The real reason why Russia and China aren’t interested in stopping Iran’s nuclear program. . . .
Some analysts argue that we shouldn’t worry about proliferation in Iran because nuclear deterrence will work, much like it worked during the Cold War. But from Washington’s point of view, this is precisely the problem; it is more often than not the United States that will be deterred. Although Washington might not have immediate plans to use force in the Middle East, it would like to keep the option open.
China and Russia, on the other hand, lack the ability to project power in the region. China has recently been recognized as an economic superpower, but its military is still relatively weak. Indeed, military analysts doubt that China could successfully invade Taiwan, a small island roughly 100 miles off China’s coast. Major military operations in the Middle East, therefore, will be out of the question for decades to come. Similarly, Russia lacks a meaningful ability to project power in the region. The Soviet Union was a global superpower, but its military might collapsed along with the Iron Curtain. Russia’s clumsy invasion of Georgia in the summer of 2008 only served to reveal the limits of its military power. In fact, the state of Moscow’s conventional military has sunk so low that Russia’s most recent national security strategy relies heavily on nuclearforces simply to achieve basic defense goals.
An Iranian bomb, then, won’t disadvantage China or Russia. In fact, it might even help them. Neither country has hidden its desire to hem in America’s unilateral ability to project power, and a nuclear-armed Iran would certainly mean a more constrained U.S. military in the Middle East. Indeed, at times during the 1980s and 1990s, Beijing and Moscow aided Tehran with important aspects of its nuclear program. While we don’t have detailed information on the motives behind the assistance, we do know that governments don’t export sensitive nuclear technologies for economic reasons alone. Rather, as I show in my forthcoming book, they generally do so in an attempt to hinder their enemies. For example, France helped Israel acquire the bomb in the late 1950s and early 1960s in order to balance against Nasser’s Egypt, and China provided nuclear aid to Pakistan in the 1980s to impose strategic costs on its longtime rival India.It is likely that China and Russia’s nuclear assistance to Iran waspartly intended as a counterweight to American power in the Middle East. Although these countries no longer actively aid Iran’s nuclear program, they may still secretly welcome its development.
If any country fails to understand the strategic consequences of a nuclear Iran, then, it is not Russia or China, but the United States. Disproportionately threatened by proliferation, American officials will struggle to convince others to join their fight against the spread of nuclear weapons. They must prepare to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, or, if they cannot do that, they must stop Tehran’s nuclear program themselves.