Iran Diplomacy: Why Russia and China Won't Play Ball

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At first glance, the headlines appear unconnected: The U.S. and its allies again fail to secure agreement on a U.N. Security Council ultimatum to Iran; democracy activists in Belarus take to the streets to denounce the electoral farce that returned the authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko to power; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice holds a security summit in Australia with her counterparts from that country and Japan. Yet those headlines, together with the ones announcing closer economic ties and strategic ties during President Putin's visit to Beijing, hint at how Sino-Russian concerns over U.S. policy elsewhere may prolong the Iran deadlock.

China and Russia Push Back

Moscow and Beijing are blocking efforts by the U.S. and its allies to have the Security Council issue an ultimatum to Iran to cease uranium-enrichment activities within 14 days or face action by the international community. They want to allow more time for negotiations, and send the matter back to the International Atomic Energy Agency rather than have the issue remain in the Security Council, where they believe the sense of "crisis" fosters a confrontational attitude on both sides. Without their support, a Security Council statement can't be adopted.

Their motivations are pretty clear. China's strategic stake in Iran's energy sector makes comprehensive sanctions intolerable. Russia's own economic ties with Tehran give it a similar, although not quite as critical, incentive to avoid sanctions. Just as important, both sides are determined to avoid letting the Security Council become a platform for confrontation as it was before the Iraq invasion. And though both countries are committed to the nuclear nonproliferation system that Iran is being accused of threatening, neither views Iran as as big a strategic threat to its own interests and influence as does the U.S.

'Containing' Beijing?

In Beijing, the perception in ruling circles is that the U.S. seeks to curb and restrict its emergence as a major geopolitical power commensurate with its ever-growing economic clout. Chinese officials don't have to look far for evidence, as hawkish elements in Washington haven't been hiding their view of China as an emerging threat. Last January, in the wake of the tsunami, the Bush administration initially moved to circumvent the U.N. to deliver aid by instead partnering with Japan, Australia and India. More recently, Secretary Rice's comments in Australia that "all of us in the region, particularly those of us who are longstanding allies, have a joint responsibility and obligation to try produce conditions in which the rise of China will be a positive force in international politics, not a negative force" prompted her Australian counterpart, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer to state that "We don't support a policy of containment of China." And, of course, Rice's comments will be perceived in Beijing as just that, further evidence of a "containment" strategy.

Further fueling China's wariness and hostility are the growing ties between its longtime nemesis Japan and the U.S., particularly in light of Washington's encouragement of Tokyo to expand its military role in the region. Meanwhile, President Bush's recent move to forgive India — a traditional rival of China — its nuclear proliferation and aid its civilian nuclear energy sector may not have helped in securing Chinese support for a push against Iran.

Moscow's Fears

The U.S. rejection of Sunday's election in Belarus, which was judged by European monitors to be fraudulent, may also be taken in Moscow as a reminder of what it perceives as Washington's effort to reverse Russian influence in former Soviet territories. The "pastel" revolutions of recent years in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere have fed a sense that the U.S. is pushing its own influence into Moscow's traditional sphere of influence by supporting democratic rebellions against pro-Russian strongmen such as Belarus' leader Alexander Lukashenko. Russia has pushed back by pressuring allies in Central Asia to distance themselves from the U.S. — Uzbekistan, for example, asked the U.S. to close the main airbase servicing U.S. forces in Afghanistan after Washington challenged human rights violations by the regime of President Islam Kharimov.

Healing the Moscow-Beijing Rift

Last July, Presidents Putin and Hu slammed Washington in a joint statement rejecting efforts by any power to achieve "a monopoly in world affairs" and "impose models of social development." Moscow and Beijing, it seems, have come a long way since the Cold War when, despite their common commitment to Communism, the two had a longstanding rivalry that was eagerly exploited by the U.S. Today, their strategic alliance is based first and foremost on doing business — China wants to increase its consumption of Russian oil and natural gas exports, and much of that growing Chinese defense budget about which Rice complained will be spent on Russian weaponry. But it also appears to dictate a common geopolitical agenda whose objectives include restraining U.S. power.

In Beijing this week, Putin and Hu agreed to coordinate their efforts to "solving the Iran nuclear issue through political and diplomatic means." That of course is the express desire of the U.S. and its allies, as well. Which means that if the U.S. is going to be able to enlist Russia and China as partners in solving the Iran nuclear impasse, it may have to heed some of their concerns in other arenas.