Moscow and Beijing Have Tehran’s Back
Trump's Iran policies have left the country with no choice but to turn to Russia and China.
As the Trump administration moves to reimpose sanctions on Iran—which had been suspended since the signing of the 2015 nuclear agreement—it aims to “build a global coalition to put pressure on Iran to stop [its nefarious] behavior.” As the U.S. administration sees it, it can achieve a bigger and better deal with Tehran if it exerts maximum pressure on the regime—exemplified by President Donald Trump’s own furious tweeting on July 22.
But Trump will fail. Not only are the United States’ European allies opposed to his decision to leave the nuclear agreement and reintroduce sanctions, but Russia and China also won’t allow Iran to be isolated again. In fact, Beijing and Moscow were Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s first ports of call on his mini-diplomatic tour to ensure the nuclear agreement’s continued implementation after U.S. withdrawal, continuing a long Iranian tradition of looking to the two as a bulwark against Western unreliability.
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled the U.S.-backed Shah, Iran found itself isolated on the international stage. The United States reacted to the hostage crisis and the new regime’s anti-Western rhetoric by cutting ties with Tehran. Joined by its allies, America sought to contain the new regime. Soon, the United States and Europe—once Iran’s key partners—scaled back or ceased their political, economic, and military relations with the country. As a result, Tehran built ties with countries that didn’t place as much weight on the regime’s pariah status.
In the decades following the 1979 revolution, Tehran strengthened its political, economic, and military ties with Beijing and Moscow. During the Iran-Iraq War, China was vital to Iran’s war effort. It was one of the only arms suppliers willing to provide Tehran with weapons and military equipment. When the war ended, China occupied a central role in the country’s post-conflict reconstruction efforts, particularly in Iran’s infrastructure projects and the supply of consumer goods.
Russia for its part, began working with Tehran at the end of the nineties to develop port and rail infrastructure in Iran. Crucially, with virtually all other suppliers gone from the Iranian nuclear sector, Moscow slowly built up its presence there, developing a quasi-monopoly in the area by the turn of the century.
As a result, Russia and China were reluctant participants in international efforts to sanction and isolate Iran following the unveiling of covert aspects of its nuclear program in the 2000s. The two powers exploited Iran’s isolation to expand their foothold and influence in the country, and Iran leveraged these relationships to offset the impact of sanctions. Iran also hoped to build intricate political ties that neither Beijing nor Moscow would be willing to jeopardize should the West want to isolate the Islamic Republic again.
But dealing with the two giants was not easy for Tehran, which grew tired of Russian and Chinese unreliability and substandard products. As the Iranians saw it, Russian and Chinese officials and businesses were purposely stalling on a number of key projects—including the completion of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant by Moscow, which took 19 years to be built and come online, and the Tehran Metro by Beijing, with the first line completed five years after the agreement was signed between China and Iran and work continuing today to extend the lines.
By 2012, fed up with the Russians and the Chinese and eager to open up its economy and resume relations with the West, Iran returned to the negotiating table. Iranians craved normalization of the country’s status on the international stage, access to international markets, more suppliers, higher-quality European products, and more comprehensive relationships than Moscow and Beijing were affording them. But from Iran’s perspective, history had shown that it couldn’t rely solely on the West—so Iran continued to build and deepen its ties with Russia and China.
In the last several years, Russia has played an important role in the development of Iran’s nuclear and aerospace industries, with its involvement in the construction of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant and the sale of airplanes and their parts. And it increasingly supports Iranian regional activities in the Middle East and South Asia, most notably by fighting alongside Iran and the Bashar al-Assad regime to push back the opposition in Syria and by allegedly supporting Taliban groups in Afghanistan to defeat the Islamic State offshoot there.
China’s energy dependence and Belt and Road Initiative have made Iran an increasingly attractive partner. Beijing remains involved in building up Iran’s infrastructure, including electricity, dams, cement plants, steel mills, shipbuilding, motorways, and airports. Defense cooperation, including arms and technology trade and joint military drills, has become an increasingly significant part of Iran’s relationship with both countries, with China in the Persian Gulf and Russia in the Caspian Sea.
The 2015 Iran nuclear deal made the pursuit of joint initiatives easier for Russia and China—but the likely collapse of the deal won’t be a disaster for them. Both countries have a longstanding presence in the Iranian market and understand how to navigate it. Both are searching for ways to insulate their state and local banks from the U.S. market and third-party U.S. sanctions.
As the United States encourages Iranian oil consumers to reduce their imports from Iran to zero by November, China has begun processing futures trading and oil imports in yuan to wean itself off the U.S. dollar. Likewise, Russia announced in April that it would try to use other national currencies to pay for oil imports. Such measures would limit the U.S. ability to effectively deploy sanctions against Iran and other nations in the future.
Additionally, both Russia and China have multiple deals currently in process in different sectors of the Iranian economy. Both countries are assessing whether they can fully take over European deals that are collapsing in the aftermath of U.S. withdrawal. For example, China’s national oil company is poised to take over from France’s Total for the development of the South Pars field.
And while Iranians continue to harbor suspicion of Russia and China, today they have no choice but to turn to them once again. For example, when it became clear in the aftermath of Trump’s pullout from the deal that Boeing and Airbus wouldn’t be able to sell planes to Iran, previously stalled negotiations with Russia on the sale of medium-range passenger planes resumed, resulting in an agreement to sell in April.
Russia and China effectively shelter Iran from complete isolation and provide it with political support, defense assistance, and economic relief, undermining Western efforts to pressure Tehran. That means Trump’s stated goal of isolating Iran to pressure its regime to return to the negotiating table and craft a more favorable deal to the United States isn’t a viable policy. Isolation only works when it is reinforced by key players within the international community. Today, Iran has other partners it can turn to that will mitigate the fallout from the collapse of the nuclear deal. And given their own strategic interests in Iran, neither Russia nor China will buy into a U.S.-led policy of endless pressure.
Dina Esfandiary is a Centre for Science and Security Studies fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and an adjunct fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She is the co-author of “Triple Axis: Iran’s Relations with Russia and China.”