Facing sanctions, Iran pioneers framework for cooperation with Russia, China and India: Analysis

Facing sanctions, Iran pioneers framework for cooperation with Russia, China and India: Analysis

Micha’el Tanchum*
Facing sanctions, Iran pioneers framework for cooperation with Russia, China and India: Analysis

With Iran’s convening of its first “Regional Security Dialogue” summit in late September 2018 with deputy national security advisors from Russia, China, and India, Tehran has taken a significant step toward creating a multilateral framework for Eurasian security cooperation in the face of renewed U.S. sanctions.  Ostensibly devoted to combatting terrorism in Afghanistan, the summit’s concluding declaration indicates a wide-sweeping stabilization agenda extending from Syria eastward to include all of Central Asia. 

Though Iran is historically and geographically a quintessentially Eurasian power, Tehran has had difficulty engaging its Eastern neighbors. Iran’s “Look East” policy under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad (2005-2013), struggled to bring Moscow and Beijing into alignment with anti-US policy despite Tehran’s strong commercial relationships with both countries. Iran’s post-JCPOA scheme of “preferring East to West” in a multilateral framework for collective security cooperation involving Russia, China, and India is proving far more successful.

Although Shiite-dominated Iran is seen by Russia, China, and India as a natural partner in combatting the mutually felt threat of low-intensity conflict from Sunni extremist groups, point 9 of the Regional Security Dialogue’s closing declaration reveals competition over the emerging architecture of Eurasian commercial connectivity to be the overarching impetus for multilateral security cooperation. Point 9 defines “one of the objectives” of such cooperation to be “economic and commercial development” involving “establishing secure transit routes using existing infrastructure as well as creating new infrastructures.”

For Beijing’s massive Eurasian commercial route - the Belt and Road Initiative, Iran forms a crucial link in a China-Europe rail route that does not cross Russian territory. China’s currently planned route via the Baku-Tblisi-Kars railway requires ferrying cargo across the Caspian Sea from Central Asia to Azerbaijan. An Iranian rail link would provide a more contiguous and cost-effective route. Connecting with Iran’s north-south rail links would provide an essential vertical axis connecting China’s main East-West Corridor to the Middle East and the Arabian Sea. During January and February 2016, the first China-Iran cargo train completed its maiden journey from China’s eastern Zhejiang province south of Shanghai to Iran in just 14 days, beating the time of the maritime route from Shanghai to Bandar Abbas by two-thirds.

While Iran and India traditionally have been allies in Afghanistan against Pakistan, New Delhi’s investment in the Chabahar deep-sea port and Central Asian transport links is primarily motivated by its economic competition with China, through the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC) initiative. With India’s overland access to Central Asia is blocked by Pakistan, the Chabahar deep-sea port and the INSTC running northward through Iran and Afghanistan will provide New Delhi vital access to Central Asian, Russian, and ultimately European markets, enabling India to effectively compete with China. The Chabahar port, 72 km west of the Chinese-built port at Gwadar, Pakistan, will serve as the Indian Ocean outlet for the INSTC that is estimated to be 30% more cost effective than the traditional maritime route via the Red Sea, Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean Sea.

Russia shares similar interests in a north-south corridor with India, however, its most immediate concern is securing Moscow’s influence over the South Caucasus and Caspian Sea Basin.  The success of Turkey’s energy and transportation partnership with Azerbaijan has enabled Ankara to expand its influence in the South Caucasus and extend it further into Turkmenistan and the other Central Asian republics. The potential expansion of Ankara’s influence among the Turkic peoples of the South Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as within the territorial borders of Russia and China, presents an enduring challenge for Russia as well as China.  In the competition for influence in the southern rim of the Eurasian landmass, the area encompassing the Middle East and the Caucasus, Iran is an indispensable partner for Russia, China, and India. In the face of U.S. led international sanctions, Tehran’s efforts to develop multilateral security cooperation has provided the framework by which Asia’s giants can partner with Iran.

* Dr. Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University and non-resident, affiliated scholar with the Center for Strategic Studies at Başkent University in Ankara, Turkey (Başkent-SAM).