October 18, 2018 | By Brian Hanson, Ariane Tabatabai, Dina Esfandiary

Deep Dish: Iran, Russia, and China, the Triple-Axis

Within hours of President Trump's announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal, Iran's foreign minister was on a plane, first to China and then to Russia. This often overlooked but important geopolitical trio, Iran, Russia, and China, is the subject of a new book by Dina Esfandiary and Ariane Tabatabai.

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Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and today, we're talking about Iran and the often overlooked relationships between Iran and Russia and China, as well as why they're important.

Brian Hanson: To give you one sense for this, within hours of President Trump's announcement that the United States would be withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal, Iran's foreign minister was on a plane, first to China and then to Russia. This important geopolitical trio, Tehran, Beijing, and Moscow, is the subject of a timely new book that my guests today are here to talk about called Triple-Axis: Iran's Relations with Russia and China.

Brian Hanson: I have with me Dina Esfandiary, who is an International Security Program Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center, and a Fellow in Middle Eastern Department of the Century Foundation. Welcome, Dina. Good to have you on.

Dina Esfandiary: Good to be here.

Brian Hanson: Also with me is Ariane Tabataba, who is an Associate Political Scientist at the Rand Corporation. Welcome, Ariane. Good to have you here too.

Ariane Tabataba: Good to be here. Thanks for having us.

Brian Hanson: I want to set up this discussion, because typically when we talk about Iran, we think about Iran as a regional actor, whether it is pursuing nuclear weapons, relationship with Israel, being involved in the Syrian conflict, but in your book, you point out that we need to think about Iran in the context of also of it's relationship with Russia and with China, and these relationships are fundamentally important for understanding what's going on.

Brian Hanson: To start off, why for Iran are the relationships with Russia and China so important?

Dina Esfandiary: It's pretty simple. It's because Russia and China are the two countries that have been there for Iran throughout the years, throughout the decades. When the revolution happened in Iran and Iran effectively became a pariah state, everybody turned away from it. The only two countries willing to work with it were Russia and China. Today, we have a similar situation, where there are some countries in the international community that are all right with working with Iran, particularly since the 2015 nuclear deal, and others who refuse to work with it, and as such, Iran needs partners. It can't act alone. It can't be a state on its own in isolation of everybody else, and so Russia and China have been very useful to it, in trade, in political relations, and in military relations.

Ariane Tabataba: Yes. I'll give you a few examples of how the relationships are critical for Iran, but also for Russia and China, and why they matter for our purposes. If you look at Iran's involvement in Syria, which has been one of the biggest challenges arguably to the United States in the Middle East in recent years, Iran has been working with Russia fairly closely. The Russians have been providing air cover to Iran's ground forces and the militia's they've deployed throughout the country, and Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, and China have worked with various militias, the Taliban most recently, to push back what they see as the critical threat of the Islamic State in the Khorasan Province. It's an offshoot of Isis in Iraq and Syria.

Ariane Tabataba: In terms of the economy, China has become a very important player in the Iranian economy. It's become a major oil consumer and customer of Iran, especially at times, as Dina was mentioning, where Iran was struggling to sell it's oil. It's also a critical player in Iran's infrastructure. You take the Metro in Tehran. You take the train anywhere in the country. You drive down the highway. Chances are the Chinese have been involved in building it. Last but not least, you mentioned at the beginning Iran's nuclear program. The Russians have been essentially the one power driving Iran's nuclear program for the past couple of decades, so in every single critical challenge that we see with Iran's behavior in the region, domestically, economically, security-wise, Russia and China likely have a role.

Brian Hanson: Terrific, and let's flip it around now to look at what's in it for Russia and China. Why is this relationship so important for each of those countries, and how do they benefit from the relationship with Iran?

Ariane Tabataba: I think we have to decouple a little bit here, but on some level, both of these countries are somewhat revisionist countries, and we challenge the fundamental assumption that all three, Iran, Russia, and China, are hell bent on essentially creating a new world order and getting rid of the old one, but at the same time, all three of them see the current world order and US/Western leadership as somewhat problematic, and want to assert themselves in various areas.And so for both Russia and China, working with a country that is resource rich, that has a population of 80 million fairly well-educated, fairly young population, a force to be reckoned with in the region, that's a critical relationship to foster.

