Iran's Friends Fend Off Action at the U.N. Security Council: Here's Why

Report Middle East

Iran's Friends Fend Off Action at the U.N. Security Council: Here's Why

May 11, 2006 5 min read

The Bush administration's efforts to mobilize an international coalition to dissuade Iran from continuing its nuclear weapons efforts by threatening sanctions at the U.N. Security Council have run into stiff opposition from Russia and China. It is not difficult to see why.


Iran has cultivated close relations with Moscow and Beijing to counterbalance its increasingly tense relations with the United States and Europe. Russia and China not only provide Iran with diplomatic protection at the U.N. Security Council, where both enjoy veto power, but they also sell Tehran most of its modern military weapons-and they assist Iran's nuclear power program, which masks Iran's efforts to attain a nuclear weapons capability.

For Russia and China, Iran is an attractive partner for economic, strategic, and geopolitical reasons. Iran has become an important market for their exports of arms and advanced technology, a useful check on Western influence in the Middle East, a potential ally against the United States, and a growing source of energy cooperation, especially Chinese oil and gas imports. Strategically, Moscow and Beijing have also asked the Tehran to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an expanding Central Asian quasi-alliance that includes regional powers China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.   


The Chinese Connection

Iran is now the third-largest oil supplier to China's oil-thirsty economy. Moreover, China is investing nearly $100 billion in developing Iranian oil and gas fields. By some estimates, Iran will provide China with over 250 million tons of natural gas and 150,000 barrels of crude oil per day over the next 30 years.

Iran buys Chinese conventional weapons, including anti-ship cruise missiles, sophisticated naval mines, and anti-tank missiles, as well as technology and equipment for WMDs and ballistic missiles, such as missile control/guidance systems, chemical-weapon precursors and nuclear materials and technology.

Iran is also a commercial cash cow for China. Chinese firms are building Tehran's billion-dollar subway system, and Beijing plans to invest over $200 million to help finance a new highway connecting Tehran to the Caspian Sea coast. Other projects also are in the works.

Iran also serves as a useful ally for Beijing by distracting Washington from China's military buildup, obstructing U.S. efforts to build a stable democracy in Iraq, and supporting terrorist groups opposed to peace with Israel, such as Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas,. Iran's disruptive influence undermines American efforts to build a stable, peaceful Middle East, while the People's Republic increases its influence in Asia, Africa and even Latin America.

The Russian Connection

Moscow, which sought close relations with Iran during the Soviet era, has continued to build close military, trade, and diplomatic ties since the fall of the communist empire. Russia has sold Iran billions of dollars of tanks, armored personnel carriers, warplanes, missiles, submarines and other military equipment. Between 1994 and 2004, Russia sold Iran more than $2.7 billion in arms, the equivalent of 68 percent of its total arms imports, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. China was second to Russia in arms sales, providing 18 percent of Iran's arms imports.


Just last December, Russia agreed to sell Iran another $1 billion in arms, including $700 million worth of advanced surface-to-air missiles (SAM), the TOR-M1. Each TOR unit is capable of tracking 48 targets and firing at two targets at the same time. Once deployed, these SAMs could pose a deadly threat to aircraft involved in any strike against Iranian targets, including the high-value nuclear-related sites at Bushehr, Natanz, Arak and Isfahan. In October 2005, Russia launched Iran's first satellite, which is capable of taking photographs that could provide valuable military intelligence.


Russia also has greatly aided Iran's nuclear program. It is training Iranian nuclear technicians and is building Iran's $1 billion nuclear reactor at Bushehr. Tehran has expressed interest in many more reactors, which could become a further lucrative boost for the Russian nuclear industry. 

Given the cozy relationship Iran has developed with Russia and China, it is little surprise that both have acted to protect Iran from adverse consequences at the U.N. Security Council. They have worked to delay, dilute, and block effective sanctions and have bought Tehran valuable time to work unhindered on its nuclear program.

The United States and its European allies have resolutely pushed for stronger action at the Security Council, but ultimately may have to settle for little more than a diplomatic slap on the wrist for Iran's continuing violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the IAEA safeguards agreement.

Other Partners

For that reason the Bush Administration has begun to explore the option of imposing sanctions outside the U.N. framework by working with European allies, Japan, and other countries that seek a more effective response to Iran's outlaw nuclear weapons program. But a quick glance at Iran's top trading partners indicates that some U.S. friends may not welcome warmly such sanctions.


Iran's Top Export Partners in 2004

Japan    18.4%
China  9.7%
Italy  6%
South Africa  5.8%
South Korea  5.4%
Taiwan 4.6%
Turkey  4.4%
Netherlands  4%


Iran's Top Import Partners in 2004


Germany  12.8%
France 8.3%
Italy 7.7 %
China  7.2%
United Arab Emirates 7.2%
South Korea 6.1%
Russia  5.4%

Source: Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook


While an international embargo of Iranian oil is a non-starter because of the current tight world oil supply situation, these statistics indicate that there is likely to be considerable foot-dragging by several U.S. friends and allies on other trade sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. As a result, obtaining international support for strong economic sanctions against Iran will be a difficult proposition, even outside the U.N. framework. 


The United States ultimately may have to settle for targeted sanctions against the Iranian regime. These sanctions could include limiting foreign travel and freezing the assets of Iran's leaders, sanctioning banks that do business in Iran, banning sales of military arms and dual-use technology, or restricting future foreign investment in Iran. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers for addressing Iran's recalcitrance over its nuclear program, only tough choices. One thing is clear: Doing nothing about Iran's atomic aspirations is not an option.


James A. Phillips is Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at the Heritage Foundation.  Peter Brookes is Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs, and Chung Ju-Yung Fellow for Policy Studies in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation

Peter Brookes
Peter Brookes

Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs