Closing Arguments: China-Russia Challenge, Iran's Nuclear File

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group

China-Russia: Stepping Up Military Cooperation For the better part of eight decades, the US has relied on alliances and military relationships in Europe and Asia to anchor its post-World War II status as the world's indispensable power. That standing has eroded over time as the US confronts the geopolitical reality of its own declining diplomatic, economic and military power and influence against the rise of a multipolar global structure. Still, the unmatched strength of US military alliances -- with Nato, Japan and South Korea -- provided a much-needed extra edge to the US' position at the apex of global power. But recent joint military exercises between China and Russia have shed light on the fact that US-led military alliances may no longer stack up. For the past two decades, the US has poured trillions of dollars into a failed war in Afghanistan and seemingly endless military conflicts in Iraq and Syria. More critically, the 20-year focus on waging low-intensity counterinsurgency operations in the Mideast and Southwest Asia has fundamentally altered the way the US military was organized, trained and equipped to wage war in general. The ability to conduct the kind of large-scale combined arms operations (that is, the melding of armor, artillery and airpower into a unified maneuver element) that were the trademark of the US military during the Cold War -- and which were put on display during the 1991 Gulf War -- no longer exist. Moreover, combined arms capabilities do not come cheap. Today, while US policymakers have directed that the US military refocus its efforts away from counterinsurgency toward countering peer-level threats from China and Russia, the task of rebuilding a meaningful combined arms combat capability may be beyond what the military budgets of the US and its allies can handle. And while the US military floundered in the quicksand of low-intensity warfare, Russia and China were focused on building modern military formations designed from scratch to engage in large-scale combined arms warfare. However, these respective capabilities were developed independent of the other, meaning that the US and its allies could treat them as separate threats. A recent five-day joint training exercise involving some 10,000 troops from China and Russia, conducted at China’s Qingtongxia tactical training base in northwest China, marked the first-ever operation of a China-Russia joint command system. It also demonstrated the kind of operational and logistical interoperability that previously was only seen in the US relationship with Nato, Japan and South Korea. More importantly, the Sino-Russian exercise focused on combined arms operations. If this kind of cooperation continues, the days of US global military pre-eminence may soon be over. Iran: Controlling the Nuclear File With the talks between Iran and the parties to the 2015 nuclear deal about the re-entry of the US anticipated to resume in September, all eyes have turned to the new cabinet being formed by new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi for clues on how Iran will proceed with the contentious negotiations. Raisi, who replaced former President Hassan Rouhani, submitted his cabinet nominees to parliament on Aug. 11. Most observers expect the list to be approved with no changes. That being the case, the major question is whether the foreign ministry will continue to take the lead in all negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Raisi’s nominee for foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, is a veteran diplomat reportedly close to the Revolutionary Guard. Prior to his appointment, Amir-Abdollahian served as an adviser to the speaker of parliament for international affairs. In this role, Amir-Abdollahian was instrumental in helping shape parliament’s passage of laws governing Iran’s nuclear program that former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif found to be overly restrictive. All indications are that Amir-Abdollahian will take a hard line when it comes to all nuclear-related negotiations. “To realize the lifting of US ‘max sanctions’ against Iran,” Amir-Abdollahian wrote on Twitter in April, “we need to stick to ‘max demands’ in the negotiations.” Amir-Abdollahian, however, lacks direct experience with the nuclear file. The current Iranian nuclear negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqhchi, is expected to remain in his position to provide necessary continuity and experience. The critical question, however, is whether the nuclear file will remain with the foreign ministry, as had been the case during Rouhani's administration, or revert to the control of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Iran’s top security body. An influential Iranian newspaper considered close to the Revolutionary Guard, Javan, has called for the transfer of the nuclear file to the SNSC. If that were to occur, the primary driving force behind the stalled nuclear negotiations would be Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the SNSC. Shamkhani, a veteran Revolutionary Guard commander, was appointed to his position by Rouhani, and is expected to remain there under Raisi. And if Shamkhani were to take over the nuclear file, he would be advised by Saeed Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator appointed to the SNSC by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This chain of command underscores the reality that it is ultimately the Supreme Leader who is responsible for Iran’s nuclear policy, regardless of where the nuclear file finally comes to rest.

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