Research & Analysis

The World This Week: Iran’s Military Satellite, Tensions in the South China Sea and Israel’s New Government

Iran: First Military Satellite launch is a strategic achievement, says the IRGC Chief

What happened?
In the wee hours on April 22, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Aerospace division in Iran launched its first three-stage carrier military satellite, Noor-1 from a launch station in the Shahroud region. The Iran News reported that this satellite had reached 425 kilometres in orbit which is 264 miles above Earth’s surface.

According to the IRGC Aerospace Force Chief Ali Hajizadeh, the combination of liquid and solid hybrid propulsion fuelling system has led to the successful launch of the military satellite. The Supreme leader has felicitated IRGC for the successful launch; the IRGC head, Hossein Salami has called it a “strategic achievement” for the country. Salami has also said that Iran’s intelligence, defence and space capabilities received a boost with the launch.

The US has called the launch as a violation of the UNSC Resolution 2231 by Iran. Israel has condemned the same and has called for “an imposition of additional sanctions on the Iranian regime to deter it from continuing these dangerous and inciting actions.”

What is the background?
From 2009 till present, Iran has indigenously developed and launched satellites like Omid, Payam, Doosti and Zafar-1. While the launch of Omid was considered a success, the subsequent launches of Payam, Doosti and Zafar-1 satellites (a communication satellite) were considered as failures. The launch of Noor-1 after several attempts despite heavy sanctions brings Iran in the group of countries racing to develop its space capabilities.

The launch has raised serious concerns and questions on the capabilities of Iran, while the country struggles to fight the pandemic and the regime prioritizes its national security.

The US and Israel have serious concerns. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo has called for an evaluation of the launch as it makes it possible for Iran to launch Inter-continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM’s) and nuclear warheads with the same technology in future thereby leading to a violation of the UNSC Resolution 2231 by the country. France has called Iran’s ballistics programme a major concern for regional and international security.

According to Iran, the launch does not violate the resolution, and it has no intention to develop a nuclear weapon. It claims its activities as peaceful and only intends to improve its information and communication technologies.

The commander of IRGC, Hossein Salami, has responded to the US saying that Iran will not compromise on its national security. Iran’s success has brought the much-needed morale boost for the regime to take a leadership position among the big powers to expand its military capabilities.

What does it mean?
First, the satellite launch gives a military breakthrough for Iran. The larger question is: will Iran’s military and “strategic” achievements result in Tehran respecting the promises made to the international community? Iran has confirmed that it has not violated any norms and added that it would move to use its military capabilities for civilian purposes like telecommunication, promoting its reconnaissance and safe communication.

Second, the larger question is: does Iran has the capacity to build a three-stage carrier satellite indigenously, and whether it might use the same technology to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Third, what does the military launch mean for the regional strategic environment in the Middle East? With tensions in Israel, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria continuing, what does the new military capability of Iran means?

Finally, a note on the impact of sanctions and the lessons for the US on the subject. The launch is a step ahead in showcasing that Iran is immune from the external pressure.

 

Tensions in the South China Sea, as the US and Australia, join forces. Against China

What happened?
On April 22, an Australian frigate HMAS Parramatta joined three warships from the US seventh fleet destroyer USS Barry in the disputed waters of South China sea where a Chinese survey ship (Haiyang Dizhi 8) was suspected of exploring oil near Malaysia’s Petronas State Oil vessel.

The waters have been claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia and China. The incident took place after the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of taking advantage of the world’s preoccupation with the pandemic to push its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

China has denied the reports of perpetuating any ‘standoff’ saying that its survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 was conducting ‘normal activities.’ However, the US has called on China to stop its “bullying behaviour” in the South China Sea, which is in dispute between China, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Though the Chinese ship docked within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign affairs has not commented on the issue.

What is the background?
The current tussle in the South China Sea comes at a time when tensions are wedging deeper between the two economic giants, the US and China.

The South China Sea is the strategic waterway through which one-third of global shipping flows. The resource-rich waterway is claimed by China to build artificial islands and military outposts.

The territorial claims of China in the South China Sea keeps expanding and increasing disagreement among the ASEAN members, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia and the US who has an active naval base in the Pacific Ocean.

China continues to overshadow the region by harassing the fishing boats, military ships and oil and gas rigs of the smaller South-East Asian states. Earlier this week, Beijing further agitated the Southeast Asian neighbours by creating two administrative islands in the disputed region of the South China Sea. Vietnam protested after China said that it had established an administrative system in Paracel and Spratly islands in the archipelagos that are claimed by Vietnam and Malaysia as well.

What does it mean?
The US warships patrolling through the sensitive straits of the South China Sea are aimed at containing the growing tension involving China. The US claims its presence of patrol vessels as the “Freedom of Navigation” to sail in the international waterways.

The spread of pandemic from China and the inability of the US to control the death toll due to the virus have opened a series of accusations made by the US on China. For China, the advantage is the crisis situation and the declining US power in global politics. Both have muted the Asian countries like India, Malaysia, Japan, Vietnam and others in reacting to the issues..

Despite sending a threat alert to China, the silence of the regional states evidently shows their dependence on China and the declining US position. Perhaps, the US action is to prevent any further decline.

 

Israel: New Coalition deal keeps Netanyahu in power

What happened?
On April 23 the Knesset gave its preliminary approval to the coalition deal agreed between the head of Blue and White, Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The coalition deal signed on April 20 led to the formation of an emergency National Unity government which will formally enable the rotation of the seat of the Prime Minister between Netanyahu and Gantz every 18 months, respectively. Gantz, in his address to the parliament, stated that the government would work effectively in combating the coronavirus, enable the budget to be passed and ensure that the justice system can operate soundly and freely.

