Some have referred to the close relationship Russia enjoys with Iran and China as the New Axis of Evil. One drawback, of course, is the problematic nature of the original Axis of Evil concept. The three regimes included in George W. Bush’s triad of enemies, Iran, North Korea and Iraq, were evil enough but, at the time anyway, hardly an alliance. And though unbothered by the carnage of Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack on America, none were, as far as we know, in league with Osama bin Laden. Simply stated, Pyongyang and Baghdad belonged to anti-democratic categories distinct from each other and altogether different from Osama bin Laden’s Salafi-jihadism. Today there happens to be a relationship between Beijing, Moscow and Tehran—an Axis of Good, one Russian parliamentarian deadpanned—based on their shared enmity towards the West. But will that be enough to provide an enduring unity of purpose? Putin’s war is testing the ties between these “friends forever”.
While most of the world openly criticised Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, especially the Kremlin’s indiscriminate destruction of towns and villages, Iran and China took a difference stance. On February 25, for instance, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi expressed an understanding of “Russia’s security concerns caused by the destabilising actions of the United States and NATO”. The Imam of Tehran, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, echoed those sentiments, accusing the United States and NATO of “meddling all around the world” and “complicating the situation” in Eastern Europe. Beijing has always been more circumspect in its support of the Kremlin. At his September meeting with Putin in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, their first face-to-face summit since the start of the war, Xi Jinping expressed “some concerns” about hostilities in Ukraine. That said, Xi had earlier greeted his proclaimed “best friend forever” with the equally enthusiastic refrain of “My dear old friend!” A somewhat warmer tone, clearly, than Joe Biden’s denunciation of Vladimir Putin as a “murderous dictator” or former British PM Liz Truss’s characterisation of the Russian leader as a “desperate rogue operator”.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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If Putin’s war had gone according to plan, with Volodymyr Zelenskyy killed and Kyiv captured in quick time, the three main partners in the Moscow-Tehran-Beijing troika would have been far more effusive in their claims about the imminence of a post-American “multi-polar world”. Putin’s deep hostility towards the “collective West” and Xi’s warning in 2021 that foreign powers (which is to say America and the West) will “get their heads bashed” if they attempt to thwart his ambitions, are not that far removed from the mullahcracy’s antipathy towards the “Great Satan”. The Houthis in Yemen, the Shiite rebel group aided and abetted by Tehran, are transparent enough in their sloganeering: “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, a curse upon the Jews, Victory to Islam.” Khomeinism as a political philosophy is not without its contradictions, but if there is one key legacy of the 1979 revolution it is that the Islamic Republic of Iran, as constituted by its founder Ayatollah Khomeini, must be defended not just from the West but from Western civilisation. There can never be any genuine rapprochement with the West, notwithstanding attempts by President Obama and more latterly President Biden to form an understanding about nuclear weapons capability in Iran.
The work of Sayyid Qutb, one-time Supreme Leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, deeply influenced Khomeini’s anti-West enmity and subsequent quest for an Islamic state in Iran. Qutb was an Arab Sunni and Khomeini a Persian Shiite, and yet the Islamic “Leninism” outlined in Qutb’s influential book Signposts informed the thinking of not only Khomeini but also his successor Khamenei. The whole edifice of Iran’s theocracy, from the Guardian Council to the “guidance patrols” (moral police), is intended as a permanent barrier to the Islamic Republic of Iran reconfiguring itself as simply Iran, a non-theocratic entity. That is why those protesting the death of twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini while detained in a “guidance centre” for a “bad hijab”, are a far greater threat to the regime than the Iranian Green Movement back in 2009-10. Twelve years ago, the protesters were contesting a rigged presidential election, not the theocratic state itself; this time a new generation of insurgents is targeting the real power in Iran. The slogan “Women, Life and Freedom” is a dagger pointed at the heart of Khomeinism because it challenges the legitimacy of the Guardian Council. If the women of Iran continue refusing to wear headscarves in public, despite the dangers posed by Ayatollah Khamenei’s henchmen, the era of the Islamic Republic of Iran would be handed over to history—the fanatical and millenarian boasts of those who commandeered an entire nation silenced at last.
