Iran Courts China, Russia As New Nuclear Deal With 'Declining' U.S. Stalls

Iranian officials are continuing to build stronger ties with Russia and China as Tehran faces what could be a prolonged standoff with President Joe Biden over any possible revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal.

Biden is demanding that Iran scale back its nuclear program in line with JCPOA restrictions before American sanctions are lifted. However, Iranian leaders have said they will not return to compliance until the U.S. eases sanctions and does the same.

Tehran is casting around for allies to help offset American pressure, along with the threat from regional U.S. allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. International sanctions crippled Iran's economy before the signing of the JCPOA in 2015, and since former President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the deal in 2018 American sanctions have done so again.

The other signatories of the deal—Russia, China, Germany, France and the U.K.—have remained committed to the agreement, though Iranian leaders have repeatedly chastised the Europeans for failing to live up to their commitments for fear of American sanctions.

Russia and China have repeatedly spoken out against Trump's withdrawal from the deal, and have urged Biden to recommit to the accord with no conditions. In recent weeks, Tehran has been lauding ties with both countries as the nuclear issue remains stalled.

The coronavirus pandemic has been punishing for Iran, both in economic and human terms. Tehran has repeatedly complained that American sanctions are hindering its anti-virus efforts, though leaders have also rebuffed American offers of help and banned the import of Western vaccines.

Iran has now agreed a deal to distribute Russia's Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine, as it continues trials of indigenous vaccine products. Iranian parliament speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf also traveled to Russia this week to underscore the cooperation between the two nations, though his planned meeting with President Vladimir Putin was canceled reportedly due to coronavirus concerns.

And on Thursday, the heads of the Russian and Iranian railway authorities met to hold talks on the International North-South Transport Corridor, a project to connect India and Russia via Iran, Azerbaijan and other nations.

While Qalibaf was courting his Russian peers, he also expressed hope that Tehran could build closer ties with Beijing. China offers a potential lifeline for American adversaries given its economic clout. Indeed, it was China's thirst for Iranian oil that undermined Trump's attempts to choke Tehran's most lucrative export.

Qalibaf sent messages to Beijing marking the beginning of the country's new year celebrations, adding he hoped the two nations could boost cooperation and suggesting he had the backing of the entire Iranian parliament in pursuing closer ties with China.

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said earlier this week that a significant deal with China might soon come to fruition. The finalization of a 25-year economic cooperation plan with Beijing, he said, is "not far away."

Russia, China and Iran will also hold their second joint naval exercise later this month, repeating the first installment of the drills held in 2019. The military exercises will take place in the Indian Ocean in mid-February, Moscow's ambassador to Tehran Levan Jagaryan said.

President Hassan Rouhani suggested Thursday that the region's future will not depend on the U.S. "One should know the U.S. properly," he told reporters, according to the state-run Fars News Agency.

"The U.S. is truly declining, and this has distressed and stunned some of their allies in the region," he added. "The world is watching U.S. power decline internally and internationally."

Iranians in Tehran celebrate national day
Iranians take part in a ceremony marking the 42nd anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, at the Azadi Square in Tehran, on February 10, 2021. STR/AFP via Getty Images/Getty