Biden can exploit a Russia-China split to hurt Iran and help our Mideast strategy
With news that Iran will construct a drone factory in Tatarstan to supply Russia more effectively, it is abundantly clear that Tehran views itself as a Eurasian power. Meanwhile, China is hedging, engaging with the Gulf Arabs and publicly avoiding direct links with Iran.
The U.S. should manipulate this situation to its benefit, while identifying the danger of Chinese penetration in the Middle East.
Iran’s large-scale industrial support for Russia is the most striking example of horizontal escalation thus far in the Ukraine War. In strategic context, it demonstrates the degree to which Iranian involvement has qualitatively shifted the conflict’s character.
Russia’s initial campaign failed to achieve its political objective, the collapse of Ukraine and its absorption into Russia. It nevertheless achieved subsidiary operational objectives, namely the capture of the cities of Mariupol, Melitopol, Berdyansk and Kherson. This forced Russia and Ukraine to continue the war politically. Neither Kyiv nor Moscow could accept a halfway compromise — Kyiv because of the obvious political, strategic and moral implications of allowing Russia to conquer half the country, and Moscow because it had not articulated a political narrative that would accept anything less than Ukraine’s subjugation.
Russia then shifted strategies, hoping to drive Ukraine from the Donbas and extend a ceasefire offer. This ceasefire would have been as genuine as alchemy; Russia would have bought time to rebuild its forces, reengage with Europe and resume its offensive at a more advantageous moment. But Ukraine held onto even the smallest bits of the Donbas, shattering the Russian army in the process; it then began an interdiction campaign that leveraged long-range Western artillery and, in early September, conducted a sweeping offensive against Russia in the northeast.
This offensive triggered a partial Russian mobilization of some 300,000 or more, an indication of the scale of Russian casualties. It also forced a Russian operational transition. The Donbas offensive was slow, grinding and ultimately unsuccessful. But it was nevertheless a strategic-level offensive insofar as it had direct political implications on the war’s course. Russia has not staged an offensive at the strategic level, then, since early July when it captured Severodonetsk and its offensive culminated. It still hammers Bakhmut, but that is for specific operational reasons — driving Ukraine from this strongpoint will protect Russian lines of communication and improve its long-term offensive and defensive prospects — rather than political-strategic ones.
Russia does, however, remain on the aerial offensive, and it is here that Iran is relevant. Russia pounds Ukraine’s power network to degrade Ukrainian logistical links, erode Ukrainian morale and force Ukraine to choose between front-line air defenses and protecting civilians. Russia’s most effective munitions are its high-end ballistic and cruise missiles, particularly the Iskander SRBM. But Russia’s Iskanders and other advanced missiles are difficult to produce.
Just as the West has dipped into its post-Cold War stockpiles to supply Ukraine, so has Russia leveraged its stockpiles to prosecute its campaign. These stockpiles are finite. Russia can produce around six Iskanders a month but would struggle to create more. Meanwhile, it has depleted around 90 percent of its pre-war Iskander stocks and over half of its major land-attack cruise missiles. This has prompted Russia to employ a “waves” attack strategy, maximizing the odds a high-value, high-payload missile breaches Ukraine’s air defenses and hits its target.
Iran plays a critical role in this approach. Iranian-made Shahed 136 loitering munitions are slow, carry a small payload, and employ a crude navigation system because Western sanctions have limited Iran’s technical access. But these weapons are cheap and useful supplements to Russia’s strategy — their higher numbers force Ukraine to stretch its limited air defenses.
Iranian-Russian co-production of these weapons on Russian territory demonstrates a significant improvement for the Russian military supply chain. It also enables other technology transfers: Iran reportedly will receive Russian Su-35 fighters next year (although, given Russian combat attrition, it is unclear how well-maintained these airframes will be); Russia undoubtedly seeks Iranian cruise and ballistic missiles to replenish its dwindling stocks. Iran, in turn, will require even more Russian technical assistance and will press Russia not to intervene diplomatically in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia.
Therein lies the rub. Just as Russia courts Iran, China courts Saudi Arabia, an American ally left out in the cold.
The Euro-American Left has despised Saudi Arabia for decades. Its religiosity, reliance on oil revenues, and tribalism combine with the kingdom’s obvious wealth to spark a unique mix of jealousy and revulsion — intensified by the 2018 killing of regime critic and journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
U.S. Middle East policy has pivoted from tragedy to farce since February. First, President Biden spurned Saudi Arabia, promising to make its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known as MbS), “a pariah.” Then Biden persisted in negotiations with Iran, only backing off from a possible deal in late July. During Biden’s token visit to Saudi Arabia in mid-July, he provided MbS with a signature fist bump but doubled down on the State Department’s “Regional Integration.” That term is as bureaucratically obscurantist as the scheme itself — expanding Iranian influence at the expense of the Gulf Arabs and Israel — is invidious. In an act entirely unsurprising to any serious observer of international events, Saudi Arabia reduced OPEC+ production, having gained not a single tangible benefit beyond a photo opportunity with the American president.
China has no such qualms about Saudi Arabia’s past. On Dec. 9, China and the GCC issued a joint commitment to expand energy, financial and technical cooperation. China’s President Xi Jinping attended the China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit that produced the statement and also included an endorsement of Beijing’s “One-China Principle” and China’s tacit recognition of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism. When Iran lodged a formal protest, Xi dispatched Hu Chunhua to meet with Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi — a clear snub to Iran, since Hu had been demoted during China’s recent 20th Party Congress.
Quite evidently, a fissure is developing between Moscow and Beijing over Tehran.
From Moscow’s viewpoint of dwindling munitions, Tehran is a partner of significant strategic importance; Russia’s Middle East policy increasingly is identical to Iran’s. This unity of purpose will intensify if Iran delivers the more advanced missiles Russia seeks.
From Beijing’s viewpoint, Tehran is a potential disruptor. Iran provides benefits as a strategic partner — its oil exports, though less than Saudi Arabia’s, remain relevant, and its anti-Americanism allows it to stretch U.S. resources in a broader military confrontation. But if China can secure the Middle East by diplomatic and economic means through a relationship with the Gulf Arabs, then Iran becomes significantly less relevant to China; Beijing can undermine the possibility of a “Far Blockade” without firing a shot, thereby reducing the stress of a potential Malacca Strait closure on its strategy and operational planning.
The U.S.’s overarching goal should be twofold. First, China must be boxed out of the Middle East, for the Gulf Arabs remain critical long-term U.S. partners by virtue of their location at the intersection of Eurasian trade, let alone their resources. Second, Iran must be placed under maximum pressure, by direct means (that is, additional sanctions or, as events warrant, a blockade) and by indirect means (that is, intelligence and military activity, likely conducted by the Gulf Arabs and Israel).
President Biden has the diplomatic and strategic tools to achieve both objectives within weeks. The White House could engage with the Abraham Accords, recognizing that the Israeli-Emirati agreement forms the basis of a broader Israeli-Saudi-Emirati coalition against Iran. It could trade regulatory bonuses to Europe in return for greater sanctions compliance on Iran, capitalizing on Iran’s relentless barbarity in recent months. Such a policy would undermine Russia’s most relevant international partner, hobble Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, solidify the U.S. position in the Middle East, and force China to pivot to Tehran or compartmentalize from the Middle East entirely.
President Biden seeks both a Ukrainian victory over Russia and expanded Iranian influence in the Middle East — two priorities that clash in Moscow’s growing dependence on Iran to wage war in Ukraine. Mr. Biden should decide which priority is greater.
Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy” (2013) and “Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It” (2017).
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