US envoy to Iran Robert Malley (third from left) at a 2015 meeting with Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (far R), Geneva
Like a bolt from the blue, the news has appeared belatedly that the US special envoy to Iran Rob Malley initiated a call with Chinese vice minister Ma Zhaoxu on February 10. Interestingly, the disclosure has come from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which said, “the two sides had an in-depth exchange of views on the Iranian nuclear issue.”
The Biden administration has not yet spoken publicly about the call. But it goes without saying that a seasoned diplomat like Malley would have taken such an initiative involving Beijing only with the approval at the highest level, although he has a mandate to renew multilateral diplomatic efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
It is known that Malley contacted interlocutors in the E3 (UK, France and Germany) and the EU no sooner than he assumed charge as special envoy to Iran.
There is every indication that Malley also sought Qatar’s help to communicate with Tehran. (See my blog Qatar on mission to break US-Iran stalemate dated Feb. 16, 2021) I had estimated in the blog the high probability that the Biden administration would seek help from China and Russia to prevail upon Iran to exercise self-restraint as the deadline of February 21 draws closer and Iran’s domestic law makes it obligatory for Tehran to ask the IAEA inspectors to stop their activities as provided under the safeguards agreed upon in the 2015 nuclear deal known as the JCPOA.
The Russian foreign ministry has let it be known that John Kerry had contacted Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on February 13. Officially, Kerry holds the position of US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate in the Biden administration. But it is also a fact that Kerry was the architect of the JCPOA and there is an old friendship between him and Lavrov that dates back to the latter’s years as the Russian envoy to the United Nations in New York (1994-2004.)
The Biden Administration is well aware that Russia and China wield considerable influence on Iran and, equally, they were willing to be cooperative and to leverage that influence in response to US requests during President Barack Obama’s efforts to negotiate the JCPOA.
Ironically, one side effect of the maximum pressure policy toward Iran pursued by the Trump administration is that Tehran stepped up its strategic communication with Moscow and Beijing to create space to push back at the US pressure.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has paid numerous visits to Russia and China in the most recent years to hold confidential exchanges and finesse a coordinated approach not only on the nuclear issue but on Iran’s regional strategies as a whole.
Reports suggest that Iran and China have finalised a 25-year strategic partnership envisaging economic cooperation to the tune of $400 billion, which is veritably an economic lifeline that Beijing is willing to extend to Iran that would make it easier for the latter to withstand Western pressure.
Similarly, Russia and Iran already began discussing arms deals following the removal of UN restrictions on military cooperation with Iran. Russia also has interest in Iran’s energy sector and has discussed a far-reaching economic package, including barter trade.
Again, Iran has a preferential trade agreement with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union since October 2019, which has significantly boosted Iran’s exports despite restrictions on banking ties between Iran and other countries due to the US economic blockade — so much so that the Export Guarantee Fund of Iran is presently offering up to $800 million in guarantees for export to the Eurasian Economic Union member states.
By the way, with Russian help, Iran began constructing a second nuclear reactor at its Bushehr power plant in November 2019 – a facility being fuelled by uranium enriched further than the limits outlined in the faltering 2015 nuclear deal with world powers — where the new reactor to be installed (and a third reactor planned to be built thereafter) will each add more than 1,000 megawatts to Iran’s power grid.
Clearly, what emerges from the above is that the US’ exchanges with Russia and China are motivated by the Biden administration’s quiet confidence that the tense relations with these two great powers notwithstanding, Beijing and Moscow will only play a constructive role in addressing the situation around Iran, thanks to their commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and reflective of their obligations as responsible UN Security Council members who are strong advocates of the preservation of the JCPOA.
Isn’t it fascinating that Malley called the Chinese Vice-Minister Ma (responsible for international organisations and conferences, international economy and arms control affairs) on the same day that Biden held a 2-hour conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping? In fact, the White House readout of the conversation had concluded saying, “President Biden committed to pursuing practical, results-oriented engagements when it advances the interests of the American people and those of our allies.”
The Xinhua report on the conversation, in turn, highlighted Xi’s remark to Biden that the US and China “can deliver more tangible benefits to people in both countries, and make their due contribution to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, promoting world economic recovery and maintaining regional peace and stability.” Specifically, Xi proposed consultations on regional and international issues and revival of the mechanisms needed.
The Iran nuclear issue has profound implications for international security. If the US can work with China and Russia to resolve the issue, what is it that prevents the three big powers from expanding such cooperation to global governance and strategic stability?
The time has come for the US to jettison its “unipolar predicament”. The Iran issue underscores that reality. Biden has set his eyes on the reconstruction and regeneration of America, alongside, his legacy on the global arena lies in abandoning the path of competition and containment as the leitmotif of his foreign policy.