Ariane Tabataba: And then you have specific considerations for each of those. For the Russians, they have had an interest in exporting their nuclear technology for awhile now, and Iran has been in dire need of getting a nuclear supplier since the end of the ... since the Shah was toppled in 1979, and Western powers did not want to work with Iran anymore. China, for it's part, needs oil. It's thirsty for energy, and Iran provides cheap oil. And more recently, the One Belt One Road Initiative, that has become a major Chinese endeavor and goal, Iran is very well-situated to become an important part of that initiative, and some of it goes through Iran. That's why you have such an involvement by the Chinese in Iranian infrastructure.

Dina Esfandiary: There's an additional dimension to that as well. I think that Russia and China, both of them in recent years, have woken up to the idea of expanding their influence in new regions, and the Middle East is a key region for that. We see that, as Ariane mentioned earlier, with Russia's involvement in Syria, and neither country can be involved in the region if they're not somehow dealing with a country like Iran, which is a major player in the Middle East region. You can't do anything in the Middle East without at some point coming across Iran.

Brian Hanson: This is interesting, because you've laid out really nicely the logic that is driving each of the actors in this triple-axis. One of the things that's striking at the same time is that you have the Iran deal, which was a deal that included the participation of China and of Russia to halt the Iranian nuclear program. Given this logic, and I can imagine, you talked about the economic benefits that flow to Russia and China, one of the things that was going to happen or is going to happen, depending how you look at it, with the Iran deal is opening up Iranian markets also to European competitors. How do we understand in this context why China and Russia got on board with this effort to curtail the nuclear program in Iran.

Dina Esfandiary: This was an interesting one. When the negotiations began with the P5+1, a lot of us were watching Russia and China quite closely thinking, "Why would they take part in these negotiations? How does it make sense for them?" Because, at the end of the day, as long as Iran is sanctioned, they stand to gain. They're still selling goods to Iran, so there's no reason why an open Iran would benefit them in any way, but they did. They participated and they participated wholeheartedly. They really took part in the negotiations, acted as one bloc with the remainder of the P5+1, and it resulted in the JCPOA.

Dina Esfandiary: The reason behind it was, they knew they stood to gain no matter what happened. If Iran opened up, sure, it might mean that it's market would open up a little bit more to the Europeans. It was unlikely that it would ever open up fully to the Americans, but Russia and China had been present in Iran at a time where no Western country had been. They had people on the ground. They understood the opaque Iranian economy and the Iranian system better than anybody else, so they also knew that if sanctions were lifted and other were going to come back in, it would take time. And in that time, they would continue, and continue to ramp up their business with Iran without the constraints that they had had while Iran was under sanctions.

Ariane Tabataba: To add a couple of things, I think for both Russia and China, there were also concerns about the role in the international community. The Chinese have been wanting to project this image of a responsible player, of a facilitator essentially for the past few years, and this is one of those important moments in international diplomacy where they got to finally play that role, and they were often very proud of the fact that they managed to bring the parties together.

Ariane Tabataba: There were a couple of incidences during the talks when the French, for example, were playing, were adopting a harsher line, a harder line, and it seemed like the talks were going to collapse. And the Chinese came out and tried to facilitate the discussion and to get the ball to keep going forward, and they would come out of it and say, "Look at this, we have managed to get the process going, and we are a responsible, powerful mediator in the process."

Ariane Tabataba: The Russians, I think, is a little different, because whereas Iran and China haven't really shared a border in a very long time, haven't really had a conflict in centuries ... In fact, we found one example of a conflict we could really point to in the book that happened many centuries ago. Iran and Russia is a completely different story.

Brian Hanson: They've had common borders and fought over them before.

Ariane Tabataba: Absolutely, and actually the modern map of Iran was drawn larger after losing territories to Russia. The two countries see each other with a lot more suspicion than China and Russia, and I think for that reason, the Russians are much more inclined to follow the US lead on nonproliferation in that sense, and to say that they really would not like to see a nuclear-armed Iran close by in a region that they see as critical to their interests, and actually multiple regions that they see critical to their interests: the Caspian, South Caucasus, and the Middle East.

