China’s state-run Global Times newspaper published a commentary Sunday that urged Iran to withdraw from Syria and Yemen in response to America’s State Department designating its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization last week.
Using the IRGC – which regularly operates alongside terrorist organizations like Hezbollah – to expand its influence through proxies, the Iranian regime is active militarily in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and wields significant influence in Lebanon and Venezuela through Hezbollah. Iran is closely allied to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus and supports Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels.
China enjoys friendly relations with Iran, supporting the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal and encouraging Tehran to invest in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a plan to ensure Beijing controls the world’s most important roads, ports, and railways through the reconstruction of the ancient silk road. Prior to Sunday’s commentary, it had largely refrained from commentary on the Middle East’s civil wars aside from condemning American involvement in them.
Author Yin Gang, identified as a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, predicts in his column that President Donald Trump will not stop pressuring Iran and its economy if it does not withdraw from the international stage. Yin goes on to argue that America is not the only problem Iran has to face, saying, “Iran is isolated in the Middle East,” and its neighbors agree that it is a regional threat.
“IRGC’s Quds Force’s support to the Houthis, an anti-government force in Yemen, and the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon could not be tolerated by the US and its allies in the Middle East,” Yin writes. “Arab nations and Israel have lauded the US’ move on IRGC.”
Yin goes on to accept what the Iranian government denied for some time: that sanctions on its oil industry in response to its alleged illegal nuclear weapons development, which were lifted in the aftermath of the 2015 nuclear deal and restored last year, will have a devastating effect on the Iranian economy.
“Tehran’s strategy is to outlast Trump’s presidency until 2020 and then hope that he loses the elections, but the US president will not give Iran so much time,” Yin writes. Acknowledging that President Donald Trump is seeking to limit Iran’s military influence and arguing that conceding to Washington will soothe some of the pressure, Yin suggests yielding to America.
“In recent years, Iran’s strong presence in Yemen and Syria has triggered panic in the Arab world and Israel. If Iran adopts a prudent policy of strategic retreat, war and severe internal turmoil could be avoided,” the article reads. “But if it continues to be intransigent, the denouement would be hard to imagine.”
“With little prospect of a thaw between Washington and Tehran in the future, tensions are likely to rise. A better choice for Iran to deal with the situation is a strategic retreat in Yemen and Syria,” the piece recommends.
While Yin is not a government official, China’s ruling Communist Party often uses its propaganda vehicles to make controversial or outlandish statements that it would rather avoid placing in the mouths of its official diplomats. Most of its past commentary on Syria has focused on condemning that U.S. presence there, which exists to combat the Islamic State and is not participating significantly in the main fight between Assad and Sunni rebel groups. Despite this, Chinese media have insisted that a U.S. withdrawal would end the war entirely and have condemned Washington as a “rogue” state for airstrikes on Assad in response to a chemical weapons attack, arguing that President Donald Trump had “no clue” what he was doing there.
The language in the Global Times piece also differs significantly from how Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang responded to the U.S. designating the IRGC a terrorist group last week.
“When it comes to state-to-state relations, China always calls for countries to abide by the basic norms governing international relations based on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and opposes power politics and bullyism,” Lu said. “We hope relevant countries, especially non-regional major powers, will do more to contribute to peace and stability in the Middle East and refrain from actions that might lead to further escalation of tensions in the region.”
China enjoys friendly relations with Iran. In February, Communist Party leader Xi Jinping welcomed an Iranian delegation to Beijing, proclaiming that “no matter how the international and regional situation changes, China’s resolve to develop a comprehensive strategic partnership with Iran will remain unchanged.”
In the Middle East, reports have claimed evidence that Beijing has intentions of becoming a more influential player for years. A report by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) think tank in 2017 suggested that China was preparing to become more involved in the Middle East as a response to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uighur separatist group active in the nation’s east. The Global Times itself revealed in a 2018 article that Beijing was seeking a larger role in the Middle East in response to Trump withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.