A troubling axis

Russia and China's short-sighted, selfish policy of supporting Iran's radical Islamic regime poses a major global threat.

Obama and Medvedev 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Obama and Medvedev 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Five US administrations, going back to former president Jimmy Carter, have imposed sanctions on Iran. And years of failed diplomatic efforts to get Iran to sit down to formal negotiations have led the US and most European nations to conclude that the imposition of sanctions was the best option to try and get Iran to comply with its international obligations under the UN Charter and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory.
While US President Barack Obama has said his desire was to resolve the Iran issue through diplomatic means, he appears to understand that ultimately, Iran is a threat to the entire free world and that their threats to attack the West must be taken seriously. He stated, “We are not taking any options off the table. Iran with nuclear weapons would pose a threat not only to the region but also to the United States.”
But China and Russia have a different agenda. They have measured their priorities on Iran differently than the West and their relationship with the Iranian regime is proving dangerous to world stability.
Ultimately, the fundamental question here that must be asked is: Why do Russia and China appear to support Iran at a time when the West seeks to sanction Iran over their nuclear-weapons program?
At a press conference after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hawaii on Sunday, Obama expressed interest in discussing further the issue of Iran with Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese president Hu Jintao – both of whom have consistently dragged their feet when it came to getting tough on Iran.
In January 2011, Obama hosted a state dinner in honor of Jintao.
At a joint press conference, Obama said, “I absolutely believe that China’s peaceful rise is good for the world and it’s good for America.”
But what peaceful rise was he referring to? The Communist Party has been in power since 1949 and continues its wide-scale practice of religious oppression. Though the country has partially switched to a capitalist market model, it has not fully done so and the regime is still authoritarian in other areas including preventing freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial and basic human rights.
Tibetans and the Muslims of East Turkestan have lived under Chinese occupation for years, experiencing cruel treatment at the hands of the regime.
The Communist Party continues to resort to violence to remain in power – a political tool not unlike that used by Iran’s repressive regime during the 2009 elections.
China ranks as the world’s second largest economy after the United States. The country is also the largest exporter and second largest importer of goods in the world.
With this kind of economic power, China is a major player not only on an economic level but also on political and diplomatic levels, as well.
And this is clearly seen at the UN where its position as a major global force has rendered it a powerful player when it comes to deciding on votes, the outcome of which often have global repercussions.
According to John S. Park, a USIP senior research associate focusing on Northeast Asian security, economic and energy issues, “Beijing’s energy needs increasingly defined its political ties with Teheran.”
According to Sanam Vakil, a scholar on Middle East studies, “Iran is using its carefully cultivated commercial and strategic relations with China, Russia and India to counterbalance the threat of Western sanctions against its nuclear program.”
Two years ago, Saudi Arabia was replaced by Iran as the leading supplier of oil to China.
Today, the industry-energy relationship between China and Iran is extremely important for both countries.
Sanctions against Iran have only deepened this relationship as Iran relies more on China for its needs. China too, has turned to Iran as its energy needs have greatly expanded in recent years.
Less competition from companies in Western nations due to sanctions on Iran serves China well as it looks to keep expenditures on energy down.
China exported oil until 1993 but now needs it for domestic use. For this reason, it needs to look elsewhere and Iran, under heavy sanctions from the West, serves China’s needs beautifully.
In turn, China has become a major exporter of manufactured goods to Iran.
China also shares deep historical roots with Iran, which go back to the days of early civilization. The people of both areas have engaged in trade and diplomatic relations for centuries.
Their relationship today is therefore based on a relationship forged for centuries between leaders of both regions.
According to Park, Sino-Iranian relations are defined by three issues:
First, over the years, Beijing intensified efforts to secure energy resources from the Middle East. Commercial ties with Iran became a top priority. Beijing fed its increasing need for Iranian oil, while Teheran imported more Chinese manufactured goods.”
Second, and ironically, Teheran has clashed with China over its treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang Province. “Ayatollah Jafar Sobhani said, ‘...The unprotected Muslims are being mercilessly suppressed by yesterday’s communist China and today’s capitalist China.’ Iran’s foreign ministry expressed support for ‘the rights of Chinese Muslims.’”
This is ironic as Iran has never respected the rights of its own population.
Third, sanctions against Iran have presented an incredible strategic opportunity for Chinese companies to gain a better foothold in Iran now that Western companies have left a void, drastically reducing competition.
With the West’s struggle against a nuclear Iran, China has made progress far more difficult.
According to Republic of China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei, China believes sanctions against Iran won’t fundamentally resolve problems related to the country’s nuclear program.
China’s strong relationship with Iran coupled with the unwillingness to sacrifice a hugely beneficial economic relationship has placed China on a political and diplomatic warpath with the West.
Like China, Russia wields definite power at the UN.
Russia has also taken advantage of the “War on Terrorism” to strengthen ties with US enemies. With specific regard to Iran, Russia has been relatively consistent in vetoing UN resolutions.
According to Bloomberg, Russia wants to resolve the dispute by lifting sanctions against Iran in stages, in return for Iranian cooperation on inspections. The offer is “still on the negotiating table,” Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said this week. He also said, “On the possibility of new sanctions against Iran, we believe the potential of pursuing sanctions against Iran has been exhausted.”
Mark Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, Russia does not necessarily have a close relationship with Iran but still aims to build lucrative economic ties with the regime.
Moscow’s willingness to side with the US over sanctions on Iran has been limited.
In 2007, Russia agreed to support UN Resolution 1747 which called on states to “exercise vigilance and restraint” in supplying Iran with weapons systems, but only because they “accused Iran of delinquency in payments for Bushehr [nuclear plant].”
Otherwise, Russia has been guilty of offering to supply Iran with anti-aircraft missile batteries, though Israeli pressure appears to have slowed the process.
Katz emphasizes that Moscow also wants to improve economic and military ties with some of Iran’s enemies, including Israel. They have purchased at least a few drones recently from Israel as they seek to supply its military with new technology.
While Russia is not as concerned as the West, it does not necessarily support Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
They would rather build economic ties with Iran through “petroleum, atomic energy and weaponry.”
Katz also explains that Moscow has cooperated with the US for two main reasons. First, it wants to placate the US administration with which it wants to maintain good relations.
Second, Moscow wants to encourage the West to pursue a multilateral diplomatic approach to dealing with Iran.
This seemingly cooperative stance should not fool anyone though. Russia has its own interests at heart as it works to build up its military and attempts to return to its place as a global superpower.
Their intransigence at the UN should serve as a strong signal that they are not interested in confronting Iran together with the US and Europe.
Mark Hibbs, a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based in Berlin, emphasized that for a while already, “the Chinese and Russian governments were signalling to their counterparts in the Western states on the board that they would not be in favor of moving toward a resolution in the boardroom that would cite Iran for non-compliance based on these activities cited in the [IAEA] report... And there were many reasons for that; the primary reason given by Russia and China is that in their view a detailed expose of these activities given by the agency would in fact derail the diplomatic process.”
While some experts argue that both Russia and China share interests with the Western liberal powers, both countries appear to be reprioritizing their interests and needs. If they are intentionally cementing ties with Iran, by default they are distancing themselves from the West.
Russia and China, in focusing solely on their own interests and slowing Western efforts to stem Iran’s race to build the bomb, are fast destroying whatever element of world stability exists today.
It is their support in international forums that permits Iran to carry on with its nuclear-weapons program.
Unless Israel and the West can focus efforts on convincing Russia and China to switch allegiances, global stability as we know it will soon take a turn for the worse.