Emergence of a Joint Russian-Chinese Strategic Vision

Washington clearly lacks the wisdom to manage a “war on drugs” or a “war on terror” or a “war for democracy” in a Muslim society. A more counter-productive effort in world affairs would be hard to find. But if Washington exits Afghanistan without leaving a process of effectively addressing the drug problem in place, then some very nasty scenarios that are hardly imagined today may become highly possible.

What one day is an entirely defensive effort to combat the international trade in illegal narcotics can another day seamlessly morph into an aggressive military alliance. Some today in the West may find it easy to sneer at the strategic military potential of the so-far timid and disunited Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but illegal narcotics are providing a strong rationale for SCO’s members to cooperate militarily, and there’s plenty of talk in Russian media about the drug threat, which is killing 100,000 Russians a year.
Consider the context:
  1. Afghanistan is NATO-occupied, so responsibility for the flood of illegal narcotics poisoning the societies of Russia and the rest of the SCO member states lies at NATO’s door;
  2. the Western campaign in Afghanistan is failing;
  3. U.S.-Pakistani relations are in trouble;
  4. Narcotics and terror not only are linked but are so portrayed in Russian media.
In this context, the long-term trend in Russian-Pakistani ties merits watching. Russian “drug tsar” Victor Ivanov recently lauded rising Russian-Pakistani anti-drug cooperation:

Антинаркотическое сотрудничество России и Пакистана активно развивается. Взаимодействие двух стран “перешло в доверительную фазу”. [Golos Rossii (Voice of Russia) 3/29/12.]

His claim that “mutual trust” has been established should focus Washington minds. Moscow has been encouraging Islamabad’s interest in joining the SCO for some time. Are Washington’s abuses of its special relationship with Islamabad making Russia’s more delicate approach seem attractive? It certainly will if rumors of Russian financial supportfor the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline that Washington so bitterly opposes come true.
Like Pakistan, Iran has observer status in the SCO, but Iran seems too hot to handle, given its current self-defeating policy of nuclear ambiguity. Given Washington’s own endlessly hardline stance, however, a slightly more sophisticated Iranian nuclear policy might open SCO’s door. What if SCO officially offered Iran one of the obvious potential nuclear deals that Washington so carefully evades, e.g., end to sanctions, financing of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, defensive ground-to-air missiles, full membership in SCO, and the explicit right to refine medical-grade uranium in return for the “permanent human monitoring” of Iran’s nuclear project that Larijani has already offered? The next Nobel Peace Prize might go to Putin, and the SCO might discover its strategic mission.
But there’s more. Even NATO member Turkey is glancing toward SCO. To the degree that SCO constitutes no more than a local effort to support global stability, everyone could join, but in the context of a need to replace a failing U.S. power center in Central Asia and in the context of a backward-looking Washington rejecting Ankara’s self-portrayal as leader of Mideast moderates, a SCO deal with Iran that takes the nuclear issue off center-stage might confer significant momentum to Ankara’s delicate winks in SCO’s direction.

В рамках ШОС, Турция будет стремиться к поддержке своей роли лидера региона Ближнего и Среднего Востока, опираясь на дружественные и родственные отношения с тюркскими и исламскими государствами. Россия поддержала заявку Турции на получение статуса партнера по диалогу в ШОС. [Panarin.com.]

If Washington continues tripping over its own feet, as it has now for 15 years, while Moscow and Beijing creep forward through the diplomatic bushes, it becomes easier and easier to imagine the SCO picking up some of the slack. Beijing and Moscow will have to find common strategic ground, but Washington’s continuing obsession with pleasing Israel’s extreme right will make that easy, especially if Iran can smooth the rough edges off its foreign policy. A SCO with a strategic vision plus the membership of both Pakistan and Iran would be an entirely different animal than it is today, a sleek bear sporting dragon wings. If the reversal of trends as the U.S. presence in Central Asia is replaced by a joint Russian and Chinese presence occurs in the context of a bungled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that leaves behind a virulent drug mafia, then SCO would have a legitimate strategic purpose: the flying bear might start breathing fire. Given that, how hard would it be for Russian and Chinese strategic thinkers to justify…well, a “war on terror,” and how easily might such a war come to generate the same horrors that the Bush-Cheney war did?
Further Reading:

Iran’s Opportunity

 If Tehran plays correctly the valuable card in its hand, it has the opportunity to weaken U.S. control over the international political system at the same time that it enhances both its security and its prestige.

