Cooperation among Iran, Russia and China in the international politics can be regarded as an emerging process. The interactions of the three countries in resolving Iran's nuclear issue, maintaining the existing political system in Syria, cooperation within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) framework, joint counter-terrorism campaigns and economic interactions are all clear-cut signs of this cooperation. However, despite its importance, the evolving process has not been thoroughly studied. In other words, to what extent this cooperation is institutionalized and what areas it covers has not been received meticulous attention. This article sets to address the interactions among Iran, Russia and China, recently known as an 'emerging strategic triangle' in the international politics. In this regard, interactions, cooperation and the rivalries of Tehran-Moscow-Beijing are discussed in three levels of analysis: global, regional and domestic; hence understanding the magnitude of cooperation from strategic perspective.
Global level of analysis
What makes Iran, Russia and China have common interests is their revisionary approach to the existing international order. All three states have defined and stressed on multipolarism as one of their strategic priorities; however, it is key to note that each state has unique revisionary approach. Iran and Russia can be nearly called revolutionary governments while China also seeks reconsideration and revision in international order but with a different reformist agenda. It prioritizes the reforming of the existing order using the mechanisms within the system. These differences on how these three states seek to reappraise the international order have made each of them select a different approach to push the international order to multipolarism.
Another factor at this level of analysis which affects the strategic interactions of the countries with each other is the type of their relationship with the United States. In other words, each of the three has a specific definition of the United States in their foreign policy. On other hand, the United States as the most important player in the existing international order has selected different attitudes towards the three revisionist states. In Russia's foreign policy, the United States is defined as a strategic competitor and to some extent a threat to its security. This has led to a specific pattern of competition and cooperation between themselves; simultaneously use containment and engagement strategies towards each other. On the other hand, the pattern of the interactions between the United States and China can be called strategic cooperation and competition, due to the fact that the basis for cooperation between the two states is very vast and their strategic competition has diverse manifestations.
The pattern of interaction between the United States and Iran is different from those of Russia and China. Not only are there no diplomatic relations between the two states, but the United States tries to contain Iran’s freedom of action in the international politics. On the other hand, Iran can be considered as the most important challenge against the regional policies of the United States in the West Asia.
In addition to the United States, the attitude of the three states towards the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as the most important institutional element of the existing international order is significantly different. China and Russia as two permanent members of the UNSC view it as one of the key mechanisms of role playing in the international politics. In other words, from the perspective of China and Russia, the UNSC is one of the key mechanisms of multipolarism in the international system and one of the major obstacles against the unilateral tendencies of the United States. However, Iran, repeatedly subject to the sanction regimes of the UNSC since the early years of the 1980s, has defined the UN organ as an unfair, tyrannical and even unlawful mechanism.
All in all, China, Russia and Iran seek to revise the existing international politics and view multipolarism as one of the priorities of their foreign policy even though a revisionist agenda of each of them in dealing with the United States as well as the institutional dimensions of the existing international order is distinct and bears poor similarities.
Regional Level of Analysis
China and Russia are both simultaneously considered as regional and global powers. That is to say in addition to their key role in their regions, they are also vital actors in the world politics. However, Iran is a regional power and its scope of foreign policy is limited to its neighbors and the Middle East. In the regional level of analysis, the first and the most important matter in explaining the Iran-Russia-China strategic triangle is recognizing the different priorities of regions in their foreign policy and the differences in their strategic concerns. East Asia, Near Abroad, and the Middle East are respectively considered as the major priorities in the regional policies of China, Russia and Iran. In other words, it proves regions the trios invest in appear strikingly different.
In addition, their strategic concerns differ considerably. The most important strategic concern of Beijing is to safeguard its interests in the South China Sea, while Russia's key concern is deemed to preserve its interests in the Near Abroad, and Ukraine in particular. Iran's strategic concern is different with the other two states; main priority for Tehran is to retain its favorable balance of power in the Middle East.
Despite differences in foreign policy priorities, the regional policies of Iran, Russia and China overlap in some subsystems, and might oppose somewhere else. Central Asia subsystem gains the most significant common priorities and concerns of the trios – a region where the three powers not only have common borders but also have common history and hence, it matters to the foreign policy of Iran, Russia and China. This region is part of the Russian near abroad, northwest of China's security environment and northeast of Iran's security environment. In recent centuries, Russia has been the dominant player in this region and is still the most important security provider and one of the key players in geo-economy of Central Asia. However, after the Soviet collapse, Iran has been trying to expand its economic and cultural ties with the Central Asian newly independent states and has provided them with access routes to high seas. In recent years, a rising China has quickly become the dominant player in the Central Asia's geo-economy and has made successful efforts through SCO for achieving a regional integration.
