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China and Russia will keep Iran from building a bomb

The U.S. pursuit of a return to the Iran deal has received new strength after recent talks in Vienna appeared to indicate that working groups might bring Tehran and Washington closer to a series of agreements. The original 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed by China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the United States, United Kingdom and European Union. The complex deal was supposed to block Iranian pathways to a nuclear weapon in exchange for sanctions relief. It also was supposed to prevent a war with Iran.  

Largely absent in discussions about claims that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon if the U.S. doesn’t enter into a new Iran deal are questions about whether China, Russia and even Turkey might restrain Iran from its progress toward making a bomb. Because much of the discussion focuses on the U.S. and Iran, Tehran’s ties with Beijing and Moscow largely are ignored. 

Iran recently entered into a 25-year cooperation agreement with China. Both China and Russia don’t want a nuclear-armed Iran, and Iran’s neighbor Turkey likely would not want Iran to be armed with nuclear weapons in the region. Therefore, the real restraint on Iran’s nuclear ambitions may not be a U.S. strategy or a new Iran nuclear deal, but rather, Iran’s need to please other authoritarian regimes. The U.S. should consider this in its discussions with Iran.  

Recently, Iran met signatories of the JCPOA in Vienna while the U.S. was sidelined because Washington withdrew from the deal under the Trump administration. There is a lot of pressure on the Biden administration to cave to Iranian demands. At the heart of the problem is a misunderstanding of the current restraints on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran uses nuclear enrichment as leverage to goad the West into giving Tehran sanctions relief, essentially demanding cash in exchange for not building a nuclear bomb.  

Iran does this skillfully. It periodically releases information about its enrichment activities to put pressure on the U.S. For example, recent reports said Iran had 55kg of 20 percent-enriched uranium, a stockpile that violates the 2015 deal. Tehran’s message is that the U.S. must return to the deal and then Iran will reduce its stockpile.  

Why does Iran openly telegraph its nuclear-material stockpile? Prior to the 2015 accord, Iran never built a bomb. Instead it used claims that it was “moving toward a nuclear weapon” to wring concessions from other nations. It also used talking points about political “hardliners” and fear of “another war in the Middle East” to get the U.S. to the bargaining table. Now Iran once again has trotted out the “hardliners” equation, claiming that if the U.S. doesn’t agree to a new deal, the hardliners might win an upcoming election. This is a talking point that Iran uses only in its discussions with the West; it doesn’t appear to ever mention hardliners in its own media or in talks with Russia, China and Turkey.   

That means Iran doesn’t threaten Beijing or Moscow with “hardliners” who might emerge if those countries don’t give in to Iran’s demands. Having China and Russia as part of the Iran deal keeps Iran from developing a nuclear weapon because it would anger Moscow and Beijing — and Iran can’t risk its ties to those countries.  

Iran uses talk of uranium enrichment, political hardliners and possible war as leverage over the United States. But leaders in Beijing, Moscow and Ankara don’t appear to have much concern about such matters, including whether Iran builds a bomb or goes to war in the Middle East. This is because China and Russia are happy to use Iran’s destabilizing policies to counter and distract the United States, and realize that Iran apparently won’t violate the JCPOA to the extent of actually building a bomb (it had ample opportunity to do so before the accord).  

What if the U.S. were to propose that China and Russia restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions? This would hand them a hot potato and relieve the U.S. of the need to constantly respond to Iran’s threats. China’s economic policy in the Middle East is predicated upon stability, not nuclear conflict. The new China deal likely encourages Iran not to upend things with its nuclear ambitions. 

America should call Iran’s bluff, knowing that China and Russia don’t want it to build a nuclear weapon. With that off the table, a better discussion could be held with Iran that doesn’t give its mullahs all the leverage with threats of “enrichment” and possible war.  

Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a Ginsburg/Milstein writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” His new book, “Drone Wars,” will be published in 2021. Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.

Tags China Iran Iran nuclear agreement Russia Turkey US-Iran relations

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