The Impact of China and Russia on U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition

The Burke Chair in Strategy at the CSIS has recently issued a new edition of its analysis examining the complex and evolving relationships between China, Russia, Iran, and the US. This update reviews recent developments in the ongoing P5+1 negotiations and the economic sanctions on Iran. It provides insights into China’s decision to continue buying Iranian oil and the effect this is likely to have on US and European sanctions. The new report also discusses how China’s economic interests in Afghanistan may affect its relationship with Iran after the scheduled ISAF withdrawal in 2014. Additionally, Russia’s ties to the embattled Syrian regime, and its recent decision to cease weapons shipments to Syria, are analyzed vis-à-vis the Russo-Iranian relationship.  The update includes a new section on Iran and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as well as analysis on the completion in August of the Russian-built nuclear power plant at Bushehr. The report also includes updated trade data for Russia, China, Iran, and the US. 

The updated report is available on the CSIS website at Comments and suggestions would be most helpful. They should be sent to Anthony H. Cordesman at

China and Russia are key players in US-Iranian strategic competition. As major world powers and permanent members of the UN Security Council, China and Russia play an important role in shaping sanctions and other aspects of international action in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. Leaders in Moscow and Beijing focus on the influence, security and economic gains to their respective leaderships, and pursue international relationships from that standpoint. At present, external pressure from the US and its allies is not able to make either China or Russia give up all ties to Iran, and they manipulate such ties to Iran as a bargaining chip in dealing with the US, as well as the European and Arab Gulf states.

Both countries seek to maximize the benefits they can gain from the ongoing competition by refusing to commit to either player. Both nations have an interest in preventing or at least forestalling open hostility that will upset this balancing act, as any conflict could have an impact on their economies and seek to use their support of either side to advance their own positions.

The resulting US and Iranian competition for influence over China and Russia plays out over proliferation and sanctions, trade and energy investments, arms sales, and each nation’s position in dealing with Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Chinese moves are calculated to reap the benefits of US-Iranian competition while minimizing the costs associated with supporting both sides. Unlike China, whose main interest in Iran is Chinese energy security, Russia has a range of interests, and their approach to Iran is both broader and more flexible than China’s. The primary areas of competition are proliferation and sanctions, trade and energy deals, nuclear technology and infrastructure sales, arms sales, and influence in the Gulf and greater Middle East.

Russia has historically been an important contributor to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and conventional arms capacity, but relations between the two states have been impacted by intensifying Iranian competition with the West. Russia opposes military action against Iran and has been unwilling to support increased sanctions beyond UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which was issued in June 2010.

The ties that China and Russia have with Iran are based primarily on each country's assessment of the economic and symbolic benefits of their respective relations with Iran, relative to the risk of their relationship with the US. Both China and Russia work to gain politically and economically from the ongoing competition between the US and Iran, but do so with the knowledge that Iran can offer only a limited range of incentives. 

If the US is to be more successful in isolating Iran, it will need to convince both countries that Iran poses a greater threat to their individual interests than they now perceive, seek the help of the Arab Gulf states and other powers to influence China and Russia, and develop a more powerful mix of incentives to encourage Chinese and Russian cooperation.

Nori Kasting and Brandon Fite