Russia and China: Competition or Cooperation?
Russia’s role as another external power in the region vis-a-vis China is also worth examining. Moscow seized the great power driver’s seat in Syria, where it has attempted to de-escalate tensions between Israel, Iran, its proxies, and the Assad regime along the country’s southwestern border. Its success in that endeavor has been questionable, but Putin’s supposed mediation between the Iranians and Israelis has become a Kremlin talking point.
China has acted largely in concert with Russia in Syria, continuing to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and engaging in diplomatic obstructionism against intervention at the United Nations since the civil war’s early days. While China could potentially play a significant role in Syria’s reconstruction, it remains unclear if Beijing is willing to do so .
China and Russia’s support for Iran is likely to remain within limits—it’s unclear whether either country would genuinely support Iran's admittance to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, for example—but Tehran policy will remain a lever for both countries to push should they want to pester America.
The BRI will prove an interesting space to observe broader Russian-Chinese dynamics. China’s infrastructure investment around the energy sector could bolster Iran’s ability to export liquified natural gas with the exit of European companies, though secondary sanctions will hamper Iran’s prospects for entering European markets. Russia is satisfied with this status quo and will try to keep Iran’s LNG flowing eastward to maintain its stranglehold over Europe. This arrangement ostensibly suits both Moscow and Beijing. At the same time, however, China is using Iran to develop BRI routes that circumvent Russian territory, leaving Russia in the cold for some of the Belt and Road benefits.
There are several takeaways for the United States. Iran’s political factions are likely to converge under the Trump administration’s rhetorical and financial assaults, and continuing support from China could undermine the overarching U.S. policy goal of containing Iran’s efforts to exert its influence in the region. Though U.S. Iran policy, among other factors, may draw support from like-minded regional partners, America may risk escalating economic conflicts with China as the price of re-imposing secondary sanctions. From a strategic perspective, America must also consider whether removing Iran as an alternative source of energy—in particular, natural gas—for Europe actually benefits Russia and hinders the objective of uniting European allies against the Kremlin.
Given Washington’s focus on the Indo-Pacific as the primary theater of both economic opportunity and tomorrow’s great power conflicts, the Trump administration may need to ask itself if this is the fight with China that it wants to pick.
Owen Daniels is an associate director with the Middle East Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He is also an Assistant Managing Editor at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy’s Fellowship Program. Follow him on Twitter: @OJDaniels .