Thinking we should attack Iran? Don’t forget China

China and Russia reap the benefits of sanctions

Talks with Iran have reached another impasse. The Islamic regime recently rejected yet another package of incentives that the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany put together in an effort to coax Tehran from ending its nuclear enrichment program. Intelligence agencies fear the Iranians will soon reach the critical “point of no return” when they will have the technological know-how to develop a nuclear weapon.

That apprehension has set off a flurry of rumors that Israel or the United States will attack Iran before it is able to reach that threshold.

In this environment, one would think that the international community would be doing everything in its power to press Iran into accepting a compromise. And the developed world is rightly ratcheting up the pressure on the Iranian government.

Yet two countries – China and Russia – are not only undermining the effort, they are actually profiting from the rest of the world’s sanctions.

This past spring, China’s state-run oil company announced it would move forward on its $70 billion contract to purchase liquefied natural gas and develop the Yadavaran oil field in southwest Iran.

Russia continues to sell Iran billions of dollars worth of nuclear technology as well as some of the most advanced radars and surface-to-air missiles in the world. These systems, including the SA-400 Triumf, would radically improve Iran’s missile defense capabilities and complicate any attack on the Islamic regime.

As European businesses pull their investments out of Iran, in line with current EU sanctions, the Chinese and Russians have been happily stepping in to fill those lucrative vacancies. In essence, they are reaping the benefits of other governments’ efforts to stave off the disaster that a nuclear Iran would be.

Officially, the Chinese and Russians say they do not support stronger sanctions because they don’t believe in their effectiveness. Off the record, however, both countries recognize that any form of sanctions that restrict their own business ventures is not going to stop the Iranians from pursuing their end goal of acquiring nuclear weapons.

Thus in the meantime, the Russians and Chinese are angling themselves to maximize the economic benefits of such a precarious state of affairs in the Middle East.

Tehran has warned Israel and the United States against targeting Iran, declaring that such a move would cause Iran to set its enemies “ablaze.” These comments come amid more calls by Iran’s leadership for Israel to be destroyed.

Actions, however, speak louder than words. Iran recently test-launched a number of missiles capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction and hitting targets as far away as Israel or Eastern Europe, reinforcing its status as an international pariah. This comes on the heels of a U.S. Navy drill in the Gulf and a major Israeli air exercise mimicking an attack on Iran.

Interestingly, both the Chinese and Russians are loath to see the emergence of a nuclear Iran. Yet, along with many European countries, they recognize that their threshold for what constitutes a “point of no return” in Iran’s nuclear program is much higher than the standards applied by the United States or Israel. So in the meantime, they will continue to keep the pressure off Iran. At worst, this approach could ensure that a diplomatic solution will not be achieved and a military attack on Iran will be required.

China and Russia may be enticed into supporting stronger sanctions against Iran if the United States and other parties in the negotiations can demonstrate the greater economic benefits available to them all once a deal with Tehran is reached. This would require some creative maneuvering on the part of the Western powers, but it is imperative that the Chinese and Russians understand they have much more to gain from an end to the conflict with Iran than they do from a complete meltdown.

If a military attack happens, the aftermath will be disastrous: The Israelis will be battered; the Iranians bloodied; the Americans left to clean up the mess; and the Chinese and Russians will sit back and call once again for diplomacy to prevail, as they once again reap the benefits of complacency.

Joshua Gleis is an international security associate at the Belfer Center at Harvard Kennedy School and a visiting scholar at Columbia University.