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Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (II): Southern Africa
Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (II): Southern Africa
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Iran’s ‘New’ Partnership With China Is Just Business as Usual
Iran’s ‘New’ Partnership With China Is Just Business as Usual
Report 191 / Africa

Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (II): Southern Africa

To preserve Southern Africa’s relative peace in the face of rising challenges and threats, Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states must collectively reinforce its peace and security architecture.

Executive Summary

The last part of Africa to be decolonised, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, remains one of the most peaceful. Yet, despite comprehensive protocols and agreements, SADC faces acute challenges characterised by tensions between member states, resource deficits, citizens’ exclusion, social discontent and limited internal and external coordination. Regional security cooperation requires adept infrastructures underwritten by political commitment; but the organisation’s Secretariat appears powerless to ensure policy implementation. It must develop an effective common security policy framework, improve coordination with international partners, harmonise and clarify its role with other SADC structures, broaden engagement with civil society, ensure member-state commitment to African Union (AU) efforts on human and people’s rights and build capacity for evaluation and monitoring. As long as national sovereignty prevails over regional interests, however, the success of SADC mechanisms, notably in conflict resolution, will remain limited.

The region faces a range of evolving peace and security threats, including maritime security and piracy, cyber and technology-driven security threats, and socio-economic unrest. Beyond efforts to respond to these challenges, policy implementation capacity and information and response mechanisms are urgently required. SADC’s intervention in Madagascar and Zimbabwe has exposed the region’s limited capacity to enforce agreements it has brokered. Ad hoc and under-resourced mediation imposes additional burdens and responsibilities on the mediators. Civil society engagement in SADC processes in the two countries has been at best tangential, confirming the gulf between the regional body and its citizens. The Madagascar and Zimbabwe cases also highlight that structural governance deficits and politicised security sectors exacerbate conflict. SADC’s mediation efforts reveal the complexities and challenges of dealing with unconstitutional changes in government, contested elections and violations of the region’s electoral code.

A fragmented approach to crisis and the absence of a common policy hinder security cooperation. Member states pursue detached objectives without a consistent set of principles and policies in this area coordinated at the regional level. This reinforces their reluctance to cede authority to a SADC centralised structure. Regional commitment to the rule of law suffered from the decision of the SADC heads of state and government to confine the jurisdiction of its tribunal to interpretations of treaties and protocols relating to disputes between member states. The decision removes the right to individual petition, and without an alternate explanation from SADC’s leadership, can be considered a reversal of previous gains in human security and people’s rights.

SADC is keen to establish a mediation unit led by “elders” appointed by consensus between member states and supported by a credible and efficient resource team. Though the framework and operational methodology were approved in 2010, the organisation is yet to implement it. Regional conflict resolution efforts must incorporate military diplomacy options to address growing security sector influence in conflicts and their potential resolution. The establishment of national committees in each member state will buttress civil society participation in SADC policy formulation and implementation, as mandated by the treaty.

A culture of political solidarity among member states remains, fostered by a common liberation struggle history and a stated commitment to non-interference in the internal politics of others. This has inhibited effective preventive diplomacy and provided justification for non-engagement in cases of potential conflict and security threats. Despite the establishment of an early warning system in 2010, it is not clear if and how SADC utilises the conflict signals arising in the region and how best this infrastructure could be enhanced. Decision-making is consensual and rests solely with the heads of state and government and ministerial committees. The secretariat is expected to function as SADC’s implementing arm, but lacks capacity and the authority to enforce decisions and is not empowered to engage in independent diplomatic action to address conflict situations.

The SADC Standby Force has demonstrated its readiness for deployment, successfully conducting joint exercises, though it needs further strengthening to expand its humanitarian and disaster management roles. It has not fully incorporated a civilian component, which is necessary to provide for human security as specified by the AU. SADC has no post-conflict reconstruction program or security sector reform policy framework to underpin sustainable peace. This reflects the prominence of bilateral over multilateral security cooperation, as well as varying geopolitical interests, the exclusive alliance of countries with liberation struggle history, and sensitivities regarding possible hegemonic domination. South Africa’s role and potential in this regard are particularly pertinent, as are its relations with Angola, the second most influential SADC member.

Foreign partnerships around peace and security are disjointed and are not tied to a coherent strategy to build infrastructure and capacity. This manifests in the misapplication of resources and competing interests among SADC’s international cooperating partners (ICPs). The organisation should support the implementation of the regional coordination platform for international partners, and consider how best to broaden engagement beyond traditional donors and partners.

The inter-governmental status of SADC limits the enforcement and monitoring of member states’ compliance to its peace and security framework. Although political solidarity exists, relations between some of the regional leaders are fragile, even fraught, which has negatively affected sustainable regional security cooperation. However, compared to other challenges on the continent, Southern Africa is regarded as relatively peaceful. This affords it an important opportunity to build and consolidate its peace and security capacity.

Johannesburg/Brussels, 15 October 2012

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.