After its founding in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran aspired to independence from foreign influence—adhering to its rulers’ firm belief that America is the Great Satan while avoiding entering the Soviet bloc. Yet, write Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh, the ayatollahs soon found such a policy difficult to maintain, and eventually sought support from Russia and China. Those two countries have, in the past ten years, put aside their initial reluctance about such an alliance. Gerecht and Takeyh examine the consequences:
U.S. and European leaders long comforted themselves with the notion that whatever their differences with China and Russia, neither country wanted Iran to have the bomb. But that may no longer be true. Unlike the United States, Russia has lived for decades with nuclear-armed states on its periphery. Vladimir Putin might be perfectly comfortable with another country in the mix. In fact, it is not hard to envision Russia sharing nuclear technologies and expertise with Iran. Iran’s crossing of the nuclear threshold would make a mockery of numerous pledges, made by both Democrats and Republicans, that Washington will never allow it to get the bomb. Putin would therefore gain from helping his Persian ally humiliate the United States and degrade Washington’s position in the Middle East.
Xi Jinping could prove equally welcoming to an atomic Iran. China’s president also cares little about international conventions, so he may not be perturbed by more nuclear proliferation. He did not object to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, after all, and he has not respected India’s territorial sovereignty in the Himalayas or the Pacific Island states’ historical claims in the South China Sea. Xi might also reasonably conclude that an Iranian bomb would expedite the United States’ exit from the Middle East. Indeed, with the American political class united in bemoaning “forever wars,” the specter of a nuclear Iran could offer a good reason to further lessen its footprint in the region. For Beijing, always aiming at Taiwan, the global consequences of a nuclear Iran are mostly beneficial.
Once Iran assembles the bomb, of course, its relations with its great-power allies are likely to change. No longer a junior partner, it may become bolder. A nuclear Iran might return to striking Gulf oil infrastructure, for example. It might share new and better missile technology with its allied militias, which could decide to act more independently and more aggressively. These hypotheticals, of course, have not yet encouraged China and Russia to reconsider their approach to the mullahs.