However, turning Central Asia into the common point of regional policies of Tehran, Moscow and Beijing does not mean their interests in Central Asia have maximum overlap. Growing influence of China in the Central Asian states' geo-economy might lead to decline of the Iranian and Russian regional share and status in the economies of Central Asia. In addition, by linking the Central Asia energy and transport routes to those of China, they have found an alternative for Iranian and Russian corridors, as traditional options for access routes to the world markets. Chinese routes have reduced the transit importance of Iran and Russia for the landlocked Central Asia and on the other hand, have faced Tehran and Moscow with new rivals (i.e. the newly independent republics) in China's energy market. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an embodiment of emerging integration in Central Asia is another issue where the interests and approaches of Iran, Russia and China meet roughly frostily. It is obvious that there are important disparities between the Russian and Chinese agendas in advancing the organization – differences rooted in the mode of production and power projection of both states. The Chinese mode of production and power projection in East Asia has geo-economic elements, while Russia has long been a geopolitical power in the region.
But the larger issue which showcases the complexity of interactions between Iran, Russia and China in Central Asia is the long, indecisive and indeterminate process of Iran's membership in the SCO. Despite great efforts of Iran for joining the club in the past decade, no change has occurred yet in its membership status. It is obvious that while China and Russia have decisive roles in this intergovernmental body, lack of political will has hindered Iran's full membership in the SCO. Iran's membership was postponed for a while due to the United Nations restrictive measure against Tehran; however, no change has been occurred yet to Iran's membership despite sanction removals in 2015. Complexity of Tehran membership in the SCO is of great importance in analysis of Iran-Russia-China triangle. This long process shows that joint cooperation and coordination, even in the area where the trios have overlapping security environment, is not institutionalized. In other words, China and Russia have been reluctant to engage Iran in the economic and security environment of Central Asia in recent years.
In addition to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, two major regional integration projects recently presented by China and Russia known as "One road, One belt" (OBOR) and "Eurasian Economic Union" (EEU) respectively, bear out both states pursue their own unique priorities in the region and beyond. Two important questions can be raised in this area: first, what is the relationship between these initiatives and the SCO? Second, are these initiatives a sign of the SCO failure in the process of Eurasian integration? Such these initiatives proposed by two components of the strategic triangle in Central Asia on the one hand and Iran’s continued emphasis on the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) on the other hand, prove each of the trios pursues their own specific integration agenda in Central Asia. So far, these agendas have not been much harmonized. Besides, the competition among Iranian, Russian and Chinese agendas and the new projects of Russia and China in particular should not be overlooked.
Domestic Level of Analysis
Iranian, Russian and Chinese political systems differ dramatically and pursue different priorities. Great disparities among political systems of the trios reduce their identity commonalities to the minimum level. In other words, value consistency between the three states is negligible and they have to cooperate only on common economic interests. In addition, this historical experience plays a negative role in the Iranian-Russian-Chinese relations. Cooperation between China and Russia has grown far more than the cooperation between Iran and each of the other two states or the trilateral cooperation.
Within the domestic level, the main negative factor affecting interactions of members of the strategic triangle is the weakness of social foundations shaping the cooperation of the trios with one another. Public opinion as well as some key elites in China and Russia do not favor strategic partnership with Iran. Likewise, public opinion in Iran does not have a positive perspective to strategic collaboration with Russia and somewhat with China. Weak social infrastructures have limited the interactions of the trios to mere governmental level.
Another point that should be emphasized in the national level of analysis is the weakness in Iranian, Russia and Chinese bureaucracies in shaping and advancing the tripartite cooperation. The recent military cooperation between Iran and Russia in Iranian Nojeh Airbase clearly demonstrated the bureaucratic weakness. In regional initiatives such as OBOR and EEU, in spite of the overlapping interests, the trios have not succeeded yet to activate mechanisms for promoting tripartite interests.
The common interests of Iran, China and Russia in the international transitional order are increasing. Promoting multipolarism, stability and security in the Middle East, Central Asia and Afghanistan, fighting against terrorism, developing regional integration in Eurasia and military cooperation are among the common interests one could enumerate. Nevertheless, despite the growing common interests, no mechanisms have been defined for tripartite cooperation among Tehran, Moscow and Beijing yet. Although they form bilateral partnerships in light of crises, namely the Iranian nuclear crisis or the Syrian civil war, cooperation is indeed obligatory and temporary in general.
The strategic triangle of Iran, China and Russia has not been institutionalized yet. Factors such as weakness of the strategic bureaucracies in the three states, their conflicting priorities, asymmetry in power and their national priorities, unequal value and their different relations with the West are the most important reasons that prove the triangle has not been institutionalized yet. Iran’s long process of full membership in the SCO can be seen as the most important indicator showing this partnership is not institutionalized. The unclear future of the membership can also be a sign for vague future of the strategic triangle. All in all, the Iranian, Russian and Chinese strategic triangle might affect more of external developments rather than a common well-defined strategy.
NB: This article first appeared at "Russia-Iran Partnership: an Overview and Prospects for the Future", co-published by IRAS and RIAC.
Mohsen Shariatinia, an assistant professor at Shahid Beheshti University, is the senior expert on East Asia.
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