Beijing and Moscow eyes on Iran. Will Europe keep watching?

by Giusy Musarò

1. . Introduction

Last 18 October, the arms embargo imposed by the UN Resolution 2231 on Iran expired. The embargo was part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in July 2015 by P5+1 France, Great Britain, the United States, Russia, China and Germany. The Agreement, valid until 2026, had the objective of containing Iranian uranium production for exclusively civilian use. In exchange for the removal of the economic sanctions previously imposed, Iran committed to eliminate its medium-enriched uranium reserves and to reduce its gas centrifuges by more than two thirds for thirteen years.

The unilateral withdrawal by the United States from the agreement in May 2018 and the adoption of a "maximum pressure" policy, which led to the reintroduction of economic sanctions on various sectors, including oil and banking, put Iran's compliance with the Nuclear Agreement at stake. The European inability of all its members to enforce the deal has challenged Tehran's confidence in the transatlantic alliance and the European institutions. On the other hand, the sense of strategic isolation at the regional level and the constant threat of attacks from its neighbors has prompted Iran to increase its influence in the region through unconventional methods and strategic international partners willing to support it, such as Russia and China.

With the end of the arms embargo, many have speculated that Iran will seek to acquire tanks, fighter jets, surface-to-air missiles and other defence systems from Russia and China.

The aim of this article is to assess the real possibilities for greater military cooperation between the three countries and what impact this could have on future relations between Iran and Europe, also in light of the appointment of the new US President Joe Biden, who will take office next 20 January.

2. Iran’s ‘Look to the East Policy’

Tehran's closer ties with China and Russia are the result of several factors. In recent years the three countries have strengthened their relations not only economically but also militarily, trying to establish a common front in contrast to the Western presence in the region, positioning themselves as a valid alternative for the pursuit of regional peace and security. Already in December 2019 the three countries had conducted a military drill in the Gulf of Oman, with the declared objective of strengthening security in the area and fostering cooperation between their respective naval forces. Last September a new military exercise organised by Beijing in the Caucasus saw the participation not only of Russia and Iran, but also Belarus, Pakistan, Myanmar and Armenia.

In addition to the ideological opposition to the West, a greater cooperation between Russia, China and Iran is mainly driven by economic interests, including that of ensuring greater security in the Persian Gulf. The Strait of Hormuz, in particular, has an extreme geopolitical importance for the global trade of hydrocarbons. In 2018, 20.7 million barrels passed through it. According to EIA estimates, about 76% of crude oil transited through the Strait of Hormuz was directed to Asian markets, first and foremost China, which depends significantly on this trade line.

In September 2019, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani proposed a coalition to maintain regional security and stability called Hormuz Peace Endeavour (HOPE), calling for the withdrawal of the United States and other sub-regional forces from the Gulf. Needless to say, the attempt drastically failed. Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in one of the most atrocious wars of recent years in Yemen and the Gulf cou