There’s considerable debate over whether the Obama administration’s recent accord with Iran will stop the regime from getting a nuclear weapon. But there can be no debate about the fact that the biggest beneficiaries of the accord and the impending lifting of sanctions will be—besides the rulers in Tehran—Russia and China. Beijing and Moscow are already seizing this moment to consolidate their steadily growing influence in the Middle East, through their client Iran, at the expense of the U.S. and its allies.
The emergence of a Moscow-Beijing-Tehran axis is now virtually certain. It’s also the biggest power shift in the Middle East since the Suez crisis of 1956.
This emerging axis comes as no surprise. Russia and China have been important enablers in Iran’s search for a nuclear weapon almost from the start, including Russia’s construction of the nuclear complex at Bashher and China providing key components for Tehran’s centrifuge program. Yet neither regime has suffered any criticism or lasting opprobrium for doing so, not least in the United Nations. On the contrary, the Obama administration assiduously cultivated their cooperation in the U.N. for imposing economic sanctions on Iran, even as Russia and China were sharply criticizing the entire sanctions regime, and China was given an exemption from the sanctions for purchasing Iranian oil.
Now Beijing and Moscow are about to see the policy they denounced, swept away by the Security Council—and both are poised to take full advantage of the opportunity. They will be important players in the revivification of the Iranian economy in the postsanctions era, from information technology to oil-and-natural-gas development. China’s investment in the Iranian energy sector, for example, stands at more than $21 billion. The lifting of sanctions could double that amount, while China’s imports from Iran could rise to more than a million barrels a day from 600,000 barrels a day today in order to feed China’s growing demand for transport fuel.
With sanctions barring Iran’s purchase of conventional weapons also coming to an end, and a bankroll of some $100 billion in unfrozen assets to spend, we can expect a massive arms bazaar to open in Tehran, with Russia and China occupying the principal booths.
Moscow can offer the advanced Su-30 Flanker fighter to replace the Iranian air force’s fleet of Carter-era F-14s, as well as sophisticated antimissile systems like the S-400, which can make any future U.S. or Israeli attack on nuclear sites a prohibitively costly exercise.
China used to be Iran’s chief armorer in the 1980s and 1990s. Those arms sales fell off after 2001 under the watchful eyes of the Bush administration, when China didn’t want to be seen supporting the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism.
Those worries have disappeared with Mr. Obama. Iran may no longer be a big market for Chinese-built tanks and armored vehicles, which Iran has learned to supply for itself. But China can offer the JF-17 fighter, the J-20 Stealth fighter, the Type 039 Song-class submarine and advanced cruise missiles. The last two could help Iran consolidate its grip on the world’s supply of oil passing through the Hormuz Straits, in defiance of any U.S. naval moves to counter it—and to the benefit of China.
Under the current accord, restrictions on exporting ballistic-missile technology to Iran are supposed to remain in place. But since Iran is busily building up its own homegrown missile program, and since the Russians openly defied existing sanctions when it delivered its S-300 antiaircraft system to Iran, no one should be surprised if Beijing and Moscow find ways to get Tehran advanced components and systems for its ballistic-missile arsenal as well.
Finally, and most significantly, a strong rising Iran advances both Russia’s and China’s strategic interests in the region. In Russia’s case, that includes Iran’s support of Bashir Assad, who will facilitate Russia’s growing naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, even as America’s has been reduced to the vanishing point.
For China, it means adding Iran to its list of strategic partners, including expanding military cooperation (their navies held their first-ever joint exercises in September 2014) as well as membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (countries under U.N. sanctions aren’t allowed to join). China looks to Iran as a crucial forward base for its Silk Road Economic Belt, Beijing’s effort to expand its commercial and geopolitical interests in the Middle East. Iran’s success in advancing its influence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and its liberation from sanctions, will make betting on it as the new dominant power in the Middle East look like a shrewd and prescient wager.
Whatever the current accord’s impact on Iran’s nuclear program, its geopolitical impact will be enormous. The emergence of the Moscow-Beijing-Tehran axis, and of Russia and China as important Middle East players, will only hasten America’s eclipse as the region’s dominant outside power, with consequences no one can predict but about which no one should rest easy.