Will America Force Iran to Strengthen Ties with China and Russia?

A demonstrator peeks from under an Iranian flag during a ceremony to mark the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran's Azadi square February 11, 2012. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on the anniversary of the revolution that the Islamic Republic would soon announce "very important" achievements in the nuclear field, state TV reported. REUTERS/Caren Firouz

Iran may be pushed into partnering with countries that are willing to overlook revolutionary exports and human-rights violations.

The IRGC, which controls the ballistic program, has shown no indication of changing course even though Great Britain, Germany and France joined the United States in denouncing the recent tests as a violation of the Security Council Resolution 2231. The Rouhani government has no say in the decisions that pertain to the ballistic industry and must work through Ayatollah Khamenei to make its options known. In one such case, Rouhani urged the Supreme Leader to force the IRGC to remove the slogan “Death to Israel” painted on missiles displayed during a parade. Should Washington fail to certify Iran’s compliance, the hardliners may withdraw from the treaty, or, more likely, emasculate the Rouhani government, a strategy that they used against Mohammed Khatami.

Either way, Rouhani’s difficulties would put an end to the normalization project while breathing new life into the revolutionary export internationalism, which has seen the IRGC deeply engaged in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and, most recently, Afghanistan. Equally consequential, Western sanctions may help the Principalists to complete the so-called “Pivot to the East.” Starting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hardliners have argued that Iran should orient its economy toward Russia, China and the other countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In this view, the organization is a vastly more reliable trade partner because it is willing to overlook revolutionary exports, ballistics issues and human-rights violations. Indeed, Russia has closely collaborated with Iran on saving the Assad family rule in Syria and is not likely to sanction the IRGC.

China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” project is also highly attractive to the hardliners. For the project, which promises more than $1 trillion in infrastructure investment in three continents, “Iran is at the center of everything.” In 2016, Iran and China have agreed on forming strategic relations with the Chinese to expand bilateral ties and increase trade to $600 billion in the next ten years. China’s investment in Iran since the second half of 2016 has been increasing up to 43.5 percent. By 2014, the value of bilateral trade between the two countries had reached $51.8 billion, a 73 percent increase compared to 2013. China also promised to invest $30 billion in Iran’s gas and oil fields, and another $40 billion in Iran’s mining industry. In the first six months of 2017, the volume of trade exchanges between the two parties stood at $18 billion, a 31 percent increase compared to the same period in 2016. Exports from China to Iran rose to $8.8 billion in January–July 2017, showing a 23 percent increase compared to the same period in 2016 in which China exported $7.2 billion worth of goods to Iran.

Unlike the normalization with the West, relations with the East carry no onerous obligations, including the controversial and complicated field of human rights, a frequent target of Western sanctions. It also furthers the goal of “resistance economy,” a reference to measures to make Iran less sensitive to external shocks such as sanctions.

The Supreme Leader, a major advocate of economic self-resilience, has pushed the “Pivot to the East” as an alternative to Rouhani’s normalization. According to him and the Principalists, once fully realized, this strategy would give Iran the freedom to continue with its “revolutionary export.” Ironically, the flurry of American sanctions may help the regime to fulfill this goal.

Farhad Rezaei is a research fellow at Center for Iranian Studies (IRAM) in Ankara where he researches Iran’s foreign policy. His new book, Iran, Israel and the United States: The Politics of Counter-proliferation, is forthcoming. He tweets at @Farhadrezaeii

Image: A demonstrator peeks from under an Iranian flag during a ceremony to mark the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran's Azadi square February 11, 2012. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on the anniversary of the revolution that the Islamic Republic would soon announce "very important" achievements in the nuclear field, state TV reported. REUTERS/Caren Firouz

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