Why Russia and China Joined on Iran Sanctions

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.

Russia also stands to make both economic and security gains from Iran sanctions. Because President Obama has rolled back President Bush's pledge for Eastern European missile shields, Russia is less protected from the potential threat of Iranian weaponry. Ironically, the missile shields were designed to protect Europe from Russia as well as from Iran, but they indirectly benefited Russia by providing a layer of defense against possible Middle East-based missiles. With Russia more vulnerable to such attacks, it has a security interest in not just curbing Iranian nuclear weapons, but in preventing the Middle Eastern arms race that would likely result from a nuclear Iran. Economically, Russia and Iran are increasingly tense competitors in the natural gas market, which is central to both their economies. They are the world's two greatest producers of natural gas. Iran's 2001 deal to sell Turkey 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas was likely just the beginning. Iran has laid its pipeline into Central Asia. By extending its Turkey pipeline into Europe, Iran could compete with Russia in one of the world's largest and most profitable energy markets. But economic sanctions against Iran would likely block it from selling in Europe and make Iran more reliant on its own energy, leaving it with less to export.

Economic concerns may also be key for China's decision to join in sanctions. Obama has looked the other way on currency manipulation, delaying a report which was expected to denounce Chinese currency policy and could have been a blow to the country's vital trade income. Though China and the U.S. may experience periods of diplomatic tension, the fact is that the two states' economic ties are essential for both economies. If China felt it had to choose between the benefits of U.S. trade and the unwanted international precedent of Security Council-led sanctions, the former likely won out. While China was happy to join with Russia in opposing sanctions, Medvedev's months of cooperation with the West and his supportive signals on sanctions plausibly made it clear that China would have to stand alone or follow Russia's support.

Critics of Obama's sanctions plan have persistently argued that sanctions don't change state behavior, will not effectively deter Iran, or that Iran's nuclear program is at this point inevitable. Whether or not they are right, China and Russia joining on sanctions could become a watershed moment for Obama's mission to make rogue nuclear states synonymous with pariah states -- and for the United Nations' ability to take collective, multinational action. Even if this moment of international cooperation does not work, the precedent will make future cooperation easier and more likely.