The Fourth Episode of The Big Picture: The Destiny of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the Flames of War at the Persian Gulf
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On July 25th, the fourth episode of The Big Picture featured Hua Liming, a distinguished researcher of China Institute of International Studies and former Chinese Ambassador to Iran, as guest speaker. Ambassador Hua delivered a keynote speech on “The Destiny of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the Flames of War at the Persian Gulf”. 

Ambassador Hua set the stage by delving into the roots of the hostility between the United States and Iran. He then zoomed in to reflect on the recent disputes over the nuclear issue with a review of the reversal of the US-Iranian relationship after Trump took office and the current Sino-Iranian relationship. From the respective perspectives of the United States and Iran, Ambassador Hua said that the friction at the Persian Gulf is unlikely to cause a war between the two countries. However, the key issue in the region lies in the resolution of the Iran nuclear issue. The US-Iran confrontation will likely be normalized in the Middle East in the next decade. Ronen Medzini, Counsellor and Director of the Department of Political Affairs of the Israeli Embassy in China, and Mahdi Zadehali, Second Secretary of the Iranian Embassy in China, participated in the discussion. Shi Xiaoqin, a member of the Academic Committee of Grandview Institution, senior researcher, retired Senior Colonel, former researcher of the Strategy Department of the Academy of Military Sciences, presided over the lecture and made comments afterwards.

Since May, the situation in the Middle East has been through rapid changes, with the involvement of various powers. After its withdrawal from the JCPOA, the US is reimposing sanctions on Iran. The nuclear agreement is on the verge of collapse. The Persian Gulf witnessed a spark of tension. President Trump called off military strikes on Iran at last minute, intensifying the situation. In this lecture, Ambassador Hua Liming puts much weight on analyzing the possibility of war and some key issues regarding the Iranian nuclear deal.

Iran becomes the focus of the Middle East issue

After the end of the Cold War, the United States enjoyed a decade of hegemony in the Middle East. It was the 9/11 that put a stop to it. After two major wars, Iran gained a rare period of time of strategic opportunities: controlling post-war Iraq and West Afghanistan, forming an alliance with the Syrian government under Assad, and reaching the Heartland of the Arab world and the Israeli borders through the Lebanese Hezbollah. In the meantime, Iran’s nuclear capabilities of research and development have rapidly increased, getting close to the nuclear threshold.

The rise of Iran has changed the geopolitics of the Middle East. The region no longer differentiates its stance on the US and Iran based on the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation. Various powers have reshuffled with now composition of players and alignment in place. Iran has become the number one enemy of Israel and the Arab countries. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been diluted and marginalized. As a result, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Lebanese Hezbollah form the Axis while Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt form the opposition.

The current Iran-Saudi opposition is a dispute between pro-American countries and anti-American countries in the Middle East. It is by no means a dispute between the Sunni and Shiite depicted by the US media, the purpose of which is to deliberately mislead and mobilize the Arab countries to be against Iran.

The JCPOA is the focus of the current crisis

On the surface, the current tension in the Persian Gulf is the stalemate between the United States and Iran, but deep down lies the crisis of Iranian nuclear issues. After the Iraq war in 2003, Iran’s nuclear capabilities increased significantly, disrupting the Israeli nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. Having once served as the permanent representative of China at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Ambassador Hua pointed out that nuclear nonproliferation is a security problem highly concerned by the international community. The United States uses the P5+1 platform to set agendas,  embedding the goal of overthrowing Iran’s current regime into nuclear proliferation topics, and dragging the entire international community into a whirlpool against Iran.

Iran remained adhered to the JCPOA after US’s withdrawal from the agreement. It did not resume nuclear production in order to keep Britain, France and Germany where they are in the issue. But in the past year, Europe disappointed Iran. Iran has gradually adopted a small-step strategy on the nuclear issue and gradually increased the abundance of enriched uranium. On July 7, Iran officially announced that it would partially stop the implementation of the JCPOA, raising the abundance of Iranian low enriched uranium from 3.67% to 5%. Iranian President Rouhani also said that the production of low enriched uranium would no longer be subject to the upper limit of 300 kilograms as stated in the agreement. This was the first time that Iran challenged this international agreement after the Trump administration announced its withdrawal from the JCPOA on May 8 last year.

Iran approaches the nuclear threshold; the risk of war will rise

As the abundance of enriched uranium exceeds 5%, other related programs will start subsequently. If Iran does not play cards in a cautious manner and goes beyond the nuclear threshold, the JCPOA will completely collapse. Europe will back out of the situation. Israel will never sit idly and would probably get the US involved which, as Ambassador Hua stressed, will be the greatest danger in the Middle East. The little gunfire in the Persian Gulf is unlikely to trigger a war between the US and Iran, but Iran’s approach to the nuclear threshold might touch the bottom line of Israel and lead to war. Iran’s current small-step strategy as a response to the US’s extreme pressure is a critical test for Iran’s rulers.

The hostilities between the United States and Iran will become a norm

The root of the hostility between the two countries lies in the conflict of the respective strategic interests. The 40-year hostility between the United States and Iraq shows that the US cannot tolerate an anti-American regime in a geographically and strategically important country like Iran for the sake of its maintenance of world hegemony. Nor can it tolerate Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons and expansion in its sphere of influence in the Middle East.

From the perspective of the United States, overthrowing the Iranian Islamic regime or forcing it to submit is a consensus reached and a policy made by the US Democratic Party, Republican Party and the elite groups. Whoever is in the White House would not give up this policy. Retrospectively, the past seven US presidencies were hostile to Iran. Trump is no exception but rather a radical one. The United States today is no longer the one that was able to mobilize 300,000 troops when it launched the Iraq war. The intention of the United States may not be to launch a war. Its countermeasure is more likely to exert extreme pressure and force Iran to change. 

From the perspective of Iran, anti-Americanism is the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is Iran’s national policy to expel American power from the Middle East. The Iranian rulers can only adjust the extent of confrontation but have no choice in fundamental terms.

Ambassador Hua pointed out that in the next decade, the confrontation between the United States and Iraq in the Middle East will become a norm, but the probability of a war is small. The cost of a war with an ancient civilization with a territory of 1.65 million square kilometres and a population of 80 million people is unaffordable, whether it is for the United States or Iran. And such a war will affect the Middle East and the entire world.

Ambassador Hua mentioned that since the establishment of the diplomatic relations between China and Iran in 1971, he has been working on China-Iran issues. Overall, China and Iran have maintained a good relationship. In 2007, China became Iran’s largest trading partner. But the United States has always been a hindrance in Sino-Iranian relations. At present, the United States is exerting pressure on both China and Iran. Yet the road ahead of China-Iran relations seems bright. And both sides have found more in which they share a common interest. 

After the keynote speech of Ambassador Hua, the guest experts participated in discussing the Iranian nuclear issue. Ronen Medzini, Counsellor and Political Affairs Director of the Israeli Embassy in China, and Mahdi Zadehali, Second Secretary of the Iranian Embassy in China, also exchanged views with Ambassador Hua and other experts.