Why China and Russia Help Iran

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Why China and Russia Help Iran

A new UN Security Council resolution expresses concern over Iran’s nuclear program, but offers little to stop it. China and Russia are happy for it to stay that way.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – along with Germany have agreed on a draft joint resolution on Iran to present to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The text expresses their “deep and increasing concern” about Tehran’s possible research into nuclear weapons, as described in the latest IAEA report. But the fact that the resolution is all words and little action can be put down to the resistance of Beijing and Moscow to adopting anything stronger.

The resolution calls on Iran to grant the IAEA access “to all relevant information, documentation, sites, material, and personnel” the agency needs to investigate the evidence that Iranians had earlier engaged in nuclear weapons research and testing. However, the draft resolution doesn’t refer the Iranian file to the UN Security Council (UNSC), which alone is empowered under international law to adopt enforcement actions.

After surprising many observers and voting for an additional round of UNSC sanctions last summer, Beijing and Moscow have both regressed to their mean. While calling on Iran to refrain from developing nuclear weapons and make its nuclear work more transparent, they have been resisting any new sanctions, whether by the UNSC or individual Western governments.

Their diplomats note that the existing sanctions have failed to modify Iran’s nuclear policies and, if anything, have made Tehran more obstinate. Instead, they are calling for renewed efforts at dialogue and negotiations, a position Tehran has naturally supported. Beijing and Moscow even sought to delay publication of the latest IAEA report detailing Iran’s nuclear weapons-related activities, claiming its appearance would prove counterproductive and reduce the prospects of a negotiated settlement. 

Of course, one shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which Beijing and Moscow have already hardened their positions regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Chinese and Russian officials have repeatedly made clear their exasperation at Tehran’s stubborn refusal to meet UNSC demands to suspend its nuclear enrichment program as a prerequisite to a diplomatic settlement, which has therefore remained elusive.

Indeed, they’ve joined the IAEA and UNSC in issuing numerous warnings to Iran that Tehran had to cease its uranium enrichment, which can be used to make weapons-grade fissile material that could power a nuclear explosion. They have also cautioned Iran to provide the IAEA with additional information about its earlier nuclear activities that could be interpreted as seeking to develop a workable nuclear weapon design. They have voted for four rounds of economic sanctions, including some rather severe ones last year, and their governments have generally sought to enforce these sanctions.

But despite years of unilateral and multinational sanctions, as well as protracted negotiations and exhortations by many world leaders, the Iranian government has adamantly sought to develop the capacity to enrich uranium in Iran, without direct foreign assistance.

The recurring revelations about Iran’s suspicious nuclear activities—culminating in the revelation in early 2010 that Iran had established yet another clandestine nuclear enrichment facility, this time deep within a mountain near the holy site of Qom—have clearly undermined their trust in Tehran’s intentions.

Previously, Chinese and Russian officials might have blamed the George W. Bush administration for its alleged threatening behavior for blocking a diplomatic settlement and even prompting fearful Iranians to consider acquiring nuclear weapons as a means to guarantee their security. But the Obama administration’s efforts to engage Iran in negotiations about its nuclear program and other issues have led many of them at least to hold the Ahmadinejad regime primarily responsible for the continuing crisis. At international meetings, Chinese and Russian leaders have visibly sought to minimize their public contact with Ahmadinejad and distance themselves from his fiery anti-Jewish and anti-Western rhetoric.

In June 2010, they sided with the Western powers rather than with Brazil and Turkey in the UNSC and voted for a fourth round of mandatory sanctions against Tehran for its continued pursuit of sensitive nuclear activities. These activities violate earlier Council resolutions prohibiting Iran from enriching uranium or undertaking other activities that could contribute to its developing nuclear weapons until Tehran had made its current and past nuclear work more transparent to the IAEA.

The change in the Chinese and Russian positions was also evident when they decided last year that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which they co-lead, couldn’t admit Tehran as a full member as long as Iran is under UN sanctions. Since they voted to impose the sanctions, they have effectively vetoed Iran’s SCO membership for the indefinite future.

Even more important, the Russian government, after a period of contradictory statements from Russian officials, later announced that the fourth round of sanctions prohibited Moscow from selling S-300 air defense missiles to Iran. For years, Israeli and Western officials had warned that actually delivering the S-300s could force Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear targets before the systems became operational, when they could considerably increase the threat to Israeli pilots.

Until then, Russian officials had insisted that they would deliver the S-300s, claiming that the interceptors represented a defensive weapon and since any such sale would conform fully with international and Russian law. But after years of rumors about when the deliveries would proceed, and after recurring Russian statements that it was just a matter of resolving some financial and technical difficulties before the transaction could occur, the Russians used the excuse of the UN sanctions to avoid the firestorm that such sales would have provoked.

These decisions were subjective interpretations of their UN obligations – Beijing and Moscow could have argued that the UNSC resolutions had a more limited scope, and didn’t cover the S-300s or the SCO’s membership.

That said, given that Russia’s arms exports have been running at record levels, with more than $30 billion worth of orders already booked, the Russian government could have foregone the S-300 sale without great economic pain. Other Russian arms sales have continued. Russian diplomats have also made clear that they expected Israel and the United States to restrain their weapons sales to Georgia as compensation for Moscow’s restraint regarding Iran. And Chinese officials at least have made clear that they would like to avoid giving the appearance that the SCO is an anti-American bloc, something Iran’s elevation to full membership would have done.