The delusion of the West, not least the United States, was that it could ever do business with Tehran. President Obama’s 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) is a case in point. As Michael Rubin argued in Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue States (2014), nuclear diplomacy only works if a rogue regime wants to renounce its pariah status, as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi did in December 2003. Otherwise, sitting down at the table with the representatives of a miscreant regime—as per North Korea—seems more likely than not to reinforce the contrariness of the rogue entity, since it is that very defiance that brings Western offers of conciliation and recompense in the first place. The upshot is a tragic paradox: our attempt to prevent the legitimisation of Iran as a nuclear threshold power has had the opposite effect. And the lesson is still not learnt. If the Biden administration succeeds in striking a new Iran Nuclear Deal it will unfreeze more billions of dollars to be used at Tehran’s discretion while leaving Iran’s continuing nuclear skulduggery concealed from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Some will insist that had the original deal not been cancelled by the Trump administration in 2018, the IAEA would now be better placed to monitor Iranian nuclear trickery. A more likely scenario, perhaps, is that the Islamic Republic of Iran remains an unrepentant and unreformable rogue state that—as the new generation of Iranian protesters would attest—cannot be normalised or co-opted; only opposed, contained and one day, hopefully, vanquished.
President Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal was, putting it as generously as possible, based on imprudent optimism. Allowing Tehran access to serious currency—a reputed hundred billion dollars in the case of JCPOA—makes no strategic (or moral) sense given the militant ambitions of the regime. Here, however, is Obama’s point of view when the ink on the deal was barely dry:
The path of violence and rigid ideology, a foreign policy based on threats to attack your neighbours or eradicate Israel—that’s a dead end. A different path, one of tolerance and peaceful resolution of conflict, leads to more integration into the global community, and the ability of the Iranian people to prosper and survive.
How much of the money did the revolutionary leadership put into helping Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Assad in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen and the pro-Iran parties in Iraq? Iran’s meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq contributes to the political deadlock that has endured since the 2021 election. Iran is an existential threat to every country in the region and now—with the appearance in October of swarms of kamikaze drones over the skies of Kyiv—we can add the people of Ukraine to the list of its victims.
The Kremlin, of course, denies it has used hundreds of Iran’s drones to terrorise Ukrainians in the aftermath of significant reverses on the battlefield and the destruction of the Kerch Strait bridge. The explosive-carrying drone is not an Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 but a Russian-made Geran-2. And the purpose of the killer drone, which loiters above its target making the sound of a powerful motorbike, is not to terrify or maim civilians. No, it is to degrade key “infrastructure” associated with Ukraine’s armed forces. Therefore, the news of a pregnant Ukrainian woman, her dead body dug out of the rubble of a destroyed three-storey apartment, can be safely dismissed as anti-Russia lies. Iranian drones have form when it comes to causing havoc, including the ones employed by the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Russia, in turn, had a history of indiscriminately—or should we say deliberately—targeting schools, hospitals, water supplies, power facilities and apartments during the Second Chechnyan War and the Syrian Civil War. General Sergei Surovikin earned the nickname “General Armageddon” for his role in slaughtering civilians and demolishing civilian infrastructure in Syria. President Putin, in October 2022, promoted Surovikin to commander of Russian forces in Ukraine.
Media reports tell of a hundred Iranian officers stationed in Crimea instructing their Russian counterparts on how to work the Shahed-136. Tehran is not keen to publicise the fact that they are making a mockery of their commitment to the strictures of the nuclear deal by transferring military technology, as primitive as some would call it, to a foreign state. The absurdity of the Biden administration persisting in secret JCPOA negotiations with Tehran throughout 2022—that is, during the first year of Putin’s war—is only reinforced by the revelation that Washington initially enlisted the Kremlin as its agent for these talks. Meanwhile, Britain and France, which remain signatories to the JCPOA, have ineffectively criticised Iran’s role in Putin’s war. A spokesperson for the UK’s Foreign Office issued a typically nondescript communique: “The UK has condemned Iran’s decision to supply drones and training to Russia. Iran supplying drones is inconsistent with UN security resolution 231 and is further evidence of the role Iran plays in undermining global security.” We are approaching the absurd situation where the West lifts sanctions on Tehran to encourage its fidelity to the JCPOA while simultaneously sanctioning the regime for cheating on the deal. Somewhere in this folly future lurks the legacy of the Obama Doctrine.
