An Iranian seaman holds Iranian and Chinese flags during a ceremony at Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman during Iran-Russia-China joint naval drills in 2019. Photo: AFP / Iranian Army Office

The Tehran Times reported last Wednesday that Moscow had conveyed to Tehran that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) had reached a consensus on Iran’s admission as a full member of the grouping. 

The secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, conveyed this momentous news in a call with his Iranian counterpart, Admiral Ali Shamkhani. Later, Shamkhani tweeted that he and Patrushev also discussed Afghanistan, Syria and the Persian Gulf.

The SCO is finally decoupling Iran’s membership from the nuclear talks and US sanctions. Significantly, Patrushev’s phone call also marks the first high-level strategic communication between Moscow and Tehran after Ebrahim Raisi was sworn in as Iran’s new president. Patrushev is a very senior figure in the Kremlin “Politburo.” 

The SCO consensus – quintessentially a Sino-Russian move – speeds up Iran’s admission, notwithstanding the uncertainties appearing on the US administration’s political will to press ahead with the nuclear deal in the face of robust “bipartisan” opposition on the Hill and from other interest groups. 

The hawkish attitude of senior Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, who chairs the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is probably the unkindest cut of all. Menendez happens to be close to President Joe Biden. 

In an incisive analysis in the prestigious think tank journal Responsible Statecraft, American columnist and former editor Daniel Larison wrote last week that rejoining the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) should have been a straightforward task for Biden.

Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, second and third left, and Iranian technicians at a nuclear research center of Natanz, 300 kilometers south of Tehran, on January 20, 2014. Photo: AFP / IRNA / Kazem Ghane

But if he has taken too much time already – with the Trump-era “maximum pressure” sanctions still in place – it is one of several disturbing signs that the administration seems to lack the political will to take the Vienna negotiations to a conclusion. 

Larison details how Biden’s team inserted preposterous riders at the JCPOA talks that it knows could be potential deal-breakers. The Biden team is even reportedly “entertaining the idea of demanding that Iran abandon domestic enrichment and participate in a regional nuclear fuel bank.”

Military options

Larison adds that Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken “believe they can force Iran to agree to much larger concessions than ever before, and it indicates just how much influence the very hawkish chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee wields with the White House.” 

Israeli media speculated that the US and Israel would have a Plan B to confront Iran militarily if the talks in Vienna flounder.

The Times of Israel hinted that during the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to Washington this month, “Israel would seek to restore the military option as a last resort to prevent the Iranians from reaching military-grade nuclear capability. But Israel believes it should be an American option, too, and hopes it can convince Biden and his team to portray a military option as a realistic path.”  

However, there is also a “big picture” – the geopolitics of Iran. Patrushev’s phone call touched on key areas where Russia and Iran are working together – Syria, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.

If the lineup of Raisi’s proposed national security team is any indication, Iran’s foreign-policy trajectory may be in a direction to strengthen the strategic partnership with Russia. 

The nominee for the post of foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, has openly stated more than once that Iran should prioritize relations with the countries of the “East,” as the following remarks made as recently as February testify: 

“As the Leader of the Islamic Revolution reiterated, in our foreign policy we should prefer the East to the West and neighboring countries over distant countries in order to safeguard the national interests of our country. Establishing relations with the countries which have common interests with us is preferable to relations with those whose interests might even clash with ours.

“The 21st century is the century of Asia. The Islamic Republic has always paid attention to Asia. There are many important and still untapped capacities in Asian countries such as Russia, China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and subcontinental countries, and we could exploit them due to our common interests with countries of Asia. Whatever decision [is] made in the White House will not change, in any way, the Islamic Republic’s outlook towards the preservation, reinforcement and development of strategic relations with Moscow and Peking and its long-term outlook towards Asia.” 

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian at a multimedia news conference in a 2016 file photo. Photo: AFP / Alexander Natruskin / Sputnik

A drift in American policies

The above statements need to be juxtaposed with deteriorating US-Russia relations. Whatever nascent hopes there might have been in Moscow for a fresh start in Russia-US relations are fading. Biden does not have the political capital to overcome the entrenched anti-Russia animus in the US.

China also probably senses the drift in American policies – although the Biden administration’s interest in trade and investment with China to fuel US economic growth is not in doubt. 

President Vladimir Putin said last Thursday while addressing a meeting of Russia’s Security Council devoted to international cooperation in defense and security that “it is impossible to effectively solve a number of issues in this area all on one’s own. We should join efforts with our partners so as to ensure our own security as well.”

Conceivably, Putin would have had China and Iran uppermost on his mind. Indeed, Russia and China are calibrating their calculus to forge an even closer strategic partnership. 

The massive China-Russia military drills, which concluded on Friday, were the first operational and strategic maneuvers between the two countries. It makes room for a combined force against the US.

For the first time, the two armies used a joint command and control system in a move that echoes the NATO approach. The Chinese and Russian troops were integrated and shared equipment during the joint operations. Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe called the drills an event of “great significance.”

A key partner

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, with Iran’s outgoing Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing in December 2019. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

To be sure, Beijing will be in harmony with the Russian regional strategy eyeing Iran as a key partner. The coordination among this triad impacts the stabilization of the Afghan situation, can prevent any deterioration in Syria and, above all, will push back US attempts to seek a military presence in Central Asia. 

For China, Iran’s admission as an SCO member will undoubtedly give a boost to its Belt and Road projects regionally. As for Russia, Iran’s membership of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is now only a matter of time. 

For Iran, status as a full member of the EAEU could fundamentally change the political landscape in Eurasia, especially in the South Caucasus and West Asia. As a member of the EAEU, Iran would cooperate with Russia at the highest strategic partnership level, which would give it serious trump cards in the implementation of its foreign policy.

Clearly, Tehran will use its strong ties with Russia to leverage influence with the Western countries. 

While on the one hand, the EAEU would help Iran expand trade and economic opportunities and break out of US sanctions, on the other hand, Iran believes that its military-political component can provide a security belt for the country. 

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.