Neither China nor Russia want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, but Russian and Chinese opposition to imposing additional sanctions on Iran is unsurprising. Both governments have consistently defended the right of Iran and other countries to pursue nuclear activities for peaceful purposes, such as civilian energy production.

China’s defense white paper, “China’s National Defense in 2008,” published in early 2009, affirms that, “China maintains that the Iranian nuclear issue should be resolved peacefully by political and diplomatic means.”

In 2007, then-President Vladimir Putin concisely characterized Moscow’s position as follows: “We have no evidence of Iran's intention to produce nuclear weapons. Therefore, we proceed from the premise that Iran has no such plans. But we share the concern of other partners and believe that Iran's programs must be transparent.” Putin will presumably continue this position after he returns to the presidency next year.

Chinese and Russian officials may want to change the behavior of the Iranian regime, but they both fear regime change in Tehran. They are well aware from the 2009 public protests that, should the opposition ever come to power in Tehran, they wouldn’t view past Sino-Russian backing for Ahmadinejad that kindly. The protesters were frequently shouting “Death to Russia” and criticizing China due to Sino-Russian assistance to the Iranian authorities’ repression of the peaceful demonstrators. Opposition leaders and bloggers denounced China and Russia for helping the Iranian regime suppress Internet freedoms and suppress public protests. They also objected to the Chinese and Russian governments’ rapid congratulations of Ahmadinejad for winning the disputed 2009 presidential ballot. They considered the elections a fraudulent facade in which their votes for opposition leaders were discarded.

Economic considerations also shape China’s and Russia’s response. Throughout the past decade, Chinese and Russian diplomats have repeatedly sought to soften UNSC sanctions, especially those that might constrain their countries’ energy and economic collaboration with Iran. Thanks to hard bargaining, they’ve managed to exempt their main economic interests Iran from existing UN economic sanctions.

Except for the S-300s, commercial ties between Russia and Iran haven’t fallen much due to the sanctions. Russia remains one of Iran’s main weapons suppliers, and Russian firms have assumed a prominent role in helping develop Iran’s civilian energy industry, including its nuclear power sector, where Russia recently finished constructing Iran’s first nuclear reactor at Bushehr. Although Russian entrepreneurs have expressed frustration with the Iranians’ tough bargaining tactics, Russian firms are well-positioned to expand their activities should Iran’s precariously isolated position finally induce them to moderate their negotiating tactics with regard to at least one foreign country.

The Chinese are already benefiting from Iran’s paucity of alternative economic partners. Chinese firms have been eagerly “backfilling” for Western firms that have been exiting Iran’s energy and other sectors. Hossein Noghrekar, Iran’s deputy oil minister, said that Chinese companies have invested $40 billion in Iran’s energy industry and that Iranian and Chinese representatives were discussing building seven additional refineries in Iran, which would enormously expand Iran’s capacity to refine its oil into gasoline. Despite its enormous crude oil and natural gas deposits, Iran must buy refined petroleum products from several foreign countries, including China.

Overall, trade between China and Iran has been growing by 30 percent annually. China regularly obtains 10 to 15 percent of all its imported oil from Iran, while Chinese exports to Iran include motor vehicles, textiles, consumer goods, as well as machinery and equipment. Iran also purchases some Chinese weapons, especially missiles, and is interested in buying many more.

China and Russia also both have economic and diplomatic interests in Iran’s continued alienation from the West. Both countries have benefited from the reluctance of Western companies to invest in Iran due to the numerous unilateral and multilateral sanctions imposed on its government for its nuclear activities, past support for terrorism, and controversial regional polices towards Israel, Lebanon, and other countries. These tensions preserve China and Russia as Iran’s major economic partners. In their absence, Iran’s economy would likely return to its pre-2000s pattern of trading mostly with Western countries and hosting mostly Western foreign direct investment.

Meanwhile, the Iranian-Western confrontations also divert Western diplomatic and military resources away from Europe and Asia, regions respectively more important to Russia and China. Western and Iranian efforts to secure the support of Beijing and Moscow for their positions also enhances Chinese and Russian diplomacy by providing them with leverage over both. They can press Western governments for reciprocal concessions regarding other issues as well as encourage Tehran to prevent Iranians from assisting Islamist terrorists in the South Caucuses or Xinxiang. For these reasons, Chinese and Russian officials may not be overly disappointed by the failure of the Obama administration’s outreach efforts to engage Iran.

It’s likely that both the Chinese and the Russian delegations declined to adopt an IAEA draft text with teeth. They forced the removal of wording from previous UNSC sanctions resolutions that would have prohibited foreign investment in Iran’s energy sector or hindered their other commercial ties with Iran.

Although Chinese and Russian representatives have sought to prevent their Western partners from adopting their own supplementary sanctions against Iran, their constraints on UN actions, understandable given their economic and security interests, are leaving the United States, the European Union, and other countries with no choice but to use other tools besides the UNSC – somewhere where Beijing and Moscow have no veto over their efforts.