The unseemly haste of the Obama Administration–after Turkey and Brazil persuaded Iran to compromise–to reaffirm Washington’s “neo-con-light” policy of pressuring Iran into a humiliating submission rather than incrementally negotiating a new arrangement allowing both sides to claim partial success has given rise to the sense that America’s superpower status is being upset. With America’s claim to moral leadership shattered on the rocks of its post-9/11 hostility toward Muslims and its coddling of right-wing Israeli expansionists, its enduring military superiority nevertheless proving to be a crude and ineffective tool for achieving anything beyond destruction, and its policy-making process on all fronts (security, finance, health care, and environment) unimaginative if not self-defeating, the door is clearly open for a restructuring of the international political system.

But no obvious candidate for new leader stands waiting on the edge of the stage. No country in the world has the combination of leadership and power to replace the U.S. The question that remains, then, is whether or not a new coalition of states can overcome the obvious obstacles to stable leadership inherent in any coalition and emerge as the driving force of new thinking.
The only obvious set of candidates is a group of states with gross differences of ideology and goals who nevertheless share common concerns about the threat of a nuclear conflict against Iran. Despite their dedication, Erdogan and Lula can hardly constitute a viable coalition by themselves, and Iran remains more a problem to be resolved than a helpful partner. But if Ankara and Brazilia can persuade Tehran to follow a conciliatory line, might Moscow and Beijing decide this was a bandwagon worth riding?
So far, Tehran has shown little willingness to offer Moscow and Beijing anything in return for their help, making it hard for either capital to resist American persuasion. But Tehran could get much for compromising only a little bit more. Having already agreed to trade low- for medium-enriched uranium, it could surely agree to give up further domestic enrichment to the medical (medium) grade once it was provided with a foreign source. Tehran could also surely take some steps to persuade the IAEA that it was being fully transparent. This would in turn provide cover for Moscow and Beijing to call for a compromise solution and put their money where their mouth is by:
  1. flatly stating that they will veto any further sanctions as long as Iran meets its obligations;
  2. providing Iran with defensive missiles;
  3. urging the IAEA to lay out precise conditions Iran would have to meet to be considered fully compliant with demands for nuclear transparency;
  4. calling for the cancellation of all anti-Iranian sanctions as soon as the IAEA states it is so satisfied;
  5. focusing attention on the new plans to pursue the vision of a nuclear-free Mideast adopted by the NPT Conference.
Such a deal would require no concessions of anything Iran already has while enhancing Iran’s national security. This deal would also enhance the security of Israel by making it more difficult for Iran to move further in the direction of militarization. The deal would enhance the security of the U.S., not just by the obvious reduction in the likelihood of war, but also by facilitating bilateral talks with Iran on other issues of interest to the U.S., such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington could certainly recognize a good thing and make this policy its own, but if instead it remained insistent on opposing such a compromise, the result could be the emergence of a bloc with sufficient diplomatic, military, and financial clout to redesign Mideast politics.
Is there any evidence that Beijing or Moscow might be interested?
Writing in Xinhua (“Iran deserves a break“) on 5/2910, Zhai Dequan, deputy secretary general of China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, hinted that Beijing may indeed be thinking along these lines:
The recent tripartite agreement on nuclear-material swapping among Iran, Turkey and Brazil shows that influential countries other than major Western powers have started helping resolve sensitive global issues.
Such efforts should be applauded and encouraged, especially because last year, US President Barack Obama said that instead of depending on America alone, other countries, too, should try and resolve world issues.
Continuing from this delicate description of a non-American but not anti-American initiative, Zhai turned to the specifics of the situation at the moment:
Since the situation has changed, pre-planned punitive actions, too, should be altered accordingly, meaning there is no longer any rationality in imposing further sanctions on Iran“.

Non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and blocking their channels of delivery is our common objective, but we should achieve it through justice, legality, equality and rationality.

The very next day, Xinhua reported extensively on remarks made by Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani in an article which ended by quoting Larijani saying that when policy does not work, “The logical solution is to find a new way.” A report of a new Chinese loan to Iran the same day (May 29) furthers the impression that China will oppose a new round of sanctions at this time.
Tehran seems to have a real opportunity to enhance its position, but trying to have its cake and eat it too by trading for medium-grade uranium from the West even while it continues enriching more domestically may be biting off more than it can chew. Such Iranian behavior does indeed give the impression, as Secretary Clinton has stressed, that Tehran is trying to trick Ankara and Brasilia. A new global center of moderate, flexible policy leadership could be emerging that would leave Iran in a far better position even while calming tensions and lessening the chance of war in a way that would be good for the West as well. But Iran can easily throw away its opportunity. Indeed, the public recriminations now unfolding between Tehran and Moscow are already revealing the delicacy of the current situation.
As in certain other countries, some Iranian politicians seem to relish the global stage they stride more than their own country’s national security. To the degree that Iranians genuinely want to reform the international political system, they now have a chance to be part of a broad movement with hope of achieving such reforms. But Iran will have to place the common interests of the emerging reform coalition ahead of certain specifically Iranian goals that may not resonate with their new prospective partners in order for this glimmer of a joint movement to take form and accomplish something.
The agreement with Turkey and Brazil gives Iran an honorable route to compromise…without kowtowing to the U.S. or Israel. Before, Iran was offered only humiliating, one-sided submission to Washington, but now it can play the role of peace-maker by cooperating with the spirit of its new agreement.
Iran has no hope of catching up to Israel in nuclear terms, so the possession of nuclear weapons will only undermine Iranian security. But Iranian nuclear ambiguity is a valuable card that can now be traded for real enhancement in its national security and international prestige, not to mention gaining it significant economic and technological benefits. Iran’s road to regional leadership lies not through worrying those from Saudi Arabia to Israel who are concerned about their own national security; it lies not through baiting all the West’s extremists, who have repeatedly shown in recent years what they are capable of.
The road to Iranian national security lies through giving up its policy of nuclear ambiguity and its program to enrich uranium past the low levels required for electricity generation in return for membership in a broad coalition of disparate states, all of whom agree that A) members of the NPT have the right to refine uranium and B) nuclear war is something to be avoided. Beyond the numerous immediate benefits to Iran of such a course, it would launch a process of reforming the rigid international political system by spurring the emergence of a moderate middle group of countries that want to replace the hierarchical structure of the global political system under Washington’s leadership with a more networked system that facilitates foreign policy independence. This is an outcome Tehran should be able to live with.

Nuclear Diplomacy

Will China’s President Hu come to Washington with a surprise?

On March 30, Beijing agreed to join a Washington-led effort to draft new sanctions on Iran (Guardian, 3/31/10) to punish it for continuing its legally-allowed program of uranium refinement. The next day, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator visited China. He has now departed with no sign of any change in Beijing’s delicate lean toward Washington’s side. If he indeed failed to elicit any change in Beijing’s stance, this may represent an ultimately significant failure for Tehran, Ahmadinejad’s brave (and somewhat accurate) words about how sanctions only encourage self-reliance notwithstanding.

Xinhua’s 4/2/10 characterization of the talks between Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo and Saeed Jalili as “frank” underscored the impression that Tehran is failing to make progress in keeping Beijing’s support on the nuclear issue.
China’s announcement that President Hu Jintao will attend the nonproliferation conference scheduled in Washington later this month raises China’s profile on this sensitive issue and suggests that Beijing may have made a decision to take a more proactive position on global nuclear issues.
Tehran might do well to consider Ben Simpfendorfer’s analysis of China’s Mideast economic calculus (Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel, 4/2/10):
China‘s web of commercial interests in the rest of the Middle East is a restraint on its support for Iran. In short, a nuclear Iran and regional arms race would be bad for business. And Chinese academics have signalled that Iran‘s unpredictable behaviour is challenging China‘s relations with its other regional partners, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia. While China may not agree to sanctions easily, its support for Iran is often overstated, and the idea of a non-nuclear Iran with still strained relations with the United States is not an unattractive outcome for China‘s leadership.
By not offering a concession in Beijing, Iran may have missed an opportunity.