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Source: The Hill

Jul 19, 2023

Biden needs to deal with China’s ever-closer ties to Iran


In February, President Ebrahim Raisi became the first Iranian president in more than 20 years to make a state visit to Beijing. During his three-day trip, Raisi signed 20 pacts with China, deepening ties between Beijing and Tehran while signaling a newfound resolve to resist a shared adversary and competitor: the West.

Unfortunately, Washington’s current defense strategy fails to account for the growing linkages between Iran and China.

To address this, the Biden administration should release a supplemental strategy to the 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS) that specifically acknowledges greater cooperation between Beijing and Tehran.

Updating this policy would better enable U.S. government departments and agencies to address shifting national security challenges.  

As it stands, the National Defense Strategy is too narrow in its characterization of China, isolating the “pacing challenge” it poses (that is, its threat of China overtaking the U.S.) in a separate box from Iran’s designation as a “persistent threat.”

The NDS echoes the National Security Strategy, painting China as the only other nation with “both the intent to reshape the international order, and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do so.”

Meanwhile, Iran is described in the context of its regionally destabilizing proxy warfare and terrorism, as well as its pursuit of nuclear weapons. But the missing piece is how the two continue to collaborate, and the effect this has on integrated deterrence calculations.

Separating the “pacing challenge” from its linkages to Iran not only ignores how these two nations’ bilateral cooperation threatens U.S. economic and global security interests, but also sets a meager precedent for how Washington’s national defense apparatus approaches colluding adversaries. 

Several years of Sino-Iranian economic cooperation, as well as the Chinese-brokered detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, exemplify the need for Washington’s attention. For the last ten years, China has been Iran’s largest trading partner.

Advancements such as the 25-year comprehensive cooperation agreement and Iran’s recent membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization reflect Tehran’s strategy of looking East for survival under international isolation and pressure.

Beijing has also taken advantage of years of hard-hitting sanctions on Iran, becoming Tehran’s biggest oil consumer in exchange for technological development, intelligence resources, and modernized military hardware that is used to both quell domestic grievances and contribute to cross-border violence.  

The Saudi-Iran detente brokered by China in April further showcases an expanding relationship that drags the “pacing challenge” into the Middle East. While the breakthrough does not automatically equate to China replacing U.S. presence or influence in the region, China’s involvement embodies a short-term pragmatic approach based on opportunism.

In turn, otherwise-isolated Tehran welcomes these avenues for cross-border connection to assert its dominance in the region. A supplemental National Defense Strategy should consider Beijing’s behavior in the Middle East, particularly, its willingness to help restore diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran, which remained frozen for more than seven years.   

The NDS’s shortcomings in directly addressing strategic alliances between America’ adversaries and competitors is also visible in the growing Russia-Iran relationship. Since August of 2022, Iran has provided Russia with hundreds of Shahed-136 suicide drones, unmanned aerial vehicles which Putin has deployed against civilians and infrastructure in his war against Ukraine.

In exchange, Russia has offered Iran defense cooperation on missiles and air defense, even going so far as to train Iranian pilots to fly the Sukhoi Su-35, an advanced Russian fighter jet. In February, Putin and Raisi signed a deal to create a drone factory in Russia, and Iranian officials have already toured the country to scope prospective sites.

Moscow and Tehran’s military relationship has even expanded past the bilateral threshold, at times including China as a manufacturer. Just last month, the Treasury Department caught up to these developments, sanctioning Chinese companies that supplied Iran with the components used in drones sold to Russia that directly contributed to Ukrainian casualties.

In addition, China and Russia have covertly discussed providing Iran with a key chemical compound used to power ballistic missiles. Bilaterally and collectively, these collaborative efforts complicate U.S. security interests and demand a National Defense Strategy that keeps up.

Section IV of the NDS prescribes “integrated deterrence” as the method for countering China’s “holistic strategies.” But what the NDS presents as the “holistic” correction to its past shortcomings (e.g., lack of clarity, differing priorities, attempting to deter foreign behavior) fails to include comprehensively examining collaboration among top adversaries.

How can “integrated deterrence” be presented as “holistic” if it fails to truly integrate the reality of countries like Iran teaming up with China to get ahead? To achieve solutions, the NDS needs to look at the whole picture, and that includes addressing Iran’s linkages with China in its calculations.

When it comes to the current “pacing challenge” emanating from Beijing, recent strategic moves in the Middle East suggest the U.S. is already being outpaced. If Washington’s NDS directs Washington to work with partners and allies to deter China, it must also recognize the other parts of that equation. It’s time for the Biden administration to put forth a follow-up strategy for the NDS that specifically addresses growing ties between China and Iran.

This updated strategy should specifically address the growing military relationship between the two countries, specifically Iran’s drone proliferation and China’s financial support of such endeavors.

In addition to OFAC’s recent sanctions against Chinese-based companies that supplied Iran with drone components, an additional strategy for the NDS can specifically address countering Iran’s drone capabilities, accounting for how the regime is malignly using it for its partnerships with both China and Russia.

In addition, this new strategy can address Iran and China’s growing economic relationship and what it could mean for U.S. competition with Beijing. The supplemental strategy should be the first step in driving substantial defense policy that realistically unpacks the ramifications of a growing China-Iran relationship.

Iran and China’s growing relationship is no longer a “what-if,” but a “what-do-we-do-now.” U.S. strategy for Iran cannot be kept in an isolated box, focused exclusively on limiting its nuclear threat capabilities. If the main U.S. priority is to keep up with the current “pacing challenge” of China, then the conversation needs to include Iran.

Arona Baigal and Kiana Alirezaie are researchers on the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.  

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