(Washington, D.C.) – The Middle East Institute and the Conflict Management Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) hosted Stephen Blank (American Foreign Policy Council), John Garver (Georgia Tech), Fahad Nazer (JTG, Inc.), and Alex Vatanka (MEI) for a discussion examining Iran's deepening relations with China and Russia and the implications for the region. Camille Pecastaing (SAIS) moderated the panel.
The panelists addressed the complexities in Iran's relations with China and Russia and examined the recent spike in tensions between Riyadh and Tehran following Saudi Arabia's execution of a Shi'a cleric and the attack on the Saudi embassy in Iran that followed. While opposed to any large-scale conflict that could embroil Iran, Israel, and the United States, Beijing and Moscow are competing to expand their military cooperation and commerce with Tehran.
MEI Senior Fellow Alex Vatanka provided insight into President Rouhani’s attempt to placate hardliners in Iran. The attack on the Saudi embassy caught the Rouhani administration by surprise, occurring just weeks away from having sanctions lifted, Vatanka explained. Hardliners who are skeptical of Rouhani’s pro-western orientation and compromises are using the Saudi execution as an opportunity to tie Rouhani’s hands. Given the domestic political situation, Rouhani cannot appear to be soft on Saudi Arabia.
John Garver discussed the growing relationship between Iran and China through the lens of China’s “civilizational rhetoric.” By calling Iran a great Asian civilization, China seeks to establish a common historical narrative of two illustrious civilizations humiliated in the past by western imperialism but now ascendant. As China seeks to solidify its position as a great Asian power, it hopes to establish a close, comprehensive relationship with Iran. However, China also sees an imperative in blocking Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The Chinese, as Garver points out, have no intention of seeing the Middle East descend into a large scale war, and during the negotiations promised a comprehensive investment package if Iran would reach a solution on its nuclear programs.
Stephen Blank described Iranian-Russian ties as that of a partnership, not an alliance. Despite historical grievances, Blank argues that both countries share a common interest in establishing an anti-American bloc in the Middle East. Blank pointed out that Russia is currently supplying military assistance to the same Shi’a-controlled regimes the Soviet Union once supported. However, it is important to Russia that Iran not achieve a nuclear weapons capability, despite their shared anti-American sentiment, in part because it would increase American presence in the region. Blank argued that Russia, unlike other countries, has no interest in a stable Middle East, and will “stir the pot” to promote its interests. As he pointed out, many of the terrorist groups Iran supports are armed with Russian weapons. Perceived weakness and indecisiveness from the United States, Blank contended, will only serve to strengthen the ties between Tehran and Moscow.
Fahad Nazar examined the recent deterioration of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The cutting of diplomatic relations, he explained, may appear shocking at first, but it is the result of years of strained relations. Saudi Arabia, which had long viewed the expansion of Iranian influence with suspicion, sees the current conflict in Syria as another Iranian attempt to project its influence. Along with the rise of ISIS and the ongoing crisis in Yemen, Saudi Arabia now feels threatened on multiple fronts. The execution of Sheikh Nimr along with al-Qaeda sympathizers in the Kingdom was intended as a message to domestic enemies of the regime. This climate of insecurity, Nazar explained, is further exacerbated in Saudi minds by the fact that the United States appears weak and indecisive in the region, especially after the American administration backed away from its red line in Syria in 2013.
The panel concluded with a short question and answer session, which dealt with the recent Saudi-Iranian tensions, the changing energy markets, and the growing Chinese influence in the region.
Summary by Hank Pin.
Stephen Blank is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, where he focuses on Russian foreign policy, defense, and international relations across the former Soviet Union. From 1989 to 2013 he was a professor of Russian national security studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. Blank has consulted for the CIA, think tanks, and foundations, and is a commentator on foreign affairs in the media in the United States and abroad. He has published articles and monographs on Soviet/Russian, U.S., Asian, and European military and foreign policies, including publishing or editing 15 books. He has also testified frequently before Congress on Russia, China, and Central Asia.
John Garver is professor emeritus in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is a member of the editorial boards of the journals China Quarterly, Journal of Contemporary China, Issues and Studies, and Asian Security, and a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. He is the author of eight books and over seventy articles dealing with China 's foreign relations. His books include: China and Iran; Ancient Partners in a Post-Imperial World, The Protracted Contest, (2006, University of Washington Press), The Foreign Relations of the People's Republic of China, (Prentice Hall, 1993), and Chinese-Soviet Relations, 1937-1945, The Diplomacy of Chinese Nationalism, (Oxford University Press, 1988).
Fahad Nazer is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a political analyst with intelligence consultants JTG, Inc., where he focuses on political, social, and economic developments in Saudi Arabia. He also examines militant Islamist groups in the Arabian Peninsula, with a special focus on Saudi Arabia. Prior to joinging JTG, Nazer worked as a political analyst at the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C. His publications have appeared in Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, CNN, Foreign Policy, YaleGlobal Online, The National Interest, and Al-Monitor.
Alex Vatanka is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who specializes in Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Iran. From 2006-2010, he was the managing editor of Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, based in Washington. From 2001-2006, he was a senior political analyst at Jane’s in London, where he mainly covered political developments in the Middle East. He joined the Middle East Institute in 2007. His forthcoming book is Iran and Pakistan: Security, Diplomacy and American Influence.
Camille Pecastaing (Moderator) is a senior associate professor of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. A student of behavioral sciences and historical sociology, his research focuses on the cognitive and emotive foundations of xenophobic political cultures and ethnoreligious violence, using the Muslim world and its European and Asian peripheries as a case study. He writes on political Islam, Islamist terrorism, social change, and globalization.