Can Beijing and Moscow Help with Tehran?

The real test of President Barack Obama’s dealing with China and Russia will be whether he can persuade them to support U.S. pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear weapons aspirations. Obama is reported to have lobbied China on that issue during his recent visit. He also broached the topic with Russia in the recent past for the same purpose, but with little success. Iran denies wanting to join the nuclear club, but Washington has no faith in those denials.

Iran’s denuclearization has emerged as the chief litmus test of whether the United States has succeeded in pressing the “reset” button and thereby improving its ties with Russia, which plays a crucial role in Iran’s progress in acquiring nuclear technology. Iran also depends on Russia to sell its S-300 surface-air missile system to forestall any surprise air attack from Israel or the United States. That element of surprise has been considerably reduced by the fact that Israeli aircraft have to overfly Iraq in order to attack Iran. That is not possible without America’s approval. Washington’s approval of an Israeli air attack on Iran will have immensely negative effects on the internal political stability of Iraq, where Iran’s clout is quite high.

By the same token, the United States has to think long and hard about taking military action against Iran while increasing its troop deployment in Afghanistan. U.S. forces can become easy targets of Iran’s asymmetric-war-related activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly at a time when the political tide in Afghanistan is already heavily favoring the Taliban and internal violence in Iraq appears to be escalating. For a predominantly Shia country, Iran has shown remarkable pragmatism in cooperating with intensely anti-American Sunni Islamist groups to make matters worse for American forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Under these circumstances, a potentially effective option for the United States is to heavily lobby China and Russia to support UN sanctions on Iran. However, in this regard, both of those countries have major strategic agendas of their own related to Iran, while Iran also holds a card or two of its own.

Obstacles to Trilateral Cooperation

Iran is a major source of energy supplies for China. Considering the significance of foreign energy sources to its voracious appetite for oil and gas, China has limits to how far it can go in cooperating with the United States. What is bothering both China and Russia, however, is that Iran cannot seem to make up its mind about how far it would go in accepting U.S. demands about giving up enriched uranium.

During the Bush administration, Iran worried about the Bush doctrine of preemptive military action. That was one reason why it sought security guarantees under a comprehensive agreement (a strategic bargain, to recall Henry Kissinger’s proposal for dealing with Iran). Under Obama, that feeling has somewhat lessened, but Iran does not seem to be very forthcoming in making its “peaceful intentions” regarding its nuclear program believable. This inability might well be related to the fact that it, in fact, wishes to develop nuclear weapons. Even if that is not the case, Iranian zigzagging on the issue possibly reflects the declining legitimacy of the current rulers after the last presidential election.

Iran also serves as a major source of hard currency for Russian nuclear technology and other military weapons at a time when Russia’s economy remains heavily reliant on income from energy sources. This dependency could limit Russian support for a joint strategy toward Iran.

Finally, Iran looms large in both Chinese and Russian maneuvering for position in an increasingly multipolar global order. Iran has never accepted America’s dominant role in the Middle East. It retains major clout in Iraq and Lebanon and remains highly popular in Gaza for its support of Hamas. As such, Iran has been indirectly promoting the Sino-Russian agenda of challenging America’s dominance in the Arab world and building a more multipolar world.

Chinese Calculations

For now, the Obama administration has scored a victory when it received the backing of Beijing and Moscow for an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolution that censured Iran and ordered it to halt construction of a secret uranium enrichment plant near the city of Qom. China’s support for this resolution was the result of Iran’s backtracking on a deal with the five-plus-one countries (the Permanent Five of the UN Security Council plus Germany) for moving most of its nuclear fuel stocks abroad in exchange for importing material needed for its medical research reactor.

The vote also came at a time when the U.S. president, during his recent trip to Asia, assured China that the lone superpower has no intention of containing it. On the contrary, Obama stated that his administration is fully focused on engagement. The overall tone of the global coverage of President Obama’s trip to China had all the ingredients to boost the self-confidence of the Chinese leadership that their country has indeed arrived as the next candidate for superpowerdom.

Under these circumstances, China has no intention of ruining its moment of glory by refusing to cooperate with the United States just to please Iran. The most understated fact of Sino-Iranian relations is that Iran needs China more than the other way around. As much as China is in need of foreign energy sources, it also knows that, given the international sanction-ridden environment, Iran is quite eager to sell its oil and gas to China. Iran has also become an observer in the Sino-Russian-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is steadily acquiring a heightened global visibility. So, China can afford to first side with Iran, then with the United States, and then calculate the ebb-and-flow of events before deciding its next move.

These seesaw maneuvers of China might also be the result of the rapt attention its leaders are paying to the latest twist of Obama’s strategy of inserting 30,000 troops in Afghanistan. Iran will not be a silent observer in the explosive dynamics of its next-door neighbor. As it did in Iraq, it will extract from the United States a price for cooperation. Afghanistan is a country whose stability (or the lack thereof) will affect its Central Asian neighbors. The political stability of those countries has become part of China’s primary, if not vital, interests. Russia has also attached similar significance to the stability of those countries since the mid-1990s.

President Obama, during his recent trip to China, is reported to have told President Hu that “the US may not be able to restrain the Israelis from launching a massive military strike on Iran’s nuclear and missile facilities for much longer.” China may view this statement as an important aspect of America’s diplomatic maneuvers and may not take it seriously. After all, in case of an Israeli attack, U.S. forces face serious consequences from Iran’s asymmetric warfare capabilities in Afghanistan and Iraq. Washington cannot simply ignore this potential blowback before green-lighting the Israelis to carry out massive air attacks on nuclear facilities scattered all over Iran.

China will observe the Iranian maneuvers in Afghanistan and revisit the extent of its cooperation with the United States in pressuring Iran on the nuclear issue accordingly. If the United States encounters another quagmire in Afghanistan, then the Iranian clout will increase in untangling that mess. Because both Russia and China also expect to play some role in affecting events in Afghanistan, Iran still has a few cards to play with China and Russia.

Russian Tensions

The support of the aforementioned IAEA resolution by the duumvirate of President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was somewhat surprising. While Medvedev appears flexible in dealing with the United States, Putin is not. Putin is more resolute in asserting Russia’s role as a wannabe superpower.

In a recent speech during the United Russia Party’s 11th Congress, Medvedev criticized the party’s “conservative” stance on a number of issues faced by Russia and emphasized the urgent need for political modernization. He also stated that United Russia “needs to step up and reform itself and put a halt to ‘administrative excesses’ within.” Those comments were given global coverage because Putin is the chairman of that party. At least for now, there have been reports of friction between Medvedev and Putin.

Russia’s support of the IAEA resolution might be an outcome of the split between Medvedev and Putin, who supports providing assistance to Iran as an integral aspect of asserting Russian power. Or Russia might merely be signaling Iran to be more forthcoming on the nuclear issue toward Permanent-5-plus-one countries.

Post-Election Confusion

Iran’s behavior regarding the nuclear issue has recently become even more complicated. The June 2009 presidential election raised serious questions about the current nature of domestic support for the government and its nuclear ambitions.

The foreign policy of the Islamic Republic has always been a confusing variable for Western diplomats. It has become even more confusing now that Iran faces rising domestic tensions. The usual slogans of “death to America” are increasingly interspersed with slogans of “death to dictators” (the latter being Khameini and Ahmadinejad). The Iranian leadership may very well be afraid to offer concessions to the Perm-5-plus-one countries that might be misconstrued, both inside and outside of Iran, as a sign of its wobbliness.

The Iranian people, meanwhile, have a quite mixed attitude toward their country’s nuclear program. According to a poll conducted by the World Public Opinion.Org (WPO) across Iran between August 27 and September 10, 2009, 31% of Iranians favor stopping uranium enrichment if sanctions are dropped; 34% support the enrichment program, but also favor allowing full access to the IAEA if sanctions are dropped; 22% of respondents oppose both agreements; and about 13% did not respond. The Iranian public knows quite well the negative impact of sanctions on their economy: 60% of the respondents to the WPO poll said that sanctions have “at least some negative impact” and 23% thought that they have a lot of negative impact. In other words, the Iranian government can’t count on strong domestic support for its intransigent policy of continuing its nuclear research program without any regard to economic sanctions.

As Iran is steadily heading on the road to even more confusion and chaos, President Obama’s task of negotiating with that country is becoming progressively more difficult. His strategy of developing a great power consensus on denuclearizing Iran is highly thoughtful and potentially very constructive. However, China and Russia are not yet fully on board with this consensus. Iran remains a major actor in the strategic maneuvers of both Beijing and Moscow in the evolution of a multipolar global power arrangement.

Ehsan Ahrari is professor of security studies at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Honolulu, HI, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. Views expressed herein are strictly his own and do not represent those of the APCSS, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. He can be reached at: [email protected]