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Iran’s ‘New’ Partnership With China Is Just Business as Usual
Iran’s ‘New’ Partnership With China Is Just Business as Usual
Report 182 / Africa

The Lord’s Resistance Army: End Game?

Insufficient political will has thwarted regional efforts to stop the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) but vigorous diplomacy led by the African Union (AU), an immediate military push and complementary civilian initiatives could end the misery of thousands.

Executive Summary

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) remains a deadly threat to civilians in three Central African states. After a ceasefire and negotiations for peaceful settlement of the generation-long insurgency broke down in 2008, Uganda’s army botched an initial assault. In three years since, half-hearted operations have failed to stop the small, brutally effective band from killing more than 2,400 civilians, abducting more than 3,400 and causing 440,000 to flee. In 2010 President Museveni withdrew about half the troops to pursue more politically rewarding goals. Congolese mistrust hampers current operations, and an African Union (AU) initiative has been slow to start. While there is at last a chance to defeat the LRA, both robust military action and vigorous diplomacy is required. Uganda needs to take advantage of new, perhaps brief, U.S. engagement by reinvigorating the military offensive; Washington needs to press regional leaders for cooperation; above all, the AU must act promptly to live up to its responsibilities as guarantor of continental security. When it does, Uganda and the U.S. should fold their efforts into the AU initiative.

The Ugandan army’s attempt in December 2008 to crush the LRA, originally an insurgency in northern Uganda but now a deadly, multinational criminal and terror band, by destroying its camps in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) went badly wrong. Joseph Kony, the group’s leader, escaped and quickly organised reprisals that left hundreds of civilians dead in the following months. The U.S.-backed Operation Lightning Thunder became a campaign of attrition, as the Ugandan army began hunting small, scattered and highly mobile groups of fighters in thick forest. It followed them into South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) and scored some early successes, but the operation lost steam in mid-2010, allowing the LRA to go on plundering villages and seizing hundreds of captives and new recruits in the tri-border area. As the UN Security Council agreed on 14 November 2011, this must stop.

The reasons for military failure are at root political. Museveni scaled down the operation to pursue other ventures he felt would win him greater political capital at home and abroad. Since the LRA has not been able to operate within Uganda for years and no longer endangers its security, few opposition politicians or community leaders there demand its defeat. Efforts to pursue it in the DRC are dogged by the host’s refusal to cooperate and grant access to LRA-affected areas. Uganda invaded in the late 1990s, plundered DRC resources and earned President Kabila’s lasting mistrust. As Congolese elections, still scheduled for late 2011, draw near, the army has demanded the Ugandans pull out and, while waiting for the official decision, forbidden them to leave camp. Most LRA senior commanders and fighters are now in the CAR but could return to the DRC at any time and, with the Ugandans restrained, find safe haven. CAR President Bozizé distrusts Uganda’s army, envies its U.S. support, has ordered it to withdraw from diamond areas and could hamper operations further unless satisfied his own army is benefiting.

There is no prospect of a negotiated end to the LRA problem, given the collapse of the multi-year Juba process and the lack of any apparent interest on the part of either Museveni or, especially, Kony to go that route again after three more years of fighting. Instead, the AU, under pressure from some member states and the U.S., announced in late 2010 that it would authorise a forceful mission against the LRA and coordinate regional efforts. A year and counting, however, planning has foundered over its inability to reconcile differences with and between key member states and donors. Uganda and the three directly affected countries hoped the AU initiative would open the door to more Western funding for their armies but are little interested in political guidance or civilian programs. The U.S. wanted the European Union (EU), the AU’s main donor, to share some of its burdens. However, the EU prefers the AU to act politically and is reluctant to finance the armies. Uganda resists ceding any of its military and policy freedom to the African regional body.

Frustrated with the ineffectiveness of Operation Lightning Thunder, the U.S. announced on 14 October that it would deploy about 100 troops to assist the Ugandan army – a majority to stay in Kampala, the rest to advise in the field. The move is part of a broader ramping up of its political and military engagement against the LRA. It has also offered to train more Congolese soldiers and has given equipment to the CAR army in order to win the operation political space. The few score field advisers should be able to improve the Ugandans’ performance. However, the Obama administration, a year from its own elections, is cautious about testing U.S. tolerance of another overseas military commitment. The deployment, it has made clear, will be short term.

The Ugandan army, even with U.S. advisers, is a flawed and uncertain instrument for defeating the LRA. Due to its record of abuses and failures to protect civilians, the governments and populations of the LRA-affected countries distrust it. That Kony no longer presents a direct threat to its interests leaves room for scepticism about Kampala’s political will to see the military job through to the end. But the Ugandan army is also essential, because no one else is prepared to send competent combat troops to do the job. U.S. support, both military and political, is important but may be short-lived. AU money and civilian programs are helpful but cannot stop LRA violence.

Uganda, with U.S. advice and support, should, therefore, lose no time in launching a reinvigorated attack on the LRA, if possible while most of the group’s senior commanders and fighters are still in the CAR and before they can return to the DRC’s more restrictive operational environment. A key part of the advice the U.S. should press on the Ugandan army is the need to prioritise protecting civilians, provide access to humanitarian agencies and accept stricter accountability for its actions.

At the same time, if this new activism is to succeed, the AU must break its political deadlock and put its initiative in play. Adding the AU to the equation is vital to rally the political commitment of Uganda, the DRC, the CAR and South Sudan by giving the undertaking clear continent-wide legitimacy. The central elements of the initiative should be appointment of a special envoy to smooth relations between Kinshasa and Kampala and authorisation of a multinational and multi-dimensional mission – what AU planners call the Regional Intervention Force (RIF). This will likely involve only those troop contributors presently engaged against the LRA, primarily the Ugandans, but should introduce a new, common operational and legal framework for the Ugandan and host armies and create new military structures to improve coordination between them. Once the RIF exists, their anti-LRA efforts should be placed under its umbrella.

The AU planners should work closely with the U.S. to ensure that from the start the African organisation’s initiative prioritises the same principles as Washington needs to press bilaterally on the Ugandan army. Donors, particularly the EU, should meanwhile fund complementary civilian work, especially to entice LRA fighters to leave the bush. Only such a multi-dimensional approach is likely to bring peace to the tri-border area and begin the slow task of healing the physical and social wounds the long LRA nightmare has inflicted.

Nairobi/Brussels, 17 November 2011

 

Iran’s ‘New’ Partnership With China Is Just Business as Usual

Originally published in World Politics Review

The recently finalized 25-year comprehensive cooperation agreement between Iran and China has been referred to in the media as a “game-changer,” a “breakthrough” and a “major geopolitical shift,” but in reality, it is much ado about nothing. Signed with great fanfare on March 27, during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Tehran, the deal does provide Iran with a political and rhetorical win in the context of its ongoing negotiations over the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal. Beyond the optics of the agreement with China, though, the substance follows the same playbook that Beijing and Tehran have developed over decades of bilateral relations: agreeing to deepen ties but on vague terms that are scant on details and concrete commitments.

The deal itself has not been made public, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took pains to highlight that the agreement with China was not a treaty, removing the requirement for parliamentary approval. He also denied that it outlined any specific figures—despite reports of $400 billion in promised Chinese investments—or obligations for either side.

Leaders of the two countries first publicly discussed their growing partnership when Chinese President Xi Jinping went to Iran in 2016. During the visit, Xi and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, pledged to expand their bilateral ties and to boost two-way trade from $32 billion to $600 billion over the next 10 years—an ambitious goal. Xi agreed to increase Chinese investments in Iran’s energy, infrastructure and even nuclear sectors. The plan also covered greater defense and military cooperation, something Iran was starved for after a decade-long arms embargo. But notwithstanding these pledges, progress on building ties remained slow.

Reports of a formal 25-year strategic partnership to deepen relations between the two countries first emerged last July. A leaked 18-page draft document reportedly outlined a vast expansion of Chinese investments in various sectors in Iran, including telecoms, transport, infrastructure and banking, with Beijing receiving a guaranteed supply of discounted Iranian oil in return. The document also referred to the potential deployment of Chinese forces to Iran to protect their investments, as well as a Chinese lease of the strategically located Kish Island in the Persian Gulf. The leaked document caused an uproar inside and outside Iran. Some Iranians equated the draft agreement with the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay, under which Tehran conceded several territories to Russia, and which has become a symbol of bitter defeat to Iranians.

Following Western efforts to isolate Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Beijing became an important player for Tehran.

