle, June 8, 2023 —

The US recognizes China’s influence and Iran’s dominance in West Asia, but its sluggish and ineffective responses not only hamper Washington’s ability to counterbalance the eastward shift but also inflicts damage on its dwindling reputation as a trusted partner.

In his keynote address on 4 May at a seminar organized by the Center for Near Eastern Studies in America, Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Adviser, shed light on Washington’s strategy towards the West Asia region.

Sullivan emphasized that the driving force behind US foreign policy in the foreseeable future, as articulated by President Joe Biden, is the intense competition for global influence among international powers – one that will shape the trajectory of US foreign policy for decades to come.

On the international stage, the US acknowledges China as its primary strategic rival. However, in the context of West Asia, the US maintains that Iran represents the most prominent threat to its interests in the region.

Iran, after all, has its own “Look to the East” strategy, involving enhanced ties across multiple fields with Russia and China. Amidst this deepening interconnectivity across Eurasia, the region is fast transforming into a hub for vital economic and geopolitical initiatives, placing mounting pressure on a Washington excluded from the party.

So, how exactly will the US navigate and respond to this multifaceted challenge in West Asia?

A five-point strategic approach

During his speech, Sullivan outlined the US’s strategic approach towards West Asia, highlighting five key points. First, is the forging of partnerships to strengthen Washington’s collaboration with regional states and foster closer ties.

But why this need when the US already has strong relations in the region? As the final report of the Munich Security Conference held in February stresses:

“The United States and Europe will have to rethink their approaches to development cooperation with countries in the Global South. They need to make their development models more attractive, as China offers an alternative model based on a narrative of solidarity and mutual benefits.”

Second, is the importance of securing deterrence, underscoring the need to deter threats and safeguard US interests; third, is prioritizing diplomatic options and de-escalation with the primary focus of countering Beijing. Sullivan’s fourth point concerns regional integration, and is most pertinent to this article:

“A more integrated, interconnected Middle East [West Asia] empowers our allies and partners, advances regional peace and prosperity, and reduces the resource demands on the United States in this region over the long term without sacrificing our fundamental interests or our involvement in the region.”

The fifth and final point revolves around the mandatory, yet selective, commitment to democratic values and human rights.

These five points illustrate Washington’s interest in recalibrating its West Asian strategies to align with its global challenges – not just the rise of major competitors, but equally, the collapse of the US-led order. A prime example following the Ukraine conflict, was the widespread resistance from the Global South to participate in western sanctions against Moscow.

Alarm bells rang across the Atlantic when that happened. Not only did these countries reject the sanctions demand, but they moved to strengthen their respective relations with China and Russia, pursuing diverse objectives while capitalizing on the growing competition between Washington, Beijing, and Moscow.

Disrupting China’s BRI with an American I2U2

The urgency to counter its competitors in West Asia has led to a US-led infrastructure initiative, which aims to establish a network of railways to connect Arab states (without traversing Iran) and to link Persian Gulf states to India’s ports.

The concept for this adventurous project was initially introduced during talks at the I2U2 forum last year, comprising the US, Israel, UAE, and India, whose focus was strategic infrastructure projects in West Asia. One notable proposal put forward by Israel at the meeting was the establishment of railways connecting the region.

Since its establishment in 2021, the forum’s objective has been to enhance India’s foothold in West Asia as a counterweight to China, as well as to promote economic normalization between Arab states and Israel.

If Washington’s inclusion of India in its grand plans is meant to rattle China’s West Asian designs, it may have already failed at the first hurdle. India is a principal partner in the International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC), along with Iran and Russia, a project that is already operational, continues to expand, and is comfortably synergistic with China’s multi-trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that seeks to connect entire continents.

Chart showing when West Asian and African states joined the Belt and Road Initiative
Chart showing when West Asian and African states joined the Belt and Road Initiative

In early May, Sullivan visited Riyadh, where he held meetings with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), UAE National Security Adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, and Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Duval.

The discussions aimed to advance the shared goal of creating a more secure, prosperous, and interconnected region, with a particular focus on the West Asian rail connectivity project and India’s involvement in it.

Washington realizes that to effectively counter China, it will need to provide regional states with competitive economic incentives and offer cooperation based on mutual benefit, not US diktats. Although this is an urgent foreign policy priority, the US is also aware that time is not on its side, given Beijing’s significant lead with the Belt and Road Initiative, in which West Asia plays a crucial role.

