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Source: WSJ

May 5, 2023

Iran’s New Friends: Russia and China

Having viewed both powers warily for years, the Islamic Republic sees its best prospects for survival as the junior partner in an anti-Western alliance

By David S. Cloud

On New Year’s Eve in 1977, President Jimmy Carter rose in the glittering banquet hall of Tehran’s Niavaran Palace to toast the deep bonds between the U.S. and Iran. As Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi looked on, Mr. Carter showered accolades on the monarch, praising Iran’s modernizing society, attention to human rights and military power.

“Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world,” he told his host before they raised their glasses in friendship.

The Islamic revolution that would drive the Shah from power and sever Iran’s close ties with Washington began the following month. Iran was quickly transformed from a pro-American monarchy into a fervidly anti-Western theocracy, beginning four decades of international isolation for Tehran.Washington’s Cold War antagonists—Moscow and Beijing—held little appeal as potential allies for the emerging Islamic Republic.

The Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan the same year as Iran’s revolution, were “brutal aggressors,” while China, which was building closer ties with the Shah, was equally “imperialist,” warned Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the ascetic Shia cleric who returned from exile to lead Iran. He vowed to side with “neither East, nor West,” building a pure Islamic state free from foreign meddling.

President Jimmy Carter toasts Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and praises Iran as an ‘island of stability’ just over a year before the Shah was deposed in the Islamic revolution; Tehran, Dec. 31, 1977. PHOTO: ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Today Iran is in the midst of a far-reaching geopolitical realignment, in defiance of the wishes expressed by Mr. Khomeini more than four decades ago.

Iran is forging closer ties with Russia and China, hoping to ease its economic woes and build a powerful new axis of revisionist powers capable of countering the U.S.-led West. A dramatic sign of this shift came in March when Beijing brokered an agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

That followed Iran’s surprising decision last year to sell armed suicide drones to Moscow to aid its war against Ukraine.

It’s a strategy that Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi has been pitching to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping since last year, advising joint resistance to the threat that all three say they face: military encirclement and economic strangulation by the U.S. and its allies.

“Resistance will turn the threat into an opportunity for progress, while backing off in face of the threat will only result in failure,” Mr. Raisi said in January in the first state visit to Beijing by an Iranian leader in two decades.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who has been seeking an alliance with Russia and China since last year , hosts Vladimir Putin in Tehran, July 19, 2022. PHOTO: SPUTNIK/SERGEI SAVOSTYANOV/REUTERS

Iran’s overtures to Russia and China could well dictate the stability of its regime for years to come. Tehran’s 2015 deal with world powers to limit its nuclear program had eased longstanding sanctions, but the Trump administration withdrew from the agreement in 2018. Last fall, the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown on a nationwide protest movement, all but ending any prospect for escaping Western sanctions.

For Iran’s leaders, the picture is now clear: They have watched with alarm as regimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and Syria toppled or nearly fell in recent decades. They fear that Iran could be next, unless it can break out of the isolation imposed by Washington, analysts say.

“It’s a very lofty, ambitious goal, but the Iranian goal is, ‘We can establish a parallel international order,’” said Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, an expert in Iranian affairs at Texas A&M University. “And they see Russia and China as big partners to establish this international order in the long term so the U.S. can no longer harm them economically and militarily.”

With two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council more firmly in its corner, Iran would have more international cover as it weighs whether to build nuclear weapons, a step that some Iranian officials see as the best guarantee of the regime’s survival.

The Red Army invaded and reoccupied northern Iran at the start of World War II, in a coup de main with London aimed at protecting Allied supply lines, securing Iranian oil fields and denying Germany a foothold. Russian troops departed in 1946, but Moscow’s influence in Tehran remained a constant preoccupation for Reza Shah’s son and for Washington throughout the Cold War.

Russia and Iran have long been rivals more than partners in a centuries-old contest for control of the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf trade routes. In the 19th century, the Russian czar’s armies inflicted humiliating defeats on the Persian Empire in the Caucuses. A 1907 deal with Britain gave Moscow control over northern Iran until Mohammad Reza’s father reunified the country and crowned himself Reza Shah.