It was Obama’s foreign policy that proved so disastrous in the Middle East and so advantageous to the geopolitical ambitions of Iran: withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011; belated response to the advent of the Islamic State group; indecisiveness on Syria; indulging the PLO’s Mahmoud Abbas; the 2015 Iran Deal; and scorning Israel at every opportunity. Informing Barack Obama’s thinking on foreign policy was a worldview held by many a radical historian or commentator in the shadow of the Vietnam War and more generally the Cold War. Stanley Kurtz’s Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism (2010) is a good starting place for understanding Obama’s ambition to dramatically change the trajectory of America and the world. As he immodestly proclaimed in January 2008 to an adoring crowd: “We are the ones we have been waiting for!” How to encapsulate The One’s worldview? In Notes on a Century (2013), Bernard Lewis writes about a certain kind of progressive Westerner who perpetuates, paradoxically, an old triumphalist prejudice—albeit “turned inside out”—since the underlying assumption remains “that everything that happens in the world is determined by the West”. Lewis was not specifically describing Barack Obama’s historical revisionism, but the comment is no less apt for that.
In 2013, for instance, the Obama administration authorised the release of formerly classified material revealing that the CIA—as long suspected—had played an instrumental role in the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. This Cold War coup d’état involved bribing Iranian politicians, security officials and army officers. It was, according to the American investigators themselves, an act of USA foreign policy “conceived and approved at the highest levels of government”. In other words, President Truman, not unsympathetic to Mosaddegh during his first term in the Oval Office, was persuaded by Winston Churchill to intervene in Iran on the questionable grounds that Mosaddegh wanted to align Iran with the Russian empire (sorry, the Soviet Union). Revisionist historians and Obama apologists have been keen to point out the connection between the 1953 coup and the 1979 Iranian Revolution. On this, at least, they might be right. The toppling of Mosaddegh, subsequently sentenced to three years in jail for having the temerity to be elected prime minister of Iran, shifted the balance of power in Iran from the parliament to the monarch, Shah Mohammed Razi Pavli. We know how that ended up—the triumph of Ayatollah Khomeini and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism.
America made any number of similar blunders during the Cold War, but does it make sense to appease the malevolent product of those past mistakes? Should, for example, the West have placated the Khmer Rouge because the emergence of this genocidal outfit was partly a consequence of Richard Nixon’s attempt to foreclose the Vietnam War? In the same vein, ought Vladimir Putin be given a free hand in Ukraine because some three decades ago the West assured Moscow—though no less than Mikhail Gorbachev later denied this—that NATO would never expand eastward? The short answer is no. Western miscalculations in the Cold War might have played a part in the advent of the Islamic Republic of Iran and yet that does not mean we have to appease a despotism with imperial and homicidal ambitions. Quite the opposite, in fact. Tehran not only provided Moscow with the additional means to terrorise the people of Ukraine; this is exactly the kind of terrorist project it has established with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. How many progressives in the West are outraged by Iranian kamikaze drones targeting civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and yet untroubled by Iranian missiles launched from Gaza at non-military targets in Israel?
What has drawn Moscow and Tehran together is obviously not a shared ideology but opportunism. Take Syria as a case in point. Putin had his reasons for propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian Civil War, not the least being the long-term protection of the Russian naval base at Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast. Iran, on the other hand, has its own imperial ambitions in Syria. The completion of the so-called “Shiite Crescent” would see a corridor of Iranian hegemony stretching all the way from the Mediterranean into Central Asia. Russia and Iran both supported Assad when his rule came under threat, but that era has passed. Putin would be happy to see Iran’s influence in Syria diminish. Russia even allows the Israeli Air Force, within a strict protocol of engagement, to attack Iranian military sites in Syria. This practice is one reason why Israel remains reluctant to arm Ukraine despite backing Kyiv and providing humanitarian assistance. Then again, the Israeli Air Force has, reportedly, been hitting Iranian-owned workshops in Syria manufacturing the Shahed-136, a point to keep in mind as we evaluate the threat of a supposed arc of autocracy.
