United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

The Russia and China Factors in Sanctions

 

Mark N. Katz
 
What role is Russia playing - helper or hinderer – in international diplomatic efforts on Iran, and why?
 
The major Western powers now view Moscow as hindering their efforts to squeeze Iran. Between 2006 and 2011, Russia agreed to six U.N. Security Council resolutions against Iran over its failure to comply with the international community on its controversial nuclear program. But Moscow went along with each resolution only after Western powers agreed to less stringent sanctions than initially proposed. The level of cooperation has eroded in recent months, however. One reason that the United States, Britain and Canada imposed new unilateral sanctions on Iran on Nov. 21 was that it could not get Russia (or China) to back further punitive action at the United Nations.
 
Moscow, in turn, views Western pressure to cooperate on new sanctions as creating unnecessary risks for Russia’s relations with Tehran. In recent years, Iran has been helpful to Russia on several sensitive foreign policy issues. Moscow is specifically grateful for Tehran’s cooperation in ending the Tajik civil war in 1997 and for its restrained position on the separatist rebellions in Chechnya and other predominantly Muslim republics inside Russia’s North Caucasus region. In the past, both countries have also opposed the Taliban in Afghanistan (though Iran’s relationship with it more recently has been somewhat ambiguous)
 
Like other U.N. Security Council members, Moscow has grown increasingly concerned about Iran’s nuclear intentions.  And Russian leaders are reportedly annoyed with Tehran for relying on Moscow to block additional sanctions—for little cooperation or payoff in return. Yet Moscow views this issue differently than Western governments do.
“Russia also considers a nuclear Iran to be a very unpleasant and undesirable development of events, but not as catastrophic as the Americans see it” observed Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “Tehran’s potential opportunities to create problems in the Russian sphere of interests are great.” 
 
What role is China playing - helper or hinderer – in international diplomatic efforts on Iran, and why?
 
China has taken the same position as Russia on the U.N. resolutions. In the past, it too pressed to have them watered down before agreeing to either support or not veto the resolutions. Today, Beijing also does not support new sanctions on Iran. It sees little incentive in cooperating with moves by the United States, Britain, France and Germany. In fact, Western sanctions have contributed to a dramatic increase in Iranian trade with—and economic dependence on—China. 
 
What are the common denominators in the Russian and Chinese strategies, and how much do they coordinate their positions?
 
Up until now, Russia and China have taken similar positions about U.N. sanctions and how far they should go. Their interests have been similar so far, although how much Moscow and Beijing actually coordinate their efforts is unclear.  The United States and other Western nations now fear that Russia and China are effectively encouraging Tehran to believe that Moscow and Beijing will shield Iran from further sanctions.  At the same time, both countries want Tehran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Russia had hoped that Western sanctions might actually increase Russian-Iranian trade as an alternative.  But while Russian-Iranian commerce did grow to about $4 billion in 2010—ironically about the same size as trade between Russia and Israel—this is dwarfed by Chinese-Iranian trade, which was approximately $28 billion in 2010. (Some analysts estimate that China’s trade with Iran may be ten times the volume of commerce between Russia and Iran.)
 
What does this mean for further action at the UN Security Council? And for U.S. policy, especially after the new report by IAEA.

For Russian strategists, the West’s obsession with sanctioning Iran over the nuclear issue appears to be counter-productive.  They also view Western insistence on imposing further sanctions as either naïve or sinister—or both.  In the past, Moscow occasionally found it useful to go along with the West, although often after long delays. The Russian calculation was that imposing sanctions against Tehran might elicit concessions for Russia from the West or Iran--or both.  But Moscow is unlikely to support more serious sanctions that it views as unlikely to change Iranian nuclear policies but which will generate more problems for Russia and potentially benefit China at the expense of everyone else.
 
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.

 

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