U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Impact of China and Russia

  • Feb 6, 2012

    US competition with Iran has become the equivalent of a game of three-dimensional chess, but a game where each side can modify at least some of the rules with each move. It is also a game that has been going on for some three decades.  It is clear that it is also a game that is unlikely to be ended by better dialog and mutual understanding, and that Iran’s version of “democracy” is unlikely to change the way it is played in the foreseeable future.

    The Burke Chair at CSIS is preparing a detailed analysis of the history and character of this competition as part of a project supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation. This has led to the preparation of a new draft report entitled The Impact of China and Russia, which is now available on the CSIS web site at http://csis.org/files/publication/REPORT_Iran_Chapter_X_China_and_Russia_Final_Revision2212.pdf

    Comments on this draft will be extremely helpful and should be sent to acordesman@gmail.com.

    This report shows that China and Russia stand at the pivot of US-Iranian strategic competition. As major world powers and permanent members of the UN Security Council, China and Russia can play a critical role in shaping sanctions and other aspects of international action. The formal position of both China and Russia is that they will impose only those sanctions required by applicable UN Security Council resolutions and not enact sanctions beyond those specifically mandated.

    At the same time, both countries seek maximize the benefits they can gain from the ongoing competition by refusing to commit to either player. Both nations have an interest in preventing or at least forestalling open hostility as conflict will upset their balancing act. China and Russia work to leverage support to advance their own positions while at the same minimizing the diplomatic costs of double-dealing. In the recent past, China has carefully tilted toward Iran, and Russia towards the West. But China has recently been more cautious in dealing with Iran, while Russia has tended to game the issue as part of a broader hardening in its relations with the US.

    The US and Iran stress the value of their relationship and the costs of partnership with the other in competing efforts to win Chinese and Russian support. The US works to integrate China into the present international order, while Iran rejects the status quo and urges China, as a fellow non-Western power, to create a new system apart from the West. Competition plays out over issues of proliferation and sanctions, trade and energy investments, and arms sales. Importantly, Iran seeks to win Chinese support by billing itself as a secure and dedicated source of energy resources for a century of Chinese growth.

    China has been able to maintain positive if somewhat strained relations with both the US and Iran by selectively supporting each side. China is willing to use US competition with Iran as an opportunity to grow its influence and test the boundaries of the US-led international order.  Its moves are calculated to reap the benefits of US-Iranian conflict while deemphasizing the costs associated with supporting both sides.

    Unlike China whose overriding interest in Iran is energy security, Russia has a multiplicity of interests, none of which are predominant. As a result, Russia’s approach to Iran is both broader and more flexible than the PRC’s and the US and Iran compete for Russian support on an issue-by-issue basis. The primary areas of competition are proliferation and sanctions, trade and energy deals, nuclear technology and infrastructure sales, arms sales, and influence in the Gulf and greater Middle East.

    Russia has historically been an important contributor to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and conventional arms capacity, but relations between the two states have been impacted by intensifying Iranian competition with the West and warming Russian relations with the US in the wake of the Obama administration’s “reset” policy. Russia has cooperated with the US in meaningful ways, but Moscow’s moves away from Tehran should not be interpreted as a wholesale shift in Russian policy. Russia remains vocal in its condemnation of a military solution to the conflict and has been unwilling to support increased sanctions beyond UNSCR 1924 issued in June, 2010. Russia’s role in the competition is affected by pressure put on Moscow by a changing political landscape in the Middle East, specifically the uncertain future of its Syrian ally President Bashar al-Assad, and domestic political concerns surrounding alleged Western influence in the upcoming Russian presidential election.

    Russia’s strategy to maintain coeval relations with the US and Iran has been to portray itself as an intermediary power. By cooperating on a limited basis with the West while advocating for a softer approach to Iran, Russia reaps the benefits of selective cooperation without incurring the costs of full allegiance.

    The ties that China and Russia have with Iran are based primarily on each country's opportunistic assessment of the costs and benefits of a given relationship relative to the risk that the IRI will proliferate, threaten the flow of world oil supplies, and upset their relations with the US and other countries that oppose Iran. Both China and Russia work to gain politically and economically from the ongoing competition between the US and Iran, but do so with the knowledge that Iran can only offer a limited range of incentives compared to China and Russia’s broader strategic interests. 

    Leaders in Moscow and Beijing focus on the security and prosperity of their respective nations, and pursue international relationships from that standpoint. At the present, external pressure from the US and its allies is not yet significant enough to make either China or Russia give up all ties to Iran, and they manipulate such ties to Iran as a bargaining chip in dealing with the US, European, and the Arab Gulf states.  If the US is to be more successful in isolating Iran, it will need to convince both countries that Iran poses a greater threat to their interests than they now perceive, seek the help of the Arab Gulf states and other powers to influence China and Russia, and develop a more powerful mix of incentives and penalties to encourage Chinese and Russian cooperation.

    Other Burke Chair Reports on Iran and Gulf Security Can be found here: https://dev.csis.org/program/burke-chair-us-and-iranian-strategic-competition

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Anthony H. Cordesman