What is behind the hype about the new Iran-China partnership?

By exaggerating the scope and ambitions of the prospective deal, the US media is once again fanning the flames of war.

Iran China 2016 AP photo
China's President Xi Jinping, left, and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani are seen together following a joint press conference in Tehran, Iran, January 23, 2016 [AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi]

The mainstream US media and think-tanks based along the Washington, DC, beltway have been gripped by two recent momentous developments in the Middle East, both interpreted as escalations in the geopolitical conflict between the US and Iran: the news of a prospective strategic partnership agreement between Iran and China, and the normalisation of relations between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel.

In fact, the first development was a media creation. The New York Times (NYT) ran a front-page story citing a “leaked” draft of the 25-year strategic partnership agreement under negotiation between China and Iran since 2016.

It was provocatively headlined: Defying US, China and Iran near trade and military partnership.

“The investment and security pact would vastly extend China’s influence in the Middle East, throwing Iran an economic lifeline and creating new flashpoints with the United States,” read the accompanying blurb.

There was no mention of a military partnership in the reported draft agreement, however, and speculation that Iran could lease strategic Gulf islands to China was spread by former-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and members of Iran’s parliament suspicious of Beijing’s intentions.

Nonetheless, the NYT headline set the breathless tone for the US media’s coverage of the August 13 establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE.

It was not long before the US media was discussing how the UAE-Israel agreement represented the formation of a US-led grand alliance against a new “axis of evil” between Iran, China and possibly also Turkey.

This echoed earlier US media scoops about confidential negotiations between Israeli and Emirati leaders.

Gripping, is it not?

Well, it is also a disservice to the media’s audiences. There is no grand alliance or “evil axis” – just tentative diplomacy and proxy warfare amid shifts in the balance of power in the Middle East, necessitated in part by the withdrawal of US combat forces from the region, as well as the seepage of power to Beijing from Washington.

This information is not hard to come by. A little digging quickly uncovers the large, eloquent body of research and analysis that is maintained and constantly updated by very capable academics.

These genuine experts are easy to find on Twitter, where they share each other’s work and chat about the latest news.

Unsurprisingly, they have not been impressed with the mainstream media’s melodramatic coverage of US-China competition in the Middle East.

Guy Burton, author of the recently published book, China and Middle East Conflicts, took exception to a story published by The Hill, headlined: A China-Iran partnership would make China the Middle East arbiter.

“Articles like this overplay China’s investment and influence in Iran (and Israel),” Burton tweeted.

“How much of this is intentional (to influence US policy) or because of a misunderstanding of Chinese interest and capacity?” he asked.

Ironically, his question was answered by the State Department’s own media arm, Voice of America (VoA), in a nicely balanced article pegged to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent bombast on the subject.

In an August 2 interview with Fox News, Pompeo claimed that the prospective China-Iran deal would put Communist cash in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s hands.

“China’s entry into Iran will destabilise the Middle East. It’ll put Israel at risk. It’ll put the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates at risk as well,” Pompeo said.

The VoA report quoted two Washington-based think-tank hawks supportive of Pompeo’s rhetoric. Then – braving the Trump administration’s campaign to turn the VoA into a partisan parrot – the report cited interviews with three acknowledged experts on the region who debunked Pompeo’s rhetoric.

I suspect the VOA Farsi service journalists who conducted those interviews had come across articles written by these specialists, all deploring the twisted portrayal of the media.

Writing for the aptly-named website Responsible Statecraft, Jacopo Scita, a doctoral fellow at Durham University, said: “The news of a 25-year comprehensive cooperation agreement secretly signed between the Iranian government and China has been the hot topic of the last few weeks, generating a considerable amount of speculation, exaggeration, and politically biased interpretation.

“In reality, the accord does not seem to have the potential to revolutionise the path of China-Iran relations, which has been quite consistent since 1979,” he said.

Scita and his fellow academics have explained in great detail where the misleading hype originated from, why China has no motivation whatsoever to take sides in the Middle East’s conflicts, and why Pompeo’s alarmist rhetoric is driven by the prospect that he and his boss might soon lose their jobs.

Karen Young, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, summed up the Trump administration’s failures in an article for Al-Monitor entitled: The false logic of a China-US choice in the Middle East.

She said countering China in the Middle East “has proven challenging due to inconsistencies within US policy and with the growing perception of China’s attractiveness to the region.”

Framing the discussion of China’s rise or role in the Middle East to a zero-sum game of choosing either US or Chinese patronage and partnership has served rhetorically only to increase China’s stature among the region’s political leadership, she said.

And relatedly, Young said, the US security strategy that explicitly mentions the importance of allies and shared values has failed to rely on those strengths in counterarguments to the Chinese “choice.”

Burton explained that the real target of Washington is Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While the Trump administration was busy setting the Middle East alight by withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the Chinese were building ports and industrial zones around the region.

Primarily a means of projecting soft power, the BRI may eventually become a cause of conflict in the Middle East because it may result in greater competition by countries to attract Chinese interest and investment, Burton said.

“The outcome may be that China ceases to be an outside observer of conflict and becomes an active – albeit reluctant – participant,” he said.

In other words, China risks being sucked into other nations’ rivalries, but it will not be the one to pick a fight.

At the risk of spotlighting my own inadequacies as a journalist, I can not help wondering why editors and writers seem so willing to fan the flames of war.

They have evoked painful memories of how the US media – with the Pulitzer Prize-winning exception of Knight Ridder – unquestioningly propagated the entirely false “weapons of mass destruction” justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The long-suffering peoples of the Middle East could do without journalists once again playing cheerleader for American politicians who perpetuate their domestic power by igniting conflict in others’ backyards.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.