Dina Esfandiary: And ultimately, their bet paid off, because today in the current scenario that we're facing after the US had withdrawn it's participation from the deal and made it increasingly difficult for Western businesses to return to Iran, Russia and China are still there, and Russia and China will continue to reap the benefits of dealing with Iran.

Brian Hanson: And let's look at this from the Iranian point of view. It's fascinating to go from country to country and see how it's playing out politically. Iran agrees to the negotiations over the Iran deal, and presumably, one of the big carrots was the economic opening to the West. Why, if Iran has such a good relationship, is doing so well vis a vis Russia and China, and has found a way to work compatibly together, the relationship with the West is going to be more fraught inherently, why for Iran was this an attractive negotiation to engage in?

Ariane Tabataba: Because there's a lot of suspicion, and again, especially with regard to Russia, but even with China, when we were doing field work for this book in Iran, we would often go and talk to people about their views on Iran's relations with Russia and China, and very frequently we would hear people saying, "They don't really deliver projects on time. When they do deliver, what we end up seeing is substandard, subpar technology and products that they give us." One example I think we use in the book is that you would go and buy something at the market, and the first thing the customer would ask is, "Is it Chinese?" If it's Chinese, then they don't want it. They want a product that is, at that point is during the sanctions, so they would want something that is Turkish for example or Pakistani, but certainly not Chinese.

Ariane Tabataba: Ultimately, what the many Iranian customers and I would say leadership wanted was a closer relationship with Europe, actually. Again, as Dina was saying, with the US, it was always more complicated. There was no illusion on either side that we were going to get back to a pre-1979 situation that the US would be exporting goods and sending services to Iran, but with the EU, there was some optimism that that was going to happen, and for Iranians, Western technology, Western goods are good. They're the standard. They set the standard. And they know that the Europeans would deliver things in a much more timely manner as well, so you have this tension that has existed, and even though Iran has had to increasingly rely on Russia and China, it's done so against this backdrop of tension and distrust essentially.

Brian Hanson: This brings us up to today, and I think one of the things that was most helpful for me in reading your book was to think about where this moment is with a bit of a different framework and seeing options differently. The United States, of course, has pulled out of the Iran deal, and what are Iran's options now? And how is this dynamic with these relationships between Russia and China shape those? Because President Trump announced he's getting out of this deal, because we're going to put maximum pressure on Iran, and we're going to get an even better deal. What's going to happen?

Ariane Tabataba: I think we're both chuckling a little bit because I think the Iranians are asking themselves the same question as we speak. The Iranian objective right now, at least for the foreseeable future, is going to be to try to get the ball rolling with the Europeans, to get them to, not necessarily step in fully and compensate for the US withdrawal, but at least to do it's best to make sure that Iran's economy stays afloat.

Ariane Tabataba: In just a few weeks from now, I think in exactly a month, the new sanctions, the sanctions aiming to reduce Iran's oil exports to zero, would be in full effect. If that does actually happen, and I think we both have some ... We're skeptical that this is going to be the case, but if it does happen, then Iran is in very serious trouble, economically but also politically. The regime has been witnessing protest over the last few months.

Ariane Tabataba: They haven't been existential in the sense that it's not a redux of 2009, but at the same time, having protests every other week in various cities is not ideal for any central authority, so if they want to make sure that the country keeps it's calm and manages to continue staying afloat, they are going to need some sort of economic recovery, and I think Dina can talk about this in a second, but so for now, the Iranians are eying Europe, and the Europeans have indicated that they're willing to do what they ca to keep the JCPOA, the nuclear deal, going.

Ariane Tabataba: Again, I think we're both skeptical that they're going to be able to do much, but I think the big question for the Iranians is the following: "Is President Trump going to get a second term or not?" If President Trump gets a second term, then the likelihood, I think, of the nuclear deal surviving is going to decrease quite substantially. I don't think that Iran can justify staying in a deal if it doesn't get economic benefits of it for six years.