The coalition government has come as a shock to many as both the Blue and White Party of Gantz and the Likud party of Netanyahu were against each other, delivering the worst criticisms during the three tough election campaigns last year. Another reason for the wave of restlessness among the Israelis is the outcome of the coalition before the trial of corruption charges against Benjamin Netanyahu.

What is the background?
A caretaker government led Israel since December 2018, when the 20th Knesset dissolved. Since then, three consecutive elections have failed to result in forming a new government, creating an unprecedented political crisis.

The coalition government emerged when President Reuven Rivlin informed Benny Gantz that the mandate period to choose a new prime minister has expired. This government has purely stemmed out due to the existing COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis, bringing uncertainty to the politics of Israel.  Both political parties realized the implications of prolonging the political instability if a minority government or a fourth election was conducted in such circumstances.

What does it mean?
First, although the current government now holds a majority to dictate what Israel wants, the response to the coalition is mixed. Netanyahu’s trial, which commences from May 24, can have a significant influence in predicting the future of the coalition as well. If found guilty, Netanyahu will have to step down. However since he will be in office for the majority of the trial period, which may take one to three years, Netanyahu may exert his influence in either delaying the trial or getaway without any charges.

Second, there is a high possibility that Netanyahu may continue with the “deal of the century” with the support of the Trump government in extending Israel’s sovereignty into the West Bank. Despite the UN and the EU’s warning, Netanyahu is likely to proceed with this since he now has a majority in the Knesset. If the Knesset does not give its approval, then the continuation of the deal entirely depends upon the outcome of the US elections due in November.

 

Also, in the news…

Trump’s Executive Order to halt Immigration
President Trump signed an Executive Order barring Immigration into the United States. The order, however, is not a blanket ban on immigration, as Trump had initially announced. The order includes a temporary ban on approval of green cards. We can decipher two reasons- first, the fear of the spread of the pandemic if immigration continues into the country. Second, protecting American jobs seems the priority, especially when the unemployment rate is exceptionally high due to COVID-19.

Trump tweets that the US Navy would destroy Iranian gunboats as Iran-US face-off continues amidst COVID-19 crisis
On April 22 2020, President Trump tweeted that the US Navy would destroy Iranian gunboats if they were found harassing US vessels at the Persian Gulf. The statement comes after the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy “provoked” the US Navy and Coast Guard vessels in the Gulf by coming “dangerously” close to them in high speeds. Trump’s threat led to an increase in falling oil prices. As a response to his statement, the leader of the IRGC ordered to categorically target US ships in the Persian Gulf.

Saudi Arabia coalition extends the ceasefire by one month, as the Houthis refuse to acknowledge
The Saudi-led coalition announced a ceasefire for one month after the two-week ceasefire lapsed. The Iran-backed Houthi rebels stated that they would not agree to the ceasefire unless air and sea blockades were lifted in the areas they control. The second ceasefire coinciding with the month of Ramadan is expected to give space for Yemen to focus on controlling the epidemic. Though only one case has been reported so far, the fear is palpable, given the level of the impoverishment of the population as well as the government.

Brazil battles COVID-19 and political turmoil simultaneously.
The virus has affected more than 52000 Brazilians and has killed around 3670 of them. Poor healthcare infrastructure is reaching its threshold, failing to control the pandemic. Yet, there have been protests by people who oppose the lockdown and stagnation of the economy. President Bolsonaro has supported this section of the population and attended the rally to oppose the lockdown imposed by the provincial governors.

Due to disagreements over the state’s response to COVID-19, he fired Luiz Henrique Mondetta, the popular health minister of Brazil, who had earned appreciation for his handling of the crisis. On the other hand, Brazil’s justice minister Sergio Moro resigned on April 24 accusing Bolsonaro of using the Federal Police for political gains. The resignation came within hours of the President firing the Federal Police Chief Maurício Valeixo. Brazil seems to fight the pandemic and political crisis at the same time.

A volatile week for crude oil prices
The beginning of this week saw an unusual development in the oil market when the prices went negative. The future contracts for May expired on April 21. While trying to sell the oil to storage facilities, the traders’ rush in the crude market and the inability of the storage facilities to buy, pushed the prices below zero. The traders had to pay the buyers to take the oil. As the demand fell by more than 30 per cent due to COVID-19, the storage facilities are reaching their full capacity. The production, however, has not come down in proportion with the demand.

China inducing millions into WHO after the US withholds funding
On April 23, China announced injecting an additional US$30 million into the World Health Organization, to fight the pandemic. This comes in the wake of the United States freezing further funding to the organization. There have been very contradicting perspectives on the functioning of the WHO since the virus became a serious crisis in the US. While Washington has criticized it for hushing up the mistakes of China, the latter has appreciated its response to the pandemic worldwide.

Students in Hong Kong are taking secondary school examinations
Even as COVID-19 rages across the world, students in Hong Kong took secondary school final examinations this week. A health check-up of every student was conducted, and they had to submit a health certificate to enter the centre. Physical distancing and sanitization measures were undertaken prior to the exams.

 

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About the author

A Padmashree, Harini Sha, Aarthi Srinivasan and Rashmi Ramesh

A Padmashree, Harini Sha and Aarathi Srinivasan are interns at the NIAS Global Politics Course. They are pursuing post-graduation at the Department of International Studies at Stella Maris College, Chennai. Rashmi Ramesh is a PhD scholar at the Science Diplomacy Programme, School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS.