Iran is facing ominous rhetoric and deadly explosions as the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia step up efforts to open Iran’s nuclear facilities to inspection. Tehran is gauging its support from abroad. Syria, a longstanding ally, is in turmoil and Hezbollah in Lebanon would be of only limited help.
Russia and China are far more powerful and potentially more helpful. Both have important trade and defense ties with Iran and both need to show their reliability and efficacy to allies after recent reversals in world affairs. Supporting Iran against attack from the three powers is complicated by other matters between the concerned powers, but a missile option might be attractive.
The shah was an avid purchaser of US weaponry as Washington sought to make Iran a strong, reliable partner in the Gulf. With the end of autocracy and the rise of hierocracy, Russia became an important supplier of modern fighters, ships, and air defenses. It also provided much of the nuclear facilities at the heart of events today. Russia supports Iran diplomatically by vetoing stronger sanctions at the UN Security Council.
Russia has lost, at least for the time being, its position in the western Mediterranean as Muammar Gaddafi has been driven from power in Libya. Its position in the eastern Mediterranean may be following suit as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime is facing bolder opposition and an eroding army. Russia may lose its naval base in Tartus.
There are many disputes between Russia and the US which will influence the former’s policy toward the Iranian conflict. Russia has voiced displeasure over US plans to build an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe, the construction of oil pipelines from the Caspian to the Mediterranean that rival Russian pipelines, and most recently US criticism of recent elections.
The overarching point of contention is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s expansion far into Eastern Europe, including former Soviet Republics, despite the elder president George H W Bush’s assurance that it would not.
Russia has become vital to the US effort in Afghanistan. The US is moving away from supply lines running through Pakistan and toward longer but seemingly more reliable ones winding through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Approximately 75% of the International Security Assistance Force‘s (ISAF’s) supplies will use the northern route by early 2012. Russia is more and more critical to the US, though at present only non-lethal materiel is permitted.
Russia could use this to its – and Iran’s – advantage. It could threaten to restrict the northern route or actually do so in the event of an attack on Iran. If taken to an extreme and coordinated with Pakistan, Russia could all but maroon a US army in Central Asia. Alternately, Russia could offer incentives to the US to refrain from hostilities in the Gulf and return to diplomacy. Russia could allow greater use of the northern route and include the transit of lethal materiel, which is highly coveted in the US as Pakistan becomes more confrontational and unstable.
Russia, however, may not be willing to act against the US in Afghanistan. It is greatly worried about Islamist militancy spreading into the Central Asian republics and also about China’s growing presence there. As much as Russia wants the US out of regions it considers part of its sphere, it prefers to see the US grind down the Taliban and limit China’s acquisition of resources and influence in the region.
Further, Russia is not enthusiastic about there being another member of the nuclear club, which is rapidly losing its exclusivity and manageability. Russia has pointedly delayed selling Iran a modern air defense system with which air attacks might be better fought off. Instead, Iran must make do with the older system that was proved ineffectual when Israel attacked a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007.
Iran is a major supplier of oil to China and, somewhat paradoxically, China exports refined oil products back to Iran. Iran also purchases Chinese military equipment and cooperates with China in extending its reach farther into Central Asia. The two powers have immense trade contracts extending far into the future which both need to ensure.
China is a rising power, one that wishes to gain the world’s respect and place itself in the world order along with, if not superior to, the US. This vision is all the more appealing owing to China’s not-so-distant past as the plaything of imperialist powers and object of sanctions and encirclement.
In the past decade, China’s military has grown impressively, perhaps ominously, and its generals and admirals want to see China’s greatness advanced in ways beyond financial and industrial indicators. Economic realties and geopolitical ambitions merge in the Gulf region.
China is displeased over US measures to counter Beijing’s influence. Soldier and statesmen alike see the US aligning regional powers from South Korea to Vietnam to India, and making inroads on Chinese influence in Myanmar and South Sudan – both oil exporters to China. The recent US overture to Myanmar endangers China’s naval aspirations across South Asia and US support for South Sudan weakens China’s influence with African commodity producers.
China can respond by pressing Pakistan to restrict US/ISAF supply lines into Afghanistan – if it hasn’t already done so. China could encourage this by increasing aid to Pakistan as a US aid cut looms. Further, China could go ahead with, despite present misgivings, building a naval base at Gwadar in western Pakistan, not far from the Persian Gulf.
More direct options are available. Positioning troops or construction workers – the former have been known to claim to be the latter – near Iran’s nuclear research sites would pose a problem for attacking powers, as would warships in Iranian ports or shadowing American and Saudi vessels.
China might openly negotiate for bases in Chabahar near the opening to the Gulf, Bandar-e-Abbas in the Straits of Hormuz, or Bushehr not far from a key nuclear site. Such bases would be more secure and more strategically located than one in Pakistan.
China’s least costly, fastest, and perhaps most effective defense of Iran would be the expeditious sale of a large stock of Sizzler anti-ship missiles. The Sizzler is a relatively short-range missile, launched from a number of platforms, that accelerates to supersonic speeds and zig-zags as it nears its target. The US Navy has developed radar-guided, rapid-fire cannons to counter them, but the Sizzlers’ speed and maneuverability are ahead of them. The US Navy admits as much.
A large number of Sizzlers and Sunburns (a Russian equivalent; some already in Iran’s arsenals) would be a formidable deterrent to foreign attack as well as a devastating counterstrike weapon. US naval vessels in the Gulf would suffer serious losses, perhaps including an aircraft carrier – something the US has not experienced since World War II. The weapons are so shockingly deadly and so portentous in world affairs that China and Russia must worry about the consequences of their use.
The appeal of the missile option to China is based on the sobering reality that its navy is presently of only limited help to a vital ally – one just 1,600 kilometers from its western border. Whatever the outcome of the crisis in the Gulf, China’s admirals, like their Soviet counterparts after the Cuban missile crisis (1962), will have a strong case for the need for more resources and greater reach.