Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, made a three-day visit to China last week. He was greeted by President Xi Jinping in an official welcoming ceremony, complete with formal honor guards. The two leaders attended the signing of 20 bilateral cooperation agreements, including on trade and tourism. And they issued a number of statements, including what was widely viewed as a targeted barb at the United States and Western allies by Xi, who pledged that “China will unswervingly develop friendly cooperation with Iran no matter how international and regional situations change.”
The revitalized relations between China and Iran, and the ongoing mutual support and trade between Russia and Iran, are raising concern. Although there is no indication that the three autocratic states are considering a formalized security alliance, there is a sense that they are working hard to find common ground and support for one another in response to each country’s concerns about their common nemesis —the United States.
The China-Russia relationship has included significant arms sales, joint military exercises and cooperation on technology issues. Moscow and Beijing have worked together to support other autocratic regimes, to challenge human rights standards and to frustrate technological norms promoted by the West. And they have both sought stronger ties with Iran.
Moscow and Tehran have cooperated in Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s government and to frustrate U.S. policy in the region. In addition to a history of arms sales that have strengthened the Iranian military, they are increasingly developing economic and diplomatic ties that have helped Tehran in its effort to minimize the impact of significant international sanctions.
Less than two years ago, Iran and China formalized their relationship through a 25-year strategic partnership agreement. Reports indicate that Raisi is unhappy with China’s efforts under the deal and used last week’s visit to lobby for more robust Chinese support, beyond the record amounts of Iranian oil that China is buying. We know that Raisi got vocal support from Xi. We don’t yet know many of the other details. On the other hand, Russia-Iran ties are significant, and growing. Among other things, Iran is providing drones to Russia to assist in the Ukraine war effort and guidance in the art of avoiding the limitations of Western sanctions. In return, Russia is helping Iran with its satellite program and preferential treatment in gaining access to needed food supplies.
U.S. diplomats, political leaders and many commentators have raised concern about the growing alliances between China, Russia and Iran. In the words of Hal Brands in a recent analysis on Bloomberg.org, “It’s easy to understand the logic of this cooperation. All three autocratic powers seek to preserve and protect illiberal political systems, push the US out of their geographic neighborhoods, and roll back a post-Cold War order dominated by Washington.” And they find strength in their coordinated efforts.
Political, economic and strategic alliances among like-minded nations are nothing new. Nonetheless, it is important to keep an eye on the growing coordination among China, Russia and Iran and to be prepared to respond, as appropriate.