Ariane Tabataba: If President Trump is not reelected in 2020 however, this would be a different story, because preserving the deal for two years is not too difficult, especially given the fact that President Rouhani, who got the deal in the first place, whose entire legacy is essentially centered around this deal, is going to be in power until then and past then. Barring any major developments, I think that getting to 2020 won't be too difficult. 2024 is an entirely different story.

Dina Esfandiary: Keep in mind that the Iranians have been preparing for the disappointment of sanctions relief for awhile now. I think it became clear, it took a little bit of time for it to become clear during the negotiations that not all sanctions would be lifted should Iran join the deal and constrain it's nuclear program, and then once that happened, even when the deal was being implemented by the Iranian side, even under the previous US administration, Iran realized that it was never going to get the full benefits that it was promised.

Dina Esfandiary: It's been adjusting to this and preparing for this for a little while now, which is where Russia and China come in. Iran hoped to turn to the West, and hoped to get better quality European products in particular, but it always kept Russia and China on the back burner in case this wasn't going to happen, and today, this strategy has paid off. In terms of where it's going to go moving forward, I have an ever-so-slightly different view to my co-author.

Ariane Tabataba: Ha ha.

Dina Esfandiary: Yeah.

Brian Hanson: You heard it here first on Deep Dish.

Dina Esfandiary: I think that, the Iranian officials and Iranians in general are really tired of this nuclear issue. They don't want to be dealing with it. They don't want to be rehashing it. They don't want to have to bring it out again and renegotiate it, and both outside the country but also domestically, within the different political factions in Iran. They don't really have an interest in leaving the deal right now, barring something really really major happening. Again, getting the benefits of the deal, Iran has gotten it's head around the idea that that isn't really going to happen. What it has done today though is Iran is the winner politically, and I think the UN General Assembly last week in New York really demonstrated that.

Brian Hanson: Yeah, how so?

Dina Esfandiary: Iran walked away from a week of meetings looking like a reasonable country in the community of nations with the support of the Europeans, the support of the Russians and the Chinese, the support of the entire UN Security Council, even though there was a meeting that President Trump had called in order to target Iran, and that meeting ended up backfiring on him, because everybody else during the meeting called out President Trump, and instead pledged support for the JCPOA. Iran looks like a victor politically, and I think they're going to want to milk that as much as they can.

Brian Hanson: That's very interesting. Take me inside Iran to talk a little bit about domestic politics. We've been talking about countries as these monoliths, but of course Iran's got more than one faction, and a populace that we frequently feel is Western-leaning in it's orientation. How do these things play out inside the country, and does that create challenges for holding together this Chinese, Russia, and Iranian axis?

Dina Esfandiary: It's a tough environment to get your head around, but yes, there are multiple factions. There are hardliners, there are moderates, there are reformists, and oftentimes, individuals in these factions will move between factions, because their personal interests will suddenly be aligned with a different political faction. Politics are incredibly fluid in Iran, which means that actually it's not what we often perceive it to be in that there is one Supreme Leader and only he sets policy in Iran. He is the final decision maker perhaps but he is not the only decision maker, and there's a lot of debate within the Iranian system every time Iran makes a foreign policy or a domestic decision.

Dina Esfandiary: In terms of how this effects it's policies with Russia and China, you can see it play out in the hesitation that Iran had, for example, right after the 2015 nuclear deal was agreed to, and Iran pivoted towards the West and really put Russia and China on the back foot in terms of dealing with them, and put a lot of agreements that they were negotiating with the Russians and the Chinese on hold to see if they could get a better deal with the Westerners. This is because, within the system, there had been a bit of a debate. There was exhaustion with dealing with the Russians and the Chinese, and having to wait around, and feeling like the Russians and the Chinese were dragging their feet or weren't really doing their best to provide good quality products for the Iranians.

Dina Esfandiary: And so this policy of putting these negotiations on hold was the result of this internal debate. Today obviously, dealing with the Russians and the Chinese is very much back in the picture, and the system as a whole has agreed that that's the way to go.