Certainly, the idea of a growing interconnectedness between Iran and other significant autocratic states received a boost with the signing of the twenty-five-year Sino-Iranian Strategic Accord in March 2021. But even here it is hard to disagree with Ghazi Vaisi, writing for the Middle East Institute, that the Iranian people themselves do not stand to gain a great deal from this new arrangement. While Beijing has secured for itself, theoretically at least, a quarter-century of cut-price oil, Iran will be inundated with even more low-quality consumer goods from China, destroying local (and more expensive) traditional hand-crafted equivalents: “Twenty-five thousand years of Persian heritage risks being wiped out in a matter of just 25 years. As a result, Iranians have developed a disdain for China and a sense of betrayal by their own leaders.” The one Iranian beneficiary of the Strategic Accord, argues Vaisi, will be the Iranian regime, which is set to obtain from China the latest surveillance technology to spy on its captive and now restive population. Whether that will be enough (or come soon enough) to save the Islamic Republic from dissolution is another matter altogether.
Even in our era of relativism, the notion of Russia, China and Iran constituting an Axis of Good is risible. Putin, Khamenei and Xi are all some version of criminal and crazy, albeit very different versions of criminal and crazy. They each have distinct historical rationalisations for being, respectively, modern-day tsar, shah and emperor. The Axis of Good, consequently, is not only not good but hardly an axis. It amounts to a collusion of anti-West autocrats prepared to help each other only if it is in their own individual interests of regime survival to do so. Thus, in late October, Iran subtly changed its story about not supplying suicide drones to Russia. “Iran didn’t supply Russia with any weapons for war with Ukraine,” a government spokesman announced. Translation: Shahed-136 drones might have been sold to Russia but were not intended for use against Ukraine. Accordingly, if an Iranian investigation discovers the Kremlin has misled Tehran, the Islamic Republic will not remain “indifferent”—not exactly the language of uncritical support for Putin’s war.
We can probably assume Tehran hopes Moscow will help its clandestine quest to achieve nuclear capability, either by providing some valuable expertise or at least keeping the West at bay while Iran achieves its ambition. Nevertheless, back in March, Putin frustrated this year’s JCPOA renewal talks—to Tehran’s chagrin—when he insisted that Russia be excluded from any imposition of sanctions were Iran to contravene any new agreement. Self-evidently, Moscow had no intention of sacrificing its own interests for the sake of the mullahs. Clearing Israel to target Iranian military targets in Syria fits into the same category. But it goes two ways. As sanctions are imposed on Iranian officials responsible for providing Russia with its Shahed-136 drones plus (allegedly) ballistic missiles, and a renewed JCPOA becomes more unlikely as Putin’s nuclear brinkmanship reminds the world of the danger of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of rogue operators, maybe Tehran will want to distance itself from Moscow. But it is probably too late. As recently as July this year, Khamenei, in a face-to-face meeting with Putin, claimed if the Kremlin “had not taken the initiative, the other side would have caused the war with its own initiative”. Come October, however, and Iran’s ambassador to the UN was taking a more nuanced position: “Iran has consistently advocated for peace and the immediate end to the conflict in Ukraine.”
It is probably too late for Ayatollah Khamenei to begin playing the role of impartial observer; Tehran has brought its war against the West into the heart of Europe in the most repellent manner. The Islamic Republic, no less than Putin’s Russia, has earned itself a new pariahdom that makes a renewed JCPOA less likely now than at the start of 2022. China, so far, has managed to avoid the type of opprobrium attached to Russia and Iran due to Putin’s war. Beijing has been more careful than Tehran, complying with Western sanctions imposed on Russia’s oligarchs and rejecting the Kremlin’s request for ammunition and weaponry. (North Korea, nevertheless, could be serving as Beijing’s proxy on that score.) And, as already mentioned, Xi Jinping expressed “some concerns” about the course of the war in September. Those concerns, doubtless, had less to do with the terror Putin’s army was inflicting on the people of Ukraine than the abject failure to capture Kyiv within a week. Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has been a military catastrophe resulting in not only the death of some 67,000 Russian soldiers, but in unifying the resistance of the Ukrainian people, reviving NATO, causing universal amazement at the superiority of Western military technology and marking the beginning of the end for Vladimir Putin. All of this, we might reasonably assume, would have prompted Xi to postpone plans to invade Taiwan.