2021 is a fitting year for a major deal between the two countries, as it marks the 50th anniversary of Iran-China diplomatic relations. Following Western efforts to isolate Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Beijing became an important player for Tehran. The Iranian leadership valued China for its ability to block coercive action through its veto power at the United Nations Security Council—though it never actually used it on Iran’s behalf—and its willingness to expand economic, political and military relations with Iran at a time when most other countries were not.

From the start, Sino-Iranian relations always had a few key premises: They would not come at the expense of the two countries’ relations with other major powers, the U.S. in particular; they would be transactional, based on mutual interests and necessities; they would be mutually convenient, with Chinese and Iranian leaders working together only when it suited them; and there would be no strings attached.

The relationship has had its ups and downs, though. China’s economic involvement in Iran increased as sanctions around it were tightened throughout the 2000s, making it an invaluable partner to Tehran. But many Iranians had reservations about Beijing. For example, they believed Chinese products to be of poor quality, and lamented that the Chinese dragged their feet when it came to implementing projects that they had pledged to support. In 2013, Iran expelled the state-owned China National Petroleum Corp., or CNPC, from development work on the flagship South Pars natural gas field in the Persian Gulf, alleging the company had failed to carry out promised work.

From Tehran’s perspective, China also wasn’t always reliable when it came to standing up to the West’s sanctions on Iran: China supported every U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran that came up for a vote between 2006 and 2010, and reduced its imports of Iranian oil during Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. In 2019, CNPC, which had earlier returned to work on the South Pars project under a new contract, pulled out of the project, likely to avoid U.S. sanctions.

Today, the relationship between the two countries is on the same trajectory. It is fundamentally transactional and growing, but slowly, and with some hiccups along the way.

From [Iran's] perspective, the past five years proved that the U.S. and Europe couldn’t be counted on

China, like Iran, has been careful not to put all its eggs in one basket. After all, it can’t afford to risk its ties with the oil-rich Gulf Arab states that are key to its energy and economic growth needs. Iranian officials may not like this, but they have also made peace with the idea that they must work with the Chinese. From their perspective, the past five years proved that the U.S. and Europe couldn’t be counted on, not even to deliver on their obligations in a deal they agreed to. This led Tehran to build what it refers to as its “resistance economy,” and to “look East,” a view now shared by both conservative politicians and more pro-Western Iranian officials.

Given its apparently vague terms, the deal is best seen as a roadmap for improving bilateral relations between the two countries, outlining areas for cooperation and exchanges in energy, infrastructure, cultural endeavors, and defense and counterterrorism, to name a few. Much of the promised deepening of economic ties will remain somewhat dependent on the lifting of U.S. unilateral sanctions, as China doesn’t want to openly flout them. Sino-Iranian relations can only reach their intended potential if the nuclear crisis between Iran and the U.S. is resolved.

All of this suggests that the deal is unlikely to have much of a concrete impact on the nature of Iran’s relationship with China. Despite Zarif’s insistence that that deal does not concede any territory, basing rights or exclusive access to Iranian territory to China, many Iranians remain suspicious of Beijing, with some protesting that the new cooperation pact will sell their country out. Many will also read the lack of concrete figures as signaling a relatively loose commitment. While discussing the agreement on the Clubhouse app, Zarif defended the deal against criticism, but also added, “I don’t believe in the [policy] of looking to the East or the West.” Rather, he said, Iran would have to engage all, based on its interests and goals.

It is a political win for Tehran, at a time when efforts to revitalize the 2015 nuclear deal by bringing Washington back into the fold are stuck in limbo.

But the new pact with China may nevertheless prove useful to Iranian leaders in demonstrating that isolating Iran is not so simple anymore. It is a political win for Tehran, at a time when efforts to revitalize the 2015 nuclear deal by bringing Washington back into the fold are stuck in limbo. The pact also signals to Washington and its allies that there will likely be limits on their ability to impose another “maximum pressure”-style campaign. After all, sanctions are most effective when they’re universal, not when a military and economic powerhouse such as China stands outside them. Perhaps for this reason, Tehran has also looked to deepen ties with Russia, announcing the signature of a military cooperation agreement on April 10.

Ultimately, Iran’s recent cooperation pact with China gives Tehran a political and rhetorical boost vis-à-vis the outside world, and the U.S. in particular. It formalizes the growth in Iran-China ties and could establish the groundwork for protection against future international isolation. But for now, the fundamentals remain the same: The two promise to work together, based on mutual interests and necessities in a compartmentalized manner and with no strings attached—the same way they’ve dealt with each other over the past 50 years.