Therefore, to counter China’s influence, Washington is proposing a parallel project in the region, one that also involves connecting with the other Asian economic powerhouse capable of implementing it – India.

But is that altogether true? China, arguably, has the best infrastructure outside the developed world, whereas India still grapples with often highly-unsafe domestic transportation networks. Importantly, New Delhi remains excluded from some of Asia’s most important trade agreements, such as the western-led Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Chinese-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Consequently, having failed to prevent regional states from jumping on Beijing’s bandwagon, the US has belatedly begun to dangle half-baked competing projects to draw their interest.

Iran’s ‘Railway of Resistance’

But China’s continental infrastructure labyrinth is not Washington’s only regional obstacle. In the realm of West Asian competition, the proposed US project also finds itself pitted against Iran’s long-standing infrastructure endeavors.

The Iranians have been diligently working to connect the port of Imam Khomeini on the Persian Gulf, situated in Iran’s Khuzestan province, to Iraq, the Albu Kamal crossing on the Syrian border, and ultimately to the Mediterranean port of Latakia.

Tehran’s ambitious project, if realized, will attract the interest of various regional countries, with Saudi Arabia at the forefront due to its significant economic benefits and recent Chinese-brokered rapprochement.

In order to counter a project that would connect Iran in the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea that traverses four strategic West Asian states, Washington needed to introduce a parallel initiative, which had the potential to connect allied regional states through an alternative route.

Although Israel was not represented at the meeting in Riyadh to discuss the project, it was originally an Israeli proposal, and normalization with the kingdom remains an implicit yet clear objective. Economic connectivity between nations raises the costs of tensions and encourages the development of relations to safeguard shared economic interests. US sources have also affirmed that Israel’s absence from the project does not signify its exclusion in the future.

Ultimately, the project aims to prevent Iran from translating its military triumphs into economic ventures that bolster the growth of the countries and entities in the Axis of Resistance.

The Iran-Iraq and Syria railway linkage project constitutes a step towards connecting the allied nations and aligns with their economic aspirations. As such, for Washington, it becomes imperative to put forth projects that mitigate the region’s economic reliance beyond its sphere of influence, thus averting the consolidation of economic dependence.

Unreliable States of America

Past experiences demonstrate that relying on cooperation with projects proposed or sponsored by Washington usually proves to be futile. The examples are rife: despite signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2016 – a proposed trade agreement between the US and 11 other Pacific Rim countries – the US withdrew from the deal in January 2017 and did not ratify it.

Similarly, negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the US and the EU, initiated in 2013, remain unresolved.

More recently, although the US proposed a plan to transfer Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity, via Syria, to energy-deficient Lebanon, Washington has become the project’s biggest obstacle, still refusing to approve sanctions waivers necessary for the flows to begin.

The US not only withdraws from economic projects but also reneges on initiatives that no longer serve its geopolitical interests. For example, despite Turkiye’s payment of $1.4 billion for F-35 fighter jets, Washington halted delivery when Ankara purchased S-400 missiles from Russia – without offering any compensation for the payments.

The US’ inconsistencies in the realm of economics and trade have not gone unnoticed and highlight a fundamental distinction between Beijing and Washington: while the former operates on the principle of cooperation for mutual benefit, the latter imparts “lessons” on the unreliability of keeping promises.

This diminishing trust in the US has also affected its diplomatic reputation. After decades of its one-sided policy on the Israel-Palestine issue, a poll conducted by YouGov in May found that most Palestinians favor mediation by Russia and China in potential negotiations with Israel, while 60 percent of respondents also said they did not trust the US to mediate in the conflict with the occupation state. 

Cooperation trumps capitulation

Undoubtedly, China has skillfully outmaneuvered the US by advancing its global economic initiatives on the basis of mutual interest and benefit. In doing so, China has emerged as a formidable obstacle to western influence worldwide, challenging the western paradigm of “donor-receiver” with its own principle of “mutual benefit.”

West Asian nations increasingly view China as a robust economic partner. In parallel, Beijing has dramatically enhanced its diplomatic profile in the region, achieving notable success in its recent brokering of the Saudi-Iranian reconciliation deal.

With the unipolar era in fast decline – and “running out of time” – it is unlikely the US can sufficiently alter its modus operandi and entrenched foreign policy habits to accommodate the growing demands of states keen to advance their own interests. Certainly not without offering compelling incentives, massive financial investment, and rock-solid follow through. More likely than not, West Asia will continue to partner with nations that can deliver, and do not disturb their own national interests.

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