Ariane Tabataba: That said, we were talking about the nuclear deal and what's going to happen to it. I think it's also important to highlight that there is a bit of a consensus, a quasi-consensus if you will, in the country that the JCPOA should continue at least for now, and as Dina rightly said, the Supreme Leader is not the one man show that we think he is, but at the same time, he does tend to define the framework in which policy happens. Right after President Trump's announcement that he was withdrawing the United States from the nuclear deal, the Supreme Leader gave a speech where everybody was watching to see what he was going to say, because that was going to indicate where the country was going to go next, and he indicated that Iran would comply with the nuclear deal as long as the Europeans did and as long as the Europeans stayed on board.

Ariane Tabataba: And he actually put the emphasis on the Europeans because, one, there's this assumption that the Russians and the Chinese are going to be following through, they are going to be continuing the implementation of the nuclear deal, and second, Iran didn't come back to the table to get Russia and China on board. It came back to the negotiating table to work with the Europeans. For them right now, the focus is going to be on making sure the JCPOA survives with European participation, but at the same time, by continuing to work with the Russians and the Chinese to keep the economy going, to continue working on the nuclear program and military endeavors as well.

Ariane Tabataba: We've seen joint exercises and trips by Iranian, Russian, and Chinese defense ministers, for example, so the cooperation between Iran and Russia, and Iran and China continues to increase, but politically anyway, the main focus right now seems to be on Europe.

Brian Hanson: Terrific. That takes me to my closing question, and briefly, one of the conclusions of your book is that Europe should indeed work to sustain the Iranian deal, even without US support. Why is that?

Ariane Tabataba: The nuclear deal has a number of shortcomings which we won't get into, but at the same time, for now it is our best bet in making sure that Iran doesn't develop a nuclear weapon, and in that sense, I think that for Europe, this is really where it should be placing it's focus, and second, I think a missed opportunity for us in the United States is the ability to build on the JCPOA and to tackle other areas where we have disagreements with Iran. I think the Europeans are in a very good position right now to get to do exactly that.

Ariane Tabataba: President Trump famously wanted the missile issue and Iran's regional behavior to be included in the nuclear deal. Of course, that's not going to happen. The nuclear deal was signed, and again, I think we're skeptical that President Trump is going to be able to get the all-encompassing deal he wants in the near future, but I think the Europeans have a good shot here of putting add-ons essentially and try to take steps toward addressing these issues.

Dina Esfandiary: Exactly. The nuclear issue had been basically the wall that prevented any engagement of Iran in the past, because it was just the biggest issue that everybody wanted to deal with first, before talking to Iran about other things. Now the JCPOA is done and dealt with, and we have it, and so the Europeans, what they've been able to do is set up a political dialogue with the Iranians to talk about a range of other issues of concern, including human rights, which of course is a major concern.

Dina Esfandiary: The JCPOA was the basis for this dialogue on a range of other issues. In addition, as Ariane said, there are other issues that are a problem for the rest of the international community, including Iran's missile program, and Iran indicated that, should the JCPOA be implemented properly, then it would be willing to discuss it's missile program or at least the range of it's missiles, and a range of other topics, for example, it's involvement in the region, with the remainder of the P5+1.

Dina Esfandiary: Getting rid of the deal means that you wouldn't have that opportunity. You would be able to engage Iran, and you wouldn't be able to coax it to come back into the community of nations like we would want it to do. The Europeans have an opportunity to ensure that this happens, so they really have to take it.

Brian Hanson: Dina, Ariane, thanks so much for coming on the show, and also for your book Triple-Axis: Iran's Relations with Russia and China. I think it gives, this conversation and the book even more so, gives us a really rich way to understand the politics and how things may unfold, so thanks for being on Deep Dish.

Dina Esfandiary: Thanks for having us.

Ariane Tabataba: Thanks for having us.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning in to this episode of Deep Dish. If you like the show, do me a favor and tap the Subscribe button in your podcast app. You can find our show under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts, and if you think you know someone who would enjoy today's episode, please tap Share and send it to them as well. I'd like to invite you to join our Facebook group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs, where you can ask our guests follow-up questions about anything you heard today or submit questions for upcoming guests and episodes. That's Deep Dish on Global Affairs on Facebook.

Brian Hanson: As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them, and not the Chicago Council On Global Affairs or the Rand Corporation. This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio. Our researcher is John [Cookson 00:27:34], and our audio engineer is Andy Czarnecki. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.

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