One of the only successes of the Obama administration’s Iran policy has been uniting the P5+1 powers behind placing real pressure on Iran over its nuclear program. This was not done easily; according to diplomats I’ve spoken with and published accounts, the U.S. made a number of concessions to Russia and China to get their buy-in. Nor has this unity been absolute— China, for instance, refused to voluntarily accede to sanctions against Iran’s oil exports.
Nonetheless the unity of the P5+1 over the last few years has been remarkable. Russia and China have continued to go along with the Western powers even when their demands on Iran seemed outlandish. This is especially remarkable when one considers that in 2003-2005, the U.S. couldn’t even convince the European powers to toe its line on Iran.
But a combination of events has appeared to put the P5+1’s unity in jeopardy, which will further complicate the Western powers diplomacy towards Iran.
The first is the deterioration in relations between the U.S on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other. This is most pronounced regarding Syria, where Russia and China have found common cause with Iran. As the Financial Times reported last week, Iran, Russia, and China have appeared to form a coalition of the willing in propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Moscow, in particular, has made Syria the focal point of its foreign relations everywhere, even diverting part of its Pacific Fleet and its only aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean Sea. U.S. rhetoric, if not actual policy, has also renewed Russian and Chinese concern over America’s interventionist tendencies, and this inevitably spills over into the Iranian issue.
This is a complete reversal from the first few years of the Obama administration when the White House set out to improve relations with Moscow and Beijing. In this context, Russia and China were willing to “sell out” Iran in order to win concessions from the U.S. on issues of greater import to them. Now Iran’s value has increased from Moscow’s perspective in helping to ensure Assad’s survival, while the prospect of better relations with the U.S. has waned from both China and Russia’s perspectives.
Hassan Rouhani’s victory in last month’s presidential election in Iran is likely to further strain the P5+1. Despite initially touting a “Look to the East” policy, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made it easier for China and Russia to consent to increased pressure on Iran. As the face of Iran’s foreign policy, his reprehensible antics were too much for China and Russia to ignore, which stood in stark contrast to the reasonable tone President Obama struck as a presidential candidate and during his first years in office.
Now things look different from the halls of power in Moscow and Beijing. Instead of a complete refutation of George W. Bush, Obama’s foreign policy appears in many cases to be little different from his predecessor. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad will soon exit the stage to be replaced by the more even-tempered Rouhani.
Before he goes, however, Ahmadinejad is in Russia today for the Gas Exporting Countries Frum (GECF). While there he will meet with Putin to discuss a variety of bilateral issues. Most tellingly, perhaps, president-elect Rouhani has already stated that he attaches great importance to improving ties with Russia, no doubt with an eye towards peeling away at the unity of the P5+1/
There are indisputable signs that Russia will be receptive to his overtures. Most notably, following Rouhani’s victory, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated, “For the first time in many years, hopeful signs have appeared in this process.” Lavrov also called for the relaxation in sanctions against Iran.
Russia and Iran’s mil-to-mil cooperation has also been on the rise recently. Furthermore, Moscow recently signaled it intends to resolve the dispute with Iran over the S-300 missile systems that Russia initially was going to supply Iran with. Moscow’s subsequent decision to withhold the S-300 from Iran was perhaps the most tangible achievement of the Obama administration’s outreach to Russia on Iran, except for its support for UN Security Council sanctions. Were Russia to go through with selling Iran an alternative to the S-300s, it would be a tremendous blow to the Obama administration’s efforts to isolate Iran.
There have also been signs that Rouhani will strengthen ties with China as well. Most notably, after China congratulated Rouhani on his victory in Iran’s presidential election, the president-elect responded with a message to Xi Jinping, which stated: “The promotion of ties with China in all fields is one of the main priorities of the future administration of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” In response to Rouhani’s election, Beijing also stated that it sees opportunities for constructive dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program.
More concretely, China has begun importing Iranian liquefied petroleum gas again after a fourth month hiatus, and some reports suggest China’s oil imports from Iran have been up by about 50 percent in recent months. There are also some reports that China is seeking to finance the update to Iran’s Chabahar Port, which has always been the purview of India.
Even Japan has been raising its imports of Iranian crude substantially, while South Korea has been increasingly vocal in stating its opposition to continued sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The possibility of Germany splitting from the U.S. over Iran also cannot be ruled, especially now with the rise in tensions between the two powers over the cyber-espionage accusations made against the U.S.
In short, the broad coalition against Iran’s nuclear program that the Obama administration worked so hard to put together appears in danger of crumbling. This will further frustrate the White House’s ability to coerce Iran into making concessions on its nuclear program.