China’s Cold War ties with Tehran were minimal until then-Communist Party Chairman Hua Guofeng visited in 1978, one of the last foreign officials to meet with the Shah before his regime’s collapse, a move that deepened Mr. Khomeini’s suspicions. Though official relations have since flourished, Beijing long seemed ambivalent about linking closely with Iran because of its own deep trade ties with the U.S. and reliance on oil imports from Tehran’s Middle East adversaries.

Now China and Russia are drawing closer to Tehran because of shared hostility for the U.S. and short-term pragmatism, said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington think tank. “They have a commonality in not wanting to see the United States’ unipolarity be the defining characteristic of the world order,” he said.

China, Iran’s biggest oil customer, has increased its purchases in the past year, helping to support the Iranian economy amid Western sanctions. A tanker carrying Iranian crude oil docks at Zhousan in eastern China in 2018. PHOTO: YAO FENG/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Washington is taking notice.

“I wouldn’t call it a true full alliance in the real meaning of that word, but we are seeing them moving closer together, and that’s troublesome,” Gen.Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last month about Iran, Russia and China. “Those three countries together are going to be problematic for many years to come.”

The notion that Iran should find allies and economic partners outside the West first arose under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative who took office in 2005 seeking to differentiate his policies from his pro-Western predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which had emerged as an increasingly powerful voice within the Iranian leadership, saw Russia as a potential supplier of advanced arms and China as a source of technology.

But when Iran’s hard-liners began pursuing this so-called “Look East” strategy, almost no one took it seriously, including China and Russia. Within Iran, some conservative clerics saw it as a betrayal of a core tenet of the 1979 revolution.

Aligning more closely with China and Russia was also opposed by Iran’s moderates and members of its wealthy elite, who have long seen themselves as economically and culturally tied more closely to the U.S. and Western Europe. Their hopes seemed to pay off in 2015 when the Obama administration and Tehran reached a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for easing sanctions.

When the Trump administration exited the deal and imposed even stricter sanctions, Mr. Khomeini’s successor as Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, began publicly endorsing closer relations with Moscow and Beijing. “We should look East, not West,” Mr. Khamenei told a group of academics in 2018.

“The Iranians have concluded, rightly or wrongly, that the United States simply never will accept Iran,” said Mr. Parsi. “There’s been a convergence around the view that making it work with the West is not an option.”

The outbreak of the Ukraine war last February provided Tehran with its best opportunity for the IRGC to put Mr. Khamenei’s directive into practice. Locked in a grinding war against an increasingly well-armed foe, Russian President Vladimir Putin was especially in need of friends.

Tehran’s decision to provide drones to Russia was the first time it had intervened in a war on behalf of a predominantly non-Islamic country since the 1979 revolution, analysts said. It is also planning to construct a factory in Russia for producing the unmanned aircraft and is said to be considering sales of ballistic missiles.

An Iranian-made drone that Tehran provided to Russia approaches for an attack in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 17, 2022. PHOTO: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In return, Iran has asked for jet fighters and other advanced weapons from Moscow and is seeking to expand trade and investment. Tehran hopes that Moscow can help its efforts to modernize its own conventional armed forces, heightening the risks for Israel or the U.S. if they decide to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

For Iran, “everything that helps Putin continue this war is good, and every partnership that keeps the war machine going is preferential,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Moscow offers “advanced arms that Iran probably can’t get anywhere else.”

Iran’s conservative clerics once saw little difference between the atheistic Soviet Union and the decadent West. But since the Cold War, Moscow and Tehran have forged a relationship of convenience, starting in 1991 when cash-strapped Russia agreed to build Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr.

The relationship has been fitful and wary, with trade and even military ties progressing slowly. But it has gained momentum over the last decade as Russia and Iran have cooperated in providing military aid to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country’s 12-year long civil war.

