U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition

Competition Involving China and Russia

US competition with Iran has become the equivalent of a game of three-dimensional chess, but a game where each side can modify at least some of the rules with each move. It is also a game that has been going on for some three decades.  It is clear that it is also a game that is unlikely to be ended by better dialog and mutual understanding, and that Iran’s version of “democracy” is unlikely to change the way it is played in the foreseeable future.

The Burke Chair at CSIS is preparing a detailed analysis of the history and character of this competition as part of a project supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation. This has led to the preparation of a new draft report entitled Competition Involving China and Russia, which is now available on the CSIS web site at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/110811_Iran_Chapter_X.pdf.

Comments on this draft will be extremely helpful and should be sent to acordesman(@)gmail.com.

This report shows that China and Russia stand at the pivot of US-Iranian competition with China leaning toward Iran, and Russia leaning, more gradually, to the West. As major world powers and permanent members of the UN Security Council, both nations are essential to either inhibiting or shielding Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions.

Neither China nor Russia is fully committed to either competitor, and both are engaged in a complex balancing act: leveraging support to advance their own positions while at the same minimizing the diplomatic costs of double-dealing. To secure Chinese and Russian support, the US and Iran stress the value of their relationship and the costs of partnership with the other.

The struggle to capture Chinese support centers on energy security but is framed as a contest of worldviews. The US works to integrate China into the present international order, while Iran rejects the status quo and urges China, as a fellow non-Western power, to create a new system apart from the West. Competition plays out over issues of proliferation and sanctions, trade and energy investments, and arms sales. Importantly, Iran seeks to win Chinese support by billing itself as a secure and dedicated source of energy resources for a century of Chinese growth.

China has been able to maintain positive if somewhat strained relations with both the US and Iran by selectively supporting each side. As both a supporter and spoiler, China exploits it dual-role as Iranian benefactor and permanent member of the Security Council, and serves as a de facto gatekeeper to meaningful international sanctions of Iranian nuclear ambitions. China is willing to use US competition with Iran as an opportunity to grow its influence and test the boundaries of the US-led international order.  Its moves are calculated to reap the benefits of US-Iranian conflict while deemphasizing the costs associated with supporting both sides.

Unlike China whose overriding interest in Iran is energy security, Russia has a multiplicity of interests, none of which are predominant. As a result, Russia’s approach to Iran is both broader and more flexible than the PRC’s, and the US and Iran compete for Russian support on an issue-by-issue basis. 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 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 and warming Russian relations with the US in the wake of the Obama administration’s “reset” policy. Russia has begun to cooperate with the US in meaningful ways, but Moscow’s move away from Tehran should not be interpreted as a wholesale shift in Russian policy.

Russia’s strategy to maintain coeval relations with the US and Iran has been to portray itself as an intermediary power. By cooperating on a limited basis with the West while advocating for a softer approach to Iran, Russia reaps the benefits of selective cooperation without incurring the costs of full allegiance.

The ties that bind China and Russia to Iran are primarily based on an opportunistic assessment of the costs and benefits of partnership. Leaders in Moscow and Beijing are principally concerned with the security and prosperity of their nations, and they will pursue international relationships from that standpoint. External pressure is not yet significant enough to negate the fruits of cooperation with Tehran. If the US is to be successful in its attempt to isolate Iran by severing these great power connections, it must work to upset their present cost-benefit calculations.

Other Burke Chair Reports on Iran and Gulf Security Can be found here: