di Giusy Musarò
Last 18 October, the arms embargo imposed by the UN Resolution 2231 on Iran expired. The embargo was part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in July 2015 by P5+1 France, Great Britain, the United States, Russia, China and Germany. The Agreement, valid until 2026, had the objective of containing Iranian uranium production for exclusively civilian use. In exchange for the removal of the economic sanctions previously imposed, Iran committed to eliminate its medium-enriched uranium reserves and to reduce its gas centrifuges by more than two thirds for thirteen years.
The unilateral withdrawal by the United States from the agreement in May 2018 and the adoption of a "maximum pressure" policy, which led to the reintroduction of economic sanctions on various sectors, including oil and banking, put Iran's compliance with the Nuclear Agreement at stake. The European inability of all its members to enforce the deal has challenged Tehran's confidence in the transatlantic alliance and the European institutions. On the other hand, the sense of strategic isolation at the regional level and the constant threat of attacks from its neighbors has prompted Iran to increase its influence in the region through unconventional methods and strategic international partners willing to support it, such as Russia and China.
With the end of the arms embargo, many have speculated that Iran will seek to acquire tanks, fighter jets, surface-to-air missiles and other defence systems from Russia and China.
The aim of this article is to assess the real possibilities for greater military cooperation between the three countries and what impact this could have on future relations between Iran and Europe, also in light of the appointment of the new US President Joe Biden, who will take office next 20 January.
2. Iran’s ‘Look to the East Policy’
Tehran's closer ties with China and Russia are the result of several factors. In recent years the three countries have strengthened their relations not only economically but also militarily, trying to establish a common front in contrast to the Western presence in the region, positioning themselves as a valid alternative for the pursuit of regional peace and security. Already in December 2019 the three countries had conducted a military drill in the Gulf of Oman, with the declared objective of strengthening security in the area and fostering cooperation between their respective naval forces. Last September a new military exercise organised by Beijing in the Caucasus saw the participation not only of Russia and Iran, but also Belarus, Pakistan, Myanmar and Armenia.
In addition to the ideological opposition to the West, a greater cooperation between Russia, China and Iran is mainly driven by economic interests, including that of ensuring greater security in the Persian Gulf. The Strait of Hormuz, in particular, has an extreme geopolitical importance for the global trade of hydrocarbons. In 2018, 20.7 million barrels passed through it. According to EIA estimates, about 76% of crude oil transited through the Strait of Hormuz was directed to Asian markets, first and foremost China, which depends significantly on this trade line.
In September 2019, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani proposed a coalition to maintain regional security and stability called Hormuz Peace Endeavour (HOPE), calling for the withdrawal of the United States and other sub-regional forces from the Gulf. Needless to say, the attempt drastically failed. Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in one of the most atrocious wars of recent years in Yemen and the Gulf countries continue to see Iran as a threat to their integrity and security. Moreover, they are well aware that their cooperation with Tehran would lead to a deterioration of relations with the United States. The normalization agreements signed by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain with Israel last September complicate any future attempt at cooperation and point to a different trajectory from that desired by Iran only a year ago.
Despite the antagonism of most of its neighbors, Iran's strategy in the region remains mainly defensive. Unable to compete with its military neighbors, Tehran has been able to pursue its strategic interests in the region through unconventional operations and asymmetric warfare tactics, supporting Shi’ah militias and satellite organisations in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
3. Iran, Russia and China. Towards a military cooperation?
Relations between Iran and Russia have certainly strengthened in recent years, both economically and politically. Trade between the two countries has grown, despite US sanctions, rising from $1.74 billion in 2019 to $2 billion in 2019. In addition to the significant diplomatic efforts made by Moscow to persuade the Western powers to resume economic relations with Iran after the United States' exit from the Nuclear Agreement, since 2015 Iran has been a valid regional ally in Syria. Here both are involved in support of Bashar al-Assad's pro-regime forces. In addition, in July 2020, the two countries agreed on the extension of a 20-year global strategic cooperation agreement.
With the end of the arms embargo, new opportunities are certainly opening up to strengthen military cooperation between the two countries. The Russian Ambassador to Iran Levan Dzahagaryan last October suggested that Moscow would have no problem selling the much-coveted S-400 to Iran.
The S-400, openly opposed by the United States and the subject of international dispute, is one of the most sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons systems, capable of intercepting and neutralising air vehicles, AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System), cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. China, Turkey, India, Saudi Arabia and Belarus have already formally signed the purchase of the system.
While Iran has not yet declared its intention to purchase the S-400 from Russia, such an acquisition would bring numerous advantages, including the possibility of competing at military level with the US F-35 system used by Israel, risking altering the fragile balance of power in the region.
Concerning relations with China, in recent years the Iranian Republic has become increasingly dependent on Beijing from a diplomatic, economic, military and technological point of view. Despite the sanctions imposed by the United States, bilateral trade between the two countries and China's oil imports have continued in recent years.
