The visit of a top-ranking Chinese delegation to Moscow and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s trip to Beijing has highlighted an unprecedented level of alignment among Eurasian powers. Since the 1990s Iran, Russia, and China have been cooperative mostly in rhetoric; now there is hope among some that they can create a new order.
The war in Ukraine has been transformative by accelerating an existing trend. For instance, it pushed Iran and Russia to seek closer ties. From a historical perspective, never before since the late 16th century, when the two were united by a fear of the expanding Ottoman Empire, have Iran and Russia been so aligned on so many issues of regional and indeed global importance.
The contrast with the pre-2022 period is striking. Bilateral political meetings have multiplied. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Tehran in July. Russian delegations constantly visit Tehran to study Iran’s sanctions-evasion experience. Last year, Russian exports to Iran rose by 27%, and Russian imports from Iran increased by 10%. Both sides agreed to scale up trade in currencies other than the US dollar, while Russia invested an unprecedented $40bn in Iran, bought a large number of military drones — used to attack Ukrainian cities and infrastructure — and possibly short-range ballistic missiles.
Most significantly for Iran it was finally allowed to purchase state-of-the-art Sukhoi Su-35 combat aircraft, as well as air defense and missile systems. Moreover, the two sides also ramped up work to develop the much-touted and ambitious north-south trade corridor stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Baltic Sea, a route that could ultimately become a primary means to avoid sanctions.
All of which is important, but not the ultimate aim. Both countries recognize China’s enormous hard and soft power, and both seek to lure the world’s second-richest country into a closer embrace, one that would frighten the West. Economically, that process is well underway. Russia has almost completely lost its European hydrocarbon market and is now making up a significant part of the shortfall with cut-price exports to China. Iran has also stepped-up trade.
But this stops well short of what the world’s two most heavily sanctioned states would hope. They aim for a redistribution of global power, leaving authoritarian states with greater freedom to pursue policies contravening the post-World War II rules-based order.
China has given tepid political support to Putin’s campaign against Ukraine, and has largely accepted Russia’s line, well reflected in the recently published proposed political settlement on Ukraine. But the “no-limits friendship” declared by the two states just before February 2022’s all-out invasion, very clearly has boundaries. While the US has said China has provided some non-lethal aid, it has been limited. Until now. The Biden administration says it has seen some signs this may now change.
Iran, for its part, has accelerated its “Look East” policy with the goal of balancing US sanctions and weakening Europe’s negotiating position in stalled talks on its efforts at nuclear enrichment, by increasingly aligning with China. Bilateral trade grows as does rhetorical support, as seen in Tehran praising Beijing’s Ukraine Plan. In 2021, the two countries also signed a potentially massive 25-year investment agreement. More concretely, China is now increasingly seen as a major lifeline for the Islamic Republic via Iranian oil purchases that reached $47bn over the past two years.
Moreover, Russia, Iran, and China have held naval drills in the Indian Ocean, cooperated in expanding the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and form a united rhetorical front opposed to Western ideas of human rights and representative democracy.
The shared sentiment is rooted in the history of these three countries. They remain angry at the West either for the excesses of imperialism in the 19th century (though Russia was and remains an imperial power) or America’s unipolar moment after the Cold War’s end. But most of all these three powers also perceive their rise through a longer-term perspective. For them, the West’s dominance is relatively recent that will shortly be replaced by a return to more traditional spheres of influence, which dominated world politics from ancient times. Moreover, for Russia, Iran, and China, liberalism is not wedded to modernity; democracy is not exclusively a Western concept; and they remain defenders of the Westphalian principles of non-intervention and sovereignty.
Despite all this, there is much to block a formal alliance. There are many reasons for this, but the greatest is the unwillingness of the most powerful player — China. Its role is both important and intriguing at the same time. Moscow and Tehran need Beijing. Without the latter, the former two would be unable to undercut the existing liberal order and impose a new system on Eurasia. But that doesn’t apply in reverse. Russia and Iran, both major energy exporters, have obvious hopes for China’s foreign policy, but joining their club would mean a withdrawal from the world. Russia represents less than 2% of China’s total exports, while the US, Germany, the UK, and France alone total 25%.
It is true that China appears to understand the Russian vision of its war in Ukraine (if not its conduct) and maintained close ties with Iran. So far though, it has felt no need to show anything except friendly words to its Eurasian friends. That pragmatism worries Moscow and Tehran.
For instance, the Iranian regime has long been irritated by China’s slowness to fulfill the 25-year investment agreement. Even during Raisi’s visit, the deals signed (worth between $3bn and $10bn) are dwarfed by what President Xi Jinping signed during 2022 with Iran’s great rival, Saudi Arabia (around $50bn.)
Of Iran’s total (tiny) foreign investment of $5.95bn in 2022, Chinese companies invested a meager $185m (“We are not satisfied with this number,” was the rather sharp response of an Iranian minister.) China is highly sensitive to Western sanctions; it was reported in February that Sinopec, the Chinese energy firm, is pulling out of a deal to develop Iran’s Yadaravan oil field. Though later denied by Iranian officials, who said negotiations are still ongoing, the move accords with past Chinese behavior of withdrawing from Iran’s gas and oil industry when hit with sanctions. The threat is real; the US continues to sanction those breaking the restrictions, including Chinese firms.
China has been willing (something repeated during Raisi’s trip) to condemn Western sanctions on Iran but unwilling to openly break them, as with Russia. To Iran’s huge annoyance, China openly supported the Gulf States in late 2022 by asking Iran to cooperate on the nuclear issue. Tehran even registered a complaint with the Chinese ambassador.
For the time being, China is under little pressure to change. It receives cheap oil and gas from two energy providers with limited markets and which need its friendship. While Beijing is doing just enough to keep Russia afloat, the West is distracted from the Indo-Pacific region and pouring resources into Ukraine.
All of which might of course change. A sudden descent into all-out economic war — perhaps as a result of China replenishing Russia’s dwindling artillery ammunition stocks — would test the current global balance and bring nearer the realization of a Eurasian alliance.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think-tank, Geocase.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.