Mr. Putin’s embrace of religiosity, his tolerance of Islam and his generally conservative values have smoothed his dealings with Tehran. He has aggressively wooed Mr. Khamenei, who visited Moscow for the first time in a decade in 2015, and the two have met repeatedly since. They have bonded over their mutual hostility to what they describe as U.S. hegemony.

Bolstering ties with Beijing is proving more difficult than with Moscow, but that goal is more critical for Tehran, analysts say.

“While Russia is challenging the United States and some norms in the international order in its war of territorial aggression, China has the capability to directly attempt to alter the rules-based global order in every realm and across multiple regions,” the U.S. intelligence community concluded in its 2023 Threat Assessment, an annual report released in February.

China is Iran’s biggest oil customer and a key market preventing its heavily sanctioned economy from collapsing. China imported a record 1.2 million barrels a day of Iranian oil in December, up 130% from a year earlier, according to commodity-data firm Vortexa. Those purchases are often at a heavy discount from international prices.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi sign a 25-year cooperation pact between their countries in Tehran, Mar. 27, 2021. PHOTO: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Beijing signed a 25-year economic and security cooperation agreement with Tehran in 2021 to invest in areas such as nuclear energy, ports, railroads, military technology and oil and gas development. Beijing also provides sophisticated technologies that Iran uses to tighten control over its restive population.

After years of shunning the Middle East’s messy disputes, Beijing is playing a more active diplomatic role in the region. It shares with Tehran a desire to counter U.S. power but fears that aligning too closely with the Islamic Republic could jeopardize its broader relations in the Persian Gulf, analysts say. Beijing is Saudi Arabia’s top trading partner and the biggest buyer of its oil, a trend that is only expected to accelerate. Riyadh has started importing sensitive missile technology from the Chinese military.

With leverage over both Riyadh and Tehran, China was able to play a mediating role in forging last month’s agreement between the two Middle East rivals to restore diplomatic relation after seven years of estrangement—a feat that eased Iran’s isolation and challenged Washington’s position as the region’s pre-eminent power.

“Rather than China coming in and tilting toward Iran because Iran is opposed to the U.S., instead you see China continuing to play a neutral role and playing footsie with the Saudis at the expense of the Americans,” said Mr. Parsi.

For all the indications of deepening ties, the limits on Iran’s collaboration with Russia and Moscow remain substantial. Direct investment by Russian and Chinese companies in Iran remains minimal, analysts say. Both countries are still fearful that tying their economies too closely to Iran will make them a target of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

“The same dynamics that have really thwarted Russia-Iran economic cooperation and China-Iran cooperation since basically 2012 are still there. And many of them are arguably worse,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, chief executive officer of the Bourse and Bazaar Foundation, a London-based think tank that studies the Iranian economy.

Though driven together by mutual resentment at what they describe as U.S. hegemony, their alignment has few trappings of a formal alliance. Tehran is in the final stages of joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a political and security bloc dominated by China and Russia. But their differing and at times conflicting aims will make deeper security cooperation difficult, says Nicole Grajewski, a fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

An Iranian Army helicopter joins a joint naval military drill with Russia and China in the Gulf of Oman, in a photo provided by Iran on March 15, 2023. PHOTO: HANDOUT/REUTERS

“China’s interests don’t necessarily align with the Iranians, and the Russians have been kind of forced to turn more strongly to Iran,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll be seeing the appearance of a trilateral defense pact,” said Ms. Grajewski.

For the U.S., Iran’s success in breaking out of its isolation raises new concerns. Tehran’s outreach to China has provided an economic lifeline that lessened the urgency to conclude a nuclear agreement with the West that would lift sanctions, says Henry Rome, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“This clearly undermined U.S. interests,” he said. At the same time, Russia’s promise to sell advanced fighters to Tehran this year could make it a much more substantial military threat to the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East.

Iran’s burgeoning ties with Moscow and Beijing won’t turn it into a colossus capable of driving the U.S. from the region or destroying Israel, as it has long vowed to do. But the new alliances may extend indefinitely the life of a regime that only months ago seemed to be running out of options.

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