Why China and Russia Help Iran
Image Credit: Russian Press and Information Office

Why China and Russia Help Iran


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.

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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.

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