The Hill

Iran Just Joined a Pact with Moscow and Beijing—Here’s What It Means for the US

Research Fellow
Shavkat Mirziyoyev meets with Ebrahim Raisi within the 22nd meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization leaders' summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on September 16, 2022. (Iranian Presidency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

On July 4, as the U.S. was celebrating its 247th birthday, Iran was celebrating the birth of a new multipolar world order, intended to replace the current unipolar American-led order.

As Russia’s state-owned Persian language news agency Sputnik put it, Iran’s entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) did not occur on America’s Independence Day by coincidence.

Iran officially became the ninth full member of this China-led security and economic bloc during the group’s virtual summit on July 4. Tehran hailed its membership as an achievement for its eastern-oriented foreign and economic policy. Iranian media outlets welcomed this membership as a move against American hegemony and a step toward strengthening multilateralism.

China, Russia, and Iran have in recent years crafted a political, security, and military bloc in opposition to the West called the Triangular Alliance. Iran’s full membership in the SCO will only further boost that group’s status.

As the economic powerhouse of this unofficial tripartite bloc, China is beefing up the Islamic Republic’s sanctions-plagued economy by illicitly buying Iranian oil at a discount of up to 25%. Now, the SCO membership is expected to reduce Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation in world affairs and make U.S.-led sanctions against Iran less effective, eroding Washington’s leverage to exert further pressure on Iran.

Also, Beijing is Moscow’s main economic backer in the war in Ukraine, pledging a “no-limits” partnership with Russia shortly before the February 2022 invasion and helping keep Russia’s wartime economy afloat. China’s position in this regard has triggered EU condemnation. By becoming Russia’s largest trade partner and offering Moscow an economic lifeline, the Chinese Communist Party continues to support the Kremlin, allowing Russia’s aggression to continue.

In addition, the SCO is an important venue for sanctions-hit Russia and Iran to back each other up. It gives an opportunity to Russia and Iran to minimize the consequences of the West’s sanctions. Iran and Russia’s bilateral relationship has grown significantly since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Tehran is providing Moscow with diplomatic and military backing, while Russia is giving Iran nuclear and other advanced security and military technology.

Furthermore, the SCO is a platform for leading authoritarian regimes to back one another in suppressing domestic mutinies. On June 26, in the immediate aftermath of the Wagner mercenaries’ brief revolt, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi called his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and offered his “full support.” In addition, the chief of the Iranian armed forces invited Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to visit Iran during a phone call. And finally, the commander of the Iranian Police paid a rare visit to Moscow.

Founded in 2001 by China and Russia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a Eurasian security and political group that also includes India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and newly admitted Iran. Iran’s accession to the SCO makes this China-led bloc a bigger national security and foreign policy challenge to the U.S. The geopolitical landscape is changing in favor of China, and America needs to formulate a comprehensive strategy to reverse or slow down this shift.

To counter China, Washington needs to increase its conventional deterrence capabilities. Both China’s willingness and its ability to take Taiwan by force appear to be increasing. At the same time, America needs to re-engage, not retrench. The entry of Iran into the SCO would mean more Chinese footprints in the Middle East and Central Asia. In addition, China’s Middle East strategy is based on encouraging Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states to downgrade their strategic partnership with the U.S. and join the Chinese-Russian axis, of which Iran is a junior member.

The first GCC-China Summit in late 2022 was a milestone historical event and a wake-up call for the U.S. The Biden Administration needs to reassure Israel, Arab Gulf states, Turkey, and Azerbaijan, among other friends and allies, that Washington is not abandoning the region and is not giving up on America’s more than half-century commitment to ensuring the region’s energy security and the free flow of oil, including from the Strait of Hormuz.

Finally, the U.S. needs to consolidate existing alliances in the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. has bilateral relations and treaty allies in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, Thailand, and other countries in the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is also crucial. Additionally, transforming the strategic security dialogue between Quad states, consisting of India, Japan, Australia, and the United States, into a NATO-like formal and formidable security alliance, would send a strong message in deterring future Chinese adventurism.

Read in The Hill.