Ever since Iran's accelerated nuclear program was discovered in September, few observers have been optimistic that China and Russia would allow the United Nations Security Council to go forward with the tough economic sanctions sought by President Obama. Pessimism has since persisted that the president could secure the essential Russian and Chinese support; Russia has resisted and China has regularly hinted that it would consider sanctions, only to withdraw later. Obama's failure to emerge from April's nuclear security summit with a sanctions agreement, along with Iran's recent deal to export some uranium to Turkey, reinforced fears that multilateral, Security Council-backed sanctions would be impossible. So Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's announcement today that Russia and China will support sanctions comes as a big surprise. It raises the question, why did the two states ultimately come around?
In the past year, Russian leadership, particularly President Dmitri Medvedev, has made a concerted effort to strengthen diplomatic and economic ties to Europe and the U.S., slowly reversing the country's nearly century-long antagonism with the West. Russia has pursued rapprochement with Poland, economic ties with France, a key military partnership with the Ukraine, and the historic nuclear non-proliferation treaty with the U.S. Last week, the Russian edition of Newsweek reprinted a secret government document stating a new policy of abandoning Putin-era isolationism for greater engagement and cooperation with the West. Russia had opposed anti-Iran sanctions because the Russian government did not wish to establish precedents of a strong UN and of punishing states that pursued globally unpopular security policies. But, in its new role of international cooperation, Russia has less to fear from those precedents and more reasons to support them.