China-Russia Proximity and Its Impact on Iran

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Seyyedeh Motahhareh Hosseini
Assistant Professor of Political Science & Expert on Central Asia and Caucasus Affairs

Relations between China and Russia have seen many ups and downs due to a variety of reasons. These two regional and international powers were rivals during the Cold War as a result of which the grounds for the continuation of rivalry between the two countries are more numerous than grounds for friendship and convergence. Military, politico-security, and territorial rivalries in contemporary times have caused both countries to have more potential for sustained tension. Today, China is trying by resettling Chinese ethnic groups along its border with Russia and by controlling economic milieu in the eastern parts of Russia to bring those regions under its control and influence. The Chinese army, especially its powerful and well-equipped naval force, has turned into a major concern for big military powers of the world, including the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Russia, as a neighboring state with porous borders has even more concerns about this regional rival. Political and security rivalries between the two countries – as nuclear-weapon member states of the United Nations – further exacerbate this situation.

Despite these facts, common interests of China and Russia, which have been more manifest through their bilateral cooperation within framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the BRICS group, have provided them with a good opportunity to put aside their customary rivalries and take advantage of the available grounds for the promotion of cooperation, especially in economic, military and security fields. The establishment of the New Development Bank (NDB) in the Chinese port city of Shanghai, which was made possible through an agreement among the member states of the BRICS group during the Olympic Games in South Africa, will greatly increase the financial credit of the SCO in future. At the same time, Russia is trying to expand the coverage of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU or EEU) to include all neighboring countries of China and incorporate the entire course of the new Silk Road over which Chinese goods are supposed to be transferred to European and Middle Eastern markets. Russia also hopes that the military arm of this union would serve as an alternative to the NATO and the SCO. Although the SCO is primarily an economic entity, it seems that due to presence of China as a world power, and given the ever-expanding powerful army of China and the higher trust that other Asian member states of the SCO put in Beijing, it has higher potential to turn into a security structure. The membership of Pakistan and India, as two nuclear powers, was also a major topic of discussion during the recent meeting of the SCO in Russia. With the membership of two more nuclear powers in addition to China and Russia, the organization will gain unique military and security leverage especially in the sphere of regional order. This is an important point taking into account that most regional crises currently have their roots in Pakistan.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had been also invited to the SCO summit by Russia. It seems that due to Iran's increasing role in regional arrangements, member states of the SCO will pay more serious attention to the issue of assigning a more highlighted role to Iran within this regional organization. Iran is now an observer member of the SCO and is sure to further bolster its regional and global standings through negotiations and equations that will come into play after removal of international sanctions against the country. On the other hand, increasing attention is being paid to Iran’s market and the role of the country in managing regional crises, which are marked with a high degree of violence and bloodletting in the new Middle East. This is true as Iran, which plays a very active role in the main hubs of the conflict in the Middle East such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen, has been able to prevent spillover of these crises through its borders. Meanwhile, Russia is currently taking sides with Iran with regard to the ongoing regional wars in the Middle East. However, more than being a result of converging tendencies between Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, such a position by Moscow is more an outcome of its current adversity to the West and traditional dependence of Iraq, Syria and Yemen on the Eastern bloc led by the former Soviet Union and the present-day Russia. Although Russia is not content with the rising power and influence of Iran, under sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States, Moscow has been forced into attuning part of its global policies with Tehran.

The Islamic Republic of Iran's approach to Russia is a combination of historical and strategic viewpoints. While from a historical viewpoint the last major war between Iran and Russia took place in the 18th century, Iran has always seen its powerful northern neighbor as both a threatening rival and a strategic ally. Both under Western sanctions against Iran and before that, Russia has been the other side of a large part of Iran's economic relations with the outside world, and Russians have provided Iran with a great deal of necessary strategic commodities such as arms, security information and nuclear infrastructure. On the other hand, due to its aggressive policies toward the Western world, Iran has shown remarkable convergence with Russia. After the European Union started imposing sanctions on Iran, the Islamic Republic got increasingly closer to both China and Russia. Propinquity with China and Russia as Asian superpowers can have a positive impact on the situation of such regional powers as the Islamic Republic of Iran because it provides them with new room for playing their role in both international and domestic arenas. At present, regional orders are more useful to the establishment of stability and security in the Middle East compared to dictated hegemonic orders which usually ignore many local and indigenized arrangements. Of course, serious confrontation between Asian powers and global powers and the NATO can further escalate the currently critical situation in the Middle East and Iran does not like this to happen. The main threat that is currently posed to Iran is the spillover of “proxy wars” over its borders, though it seems that Russia and China have no interest in seeing this happen.

Key Words: China, Russia, Iran, Proximity, NATO, Political and Security Rivalries, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), BRICS, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Middle East, Proxy Wars, Hosseini

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*Photo Credit: Prseed.IR

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