Why Russia and China are building Iran
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The Ukrainian crisis reveals a flaw in President Biden’s Iranian strategy. Washington engages with Beijing and Moscow as if they share core U.S. interests with respect to Iran, while instead working with Tehran to undermine the state-led global order -United.
That is certainly what officials in Tehran are saying. Last Wednesday, Mahmoud Abbaszadeh-Meshkini, spokesperson for the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Iranian Parliament, said: “In the new world order, a triangle consisting of three powers – Iran, Russia and China – formed. He was clear on the objective: “This new arrangement announces the end of the inequitable hegemony of the United States and the West”.
The Biden team isn’t listening. Last Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who offered an interim deal to break the deadlock in Iran nuclear talks. “Russia shares our sense of urgency,” Mr. Blinken said, “and we hope Russia will use its influence. . . he has with Iran to make Iran understand this sense of urgency.
As Mr. Blinken spoke, Russia was holding joint naval exercises with China and Iran in the Indian Ocean. The day before, President Vladimir Putin received Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow. In a speech to the Duma, Raisi referred to the “resistance” – the movement Iran is leading to destroy the US-led order in the Middle East. The resistance, he said, drove Americans out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it also generated “the successful model of cooperation between Iran and Russia in Syria.” In this spirit, Mr. Raisi repeated Mr. Putin’s main grievance against Ukraine. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Mr. Raisi said, “seeks to infiltrate various geographical areas with new alibis that threaten the common interests of independent states”.
Mr. Putin’s campaign to bring Ukraine under Moscow’s control has a direct link to the joint Russian-Iranian plan to support the Assad regime in Syria. Russian naval bases in Sevastopol, Crimea (which Mr. Putin annexed from Ukraine in 2014) and Tartus, Syria, serve as operational hubs for Russia’s Mediterranean presence. A strong and independent Ukraine threatens Moscow’s ability to project power in the Middle East.
Mr. Putin can agree that Iran should never possess nuclear weapons. Cooperating closely with the United States to achieve this goal, however, interferes with its most pressing priority, which is to undermine the US-led order.
For his part, Chinese President Xi Jinping makes a similar set of calculations. Thanks to one of the fastest military build-ups in history, China now has the largest air force in Asia, the largest army in the world by number of active-duty troops and the largest navy by number of ships. According to leaders of the US Indo-Pacific Command, the Chinese military will be on the verge of successfully invading Taiwan by 2027. The Pentagon is playing catch-up. It acquires new weapons and technologies capable of deterring China, but these will not be fully integrated into the force until the end of this decade. China’s optimal window to conquer Taiwan will therefore be between 2025 and 2030, when its military modernization will peak while US forces are still adapting.
Which brings us back to Iran. In the event of a war in Taiwan, China will turn to Tehran and its proxies to threaten shipping, to locate one or more US carrier groups in the Persian Gulf. But the value of the Iranian “Resistance” does not stop there. Beijing is heavily dependent on oil imports from the Middle East. It aims to protect its long and vulnerable supply lines by overthrowing the United States as the preeminent power in the region. He’s not strong enough to mount a direct challenge, so he’s using Iran as his backbone.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian recently announced that the 25-year strategic agreement between Iran and China, forged last year, has entered into force. At the heart of the deal is oil for security aid. Is China actively encouraging Iran to unleash its proxies against US Gulf allies? Not that we know. But he builds Iran and does nothing to counter his most evil behavior. Beijing can only have noticed that when US allies look to Washington for help, they encounter a tired and distracted America, increasingly unwilling to deter Iran. Increasingly exposed, the allies cover themselves, leaning timidly towards Beijing.
China’s influence in military affairs in the Middle East has therefore increased considerably. It sells military equipment to most Middle Eastern allies of the United States and manufactures weapons in partnership with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. He helps the Saudis master nuclear technology. In the spring of 2021, US intelligence observed that China was secretly building a military site at Khalifa Port near Abu Dhabi. Construction only stopped after being twisted by Washington.
The interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program that Mr. Lavrov discussed with Mr. Blinken would call on Iran to reduce its stockpiles of enriched uranium in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But that would only fuel Iran’s economy while allowing it to retain the ability to generate enough fissile material to build a near-term nuclear weapon. Proxy wars will expand and nuclear blackmail will continue.
In short, China and Russia are building Iran. Both need a partner in the Middle East dedicated to “resistance” – to undermining American power. Why is the Biden team accompanying the ride? Washington’s approach should be more strategic. Among the members of the global alliance dedicated to destroying the American-led order, Iran is the most vulnerable. The job of the United States is to defuse it.
MM. Clark and Doran are senior fellows at the Hudson Institute.
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Why Russia and China are building Iran
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