In 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Tehran marked the beginning of a 25-year strategic partnership. The draft, due to be ratified in 2021, includes several infrastructure projects in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as energy, petrochemical and military collaborations. Joint training and exercises, weapons research and development projects and intelligence sharing are also mentioned in the agreement.
The deal certainly has economic benefits for both. For Iran, the 400 billion dollars that China is expected to invest in the country will serve to give a boost to an economy battered for years by a series of economic sanctions. For Beijing, the agreement would allow the purchase of oil and gas at an advantageous price and a privileged access to the Strait of Hormuz, enriching the vast network of ports and filling stations extending from the Chinese Sea to the Suez Canal, in line with China's ambitions for expansion in Eurasia. In the 1990s, China transferred nuclear technology and know-how to Iran, supporting the country’s missile and nuclear programme. What worries the US and Europe is that such a relationship and support may resume with the end of the embargo.
Several factors, however, could hamper the sale of weapons and advanced military systems to Tehran. If on the one hand, it is true that Beijing has increased its influence in the region in recent years, even in sectors traditionally dominated by the United States and Russia, like arms sales, on the other hand China's strategy in Eurasia remains strongly focused on economic development. By providing financial aid free of any kind of political involvement or reform, Beijing has often presented itself as a viable alternative to the Western liberal model and advocate for world peace and development through peaceful methods.
As mentioned above, one of the elements underlying increased military cooperation between Iran, China and Russia could be the interest in maintaining security in the Persian Gulf, which is essential for assuring functional trade lines. The same security, however, could adversely affect the decision or not to supply arms to Iran. Beijing is aware that the maintenance of a functional relationship with the United States is at the core of its commercial and security interests in the Gulf. Selling arms to Iran at this time would risk jeopardising this relationship.
Not to be underestimated are also the relations that Beijing and Moscow have established with the Gulf countries in recent years. Since 2017, Russia and Saudi Arabia have developed cooperation in the economic sphere through the creation of a Joint Investment Fund worth $6 billion. Similar investments have also seen the light with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
As far as China is concerned, Beijing imported $40 billion of oil from Saudi Arabia in 2019 and Dubai is one of the major hubs for the transport of Chinese goods. The two Gulf countries are also importers of Chinese arms, in particular of military drones such as Wing Loong I and II and CH-4. Saudi Arabia has also allegedly expanded its missile program thanks to Beijing.
4. Which role for the European Union?
Greater economic and military cooperation between Iran, China and Russia risks undermining European interests in Eurasia, excluding Europe more from future regional dynamics and policies. With the arms embargo imposed by the European Union in force until 2023, the EU's foreign policy towards Iran has proved to not be enough flexible and unite in pursuing its commitments under the Nuclear Agreement and safeguarding Tehran's economic interests. The European attempt to override US sanctions by creating an alternative financial transition system (INSTEX) did not produce the expected results. However, it contributed to eroding relations with Tehran and revealing the weakness of the Union.
A new role opens up for the European Union with Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential elections. Future President Biden has declared his willingness to rejoin the Nuclear Deal and strengthen the transatlantic alliance through a renewed multilateral policy, weakened by Trump's presidency. However, it will not be easy for the new administration to reopen negotiations and remove the political and economic sanctions imposed on Iran in recent years. Moreover, internal opposition in both the United States and Iran could hamper future rapprochement policies between the two countries. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif himself, despite he declared of being favorable to a possible return of the United States into the Agreement, he has also expressed his opposition to a complete reopening of negotiations with Biden.
The role of the European Union could be vital in this new process in strengthening new multilateral agreements and mediating to re-establish relations between Tehran and the international community. In addition to facilitating the resumption of diplomatic relations, it would also be important to devote more attention to a potential economic package that could facilitate the resumption of the Agreement by Iran.
Although the sale of highly sophisticated weapons to Iran by Russia and China seems unlikely to occur in the short-term, this does not diminish the possibility of greater military cooperation between the three countries, which could alter the current regional balance by acting as an alternative to the Western presence in the area. How much Iran, with the end of the embargo, is willing to invest in conventional arms remains unclear. The qualitative advantage that would result from it would not be enough to compete with its enemies in the region and to ensure greater security in the Persian Gulf, which is essential to safeguard and increase current Iranian trade lines.
Another aspect not to be underestimated is the real economic availability of Tehran in the short term for the purchase of weapons from Russia and China. The budget available for the purchase of military arsenals has suffered due to the various economic sanctions and the current pandemic.
What seems most likely to happen is that with the end of the arms embargo Tehran will try to continue to increase its influence in the region by strengthening its defensive capabilities and domestically produced weapons. Let us not forget that Iran possesses the largest arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles in the region. It is not unlikely that an increase of sale of its own weapons to regional and international players will occur.
Until the future US President Joe Biden’s workplan towards Iran will not be clear, it is unlikely that Tehran, Beijing and Moscow will take any actions that could undermine potential negotiations and the next election campaign of Iranian President Rouhani in June 2021.
As far as the European Union is concerned, it is in its interest now to develop a more compact foreign policy towards Iran and to propose new multilateral agreements that can advance its interests and reaffirm its influence and credibility.
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