Xi, judging by his close consultations with Putin at the Beijing Olympics in February, almost certainly had prior knowledge of Russia’s attack on Ukraine and, moreover, gave his approval. How else to interpret their joint announcement at the time that Russia and China enjoyed a “friendship without limits” and that there were “no forbidden areas” of co-operation? They went so far as to claim their burgeoning strategic alliance was “superior” to the partnership between the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War. A cynic might note that would hardly be difficult given the Sino-Soviet split and seven months of military skirmishes along their common border. And that border dispute remains a sensitive issue. As Bill Hayton argues in The Invention of China (2020), the Chinese Communist Party still fumes over the loss of territory during the decline of the Ching Dynasty, including landed ceded to the Russian empire in 1860, land that remained in the Soviet empire and now the Russian Federation. The Party cannot forgive and forget. Hayton writes:
The problems China’s neighbours face stem from the country’s two contradictory views of the past. In the first, China sees itself in imperial terms, as the natural centre of East Asia, where borders are immaterial to power. In the second, China sees itself in Westphalian terms, determined to incorporate every scrap of territory, every rock and reef, within the homeland’s “sacred” national border.
There is a hierarchy among rogues, and it is based on power and fear. Putin, as Masha Gessen explained as long ago as 2012 in The Man Without a Face, has the personality of a paranoid bully who embraces the zero-sum game of cower-or-dominate gangsterdom. The most intimidating people in Russia, the heads of security agencies, army commanders, ministers of state and chief executives of corporations, all cower when Putin enters the room. In 2007, when Angela Merkel was meeting with him in Sochi, he sent for Koni, his black labrador, to enter the room and frighten the dog-shy German chancellor, before he sat back to enjoy the spectacle. Later, Merkel provided an insightful interpretation of what had occurred: “I understand why he had to do this—to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness.” In Xi Jinping, however, Vladimir Putin might have met his match. Back in February, in Beijing, Putin almost looked giddy as he fawned over Xi, succumbing to the cower-or-dominate protocol of the so-called strongman.
Craig Singleton, writing for Foreign Policy magazine, speculates that Xi and Putin’s “marriage of convenience” will endure, “not despite Russia’s recent battlefield setbacks, but because of them”. Singleton reasons that “China has much to gain geopolitically from a Russian victory and potentially even more to lose from a Russian defeat”. While it is true that Moscow and Beijing operating in tandem, with Iran making up the numbers in a trilateral alliance, multiplies the heft and reach of their individual power, there are other matters to consider. For instance, the separate imperialistic ideologies of Russia, Iran and China all contain an anti-West element, but there is something more ambitious, more global, about the China Dream in which “all under heaven” kowtow to Emperor Xi.
Thus, a defeated Russia could mean Beijing turning its attention to the northern territories relinquished by the Ching empire over 160 years ago. If the invasion date for Taiwan, increasingly equipped with the latest Western military technology and inspired by a game plan refined in Ukraine, needs to be pushed back five years or a decade, a conflict with Russia might be appealing. There is also the fact that Moscow’s sway over Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and, we could add, the Mongolian People’s Republic—is now diminished irrespective of the outcome of Putin’s war. Would Xi Jinping betray his “friend forever” to expand the scope of the Middle Kingdom? Precedent points in that direction. Mao and Stalin, back in February 1950, signed a thirty-year treaty of friendship, alliance and mutual assistance. This partnership of rogues endured longer than the August 1939 Non-Aggression Pact that Stalin had signed with Hitler—but not by much. Relations between Moscow and Beijing began to sour from 1956 onwards, culminating in the 1969 border war.
Daryl McCann contributed “Time for Everybody to Wake Up to China” in the November issue. He has a blog at https://darylmccann.blogspot.com.