As NATO Grows, China and Russia Seek to Bring Iran, Saudi Arabia Into Fold

Finland and Sweden's green light to join NATO is set to bring about the U.S.-led Western military alliance's largest expansion in decades. Meanwhile, the G7, consisting of NATO states and fellow U.S. ally Japan, has adopted a tougher line against Russia and China.

In the East, however, security and economy-focused blocs led by Beijing and Moscow are looking to take on new members of their own, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, two influential Middle Eastern rivals whose interest in shoring up cooperation on this new front could have a significant impact on global geopolitical balance.

The two bodies in question are the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and BRICS. The former was established in 2001 as a six-member political, economic and military coalition including China, Russia and the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan before recruiting South Asian nemeses India and Pakistan in 2017, while the latter is a grouping of emerging economic powers originally consisting of Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) upon its inception 2006, and including South Africa in 2010.

"The BRICS and the SCO share one important ideological quality: they are both focused on multipolarity, and their summits have even been held back to back with one another at times," Matthew Neapole, an international affairs expert and contributor to the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Canada, told Newsweek.

"Both are angling to act as force multipliers for this drive for multipolarity, to help along with alternatives [i.e, in currency or banking]," he added. "It could, in theory, facilitate economic linkages and step into gaps that U.S. institutions are not filling due to sanctions, such as those laid on Russia."

Putin, and, Xi, meet, insert, Raisi, MbS
Security and economy-focused blocs led by Beijing and Moscow are looking to take on new members, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. In this combination photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin (top left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (top right) meet on February 4, 2022, ahead of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, China. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (bottom left) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are also pictured. Alexei Druzhinin/Meghdad Madadi/Alexander Zemlianichenko/SPUTNIK/ATP IMAGES/AFP/Getty Images

Iran, already an SCO observer, began its formal membership ascension process amid the latest leaders' summit in September. On Monday, the Iranian Foreign Ministry announced the Islamic Republic would also seek to join BRICS.

Across the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia has also reportedly considered applying for BRICS membership, as revealed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during his visit to the kingdom in late May. The announcement followed Saudi Arabia joining Argentina, Egypt, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Senegal, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates at China's invitation for a "BRICS+" discussion, after which Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin announced members had "reached consensus on the BRICS expansion process."

Of these candidates, Argentina has already applied for membership, potentially advancing the group's status toward being a major player in international economic relations. And with the SCO seeking to grow as well, Beijing and Moscow might be poised to advance their effort to sway the international influence equilibrium toward a broader group of countries that do not necessarily sign on to an explicitly U.S.-led international order.

And while Neapole argued that there would be "big hurdles to get over" in trying to transform this vision from ambitious talk to substantive action, he said a cohesive SCO-BRICS bloc could have a huge impact on reshaping the world order.

"If it can be successful in positioning itself as the standard-bearer of the Global South or G20, develop strong organizational mechanisms and integrate more thoroughly," he said, "it could be quite influential."

BRICS' multipolar approach to international affairs has proven attractive to both Iran and Saudi Arabia alike. The two nations, however, have their own unique reasons for seeking membership.

For Riyadh, the move would likely be less about choosing sides against the close ties it has fostered for decades with Washington and more about the kingdom's own growing status as an independent player.

"China's invitation to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to join the 'BRICS' confirms that the Kingdom has a major role in building the new world and became an important and essential player in global trade and economics," Mohammed al-Hamed, president of the Saudi Elite group in Riyadh, told Newsweek. "Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 is moving forward at a confident and global pace in all fields and sectors."

This vision, unveiled by Prince Mohammed bin Salman a year before being appointed as heir to the throne and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia in 2017, outlined a plan to diversify his country's oil-dependent economy and present a new image of the kingdom to the international community.

And while Crown Prince Mohammed has sought to enhance cooperation with the U.S., especially as President Joe Biden prepared this month for his first visit to the monarchy he once branded a "pariah" over alleged human rights abuses, the Saudi royal has also expanded ties with Russia and China in recent years. Joining BRICS would demonstrate a commitment to Riyadh's resolve in dealing with other major powers and mark a significant win for the effort to boost economic frameworks established outside of the auspices of the U.S. and its immediate allies.

"This accession, if Saudi joins it, will balance the world economic system, especially since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the largest exporter of oil in the world, and it's in the G20," Hamed said. "If it happens, this will support any economic movement and development in the world trade and economy, and record remarkable progress in social and economic aspects as Saudi Arabia should have partnerships with every country in the world."

This approach came in stark contrast to that of Washington, which has regularly shut out countries it disagreed with through a growing list of sanctions. The U.S.' dominant position in the global financial system has traditionally left few options for these nations, but that situation has gradually changed as frameworks like BRICS offer potential ways to dodge these restrictions.

Joe, Biden, address, NATO, summit, Madrid
U.S. President Joe Biden gestures as he addresses media representatives during a press conference at the NATO summit in Madrid on June 30, 2022. Biden has sought to revive and reinforce U.S. global leadership, especially in the face of Russia's war in Ukraine and an increasingly powerful China. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Among those countries looking to counter U.S. economic pressure is Iran. International sanctions against the Islamic Republic in response to its nuclear activities were lifted in 2015 after a multilateral nuclear deal was reached with the U.S. and other major powers, including China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom, but then-President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018, severely impacting Tehran's ability to trade with the international community.

Biden has set out to negotiate a potential return to the accord that was reached during his vice presidency under former President Barack Obama. However, a series of negotiations held since April of last year has left the U.S. and Iran at an impasse and another set of talks held in Qatar this week appeared to end early with no sign of a breakthrough.

Frustration over shifting politics in Washington has led Tehran to increasingly look to its own region for strategic partnerships, which it has increasingly forged with Beijing and Moscow.

"Iranian officials have come to the conclusion that the U.S. and its Western allies will never allow the Islamic Republic of Iran to play its well-deserved regional role as a middle power," Zakiyeh Yazdanshenas, a research fellow at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran, told Newsweek.

"Therefore, they have decided to neutralize U.S. attempts to isolate Iran by further closing to non-western bodies like SCO and BRICS," she added. "In addition, Iranians consider the future world order to be Eastern and they are trying to get closer to organizations in which Eastern powers such as Russia and China play a significant role."

This doesn't mean that the two blocs are necessary anti-Western in nature. Though a concerted effort has emerged to empower countries outside of the traditional G7 grouping from which Russia was suspended in 2014 as conflict first erupted over Ukraine and other major economies such as China and India have not been invited, the SCO and BRICS, which are not formal military alliances like NATO, saw themselves as inherently inclusive.

"The SCO and the BRICS have not been established as an alternative to Western organizations," Yazdanshenas said, "and their specific function has not been defined on the basis of confrontation with the West or the existing world order."

Still, she argued that growing international competition has only intensified "the balancing function of non-Western organizations" such as the SCO and BRICS. And here, she said Iran could serve as an important asset for both coalitions.

"Joining a moderate power with an anti-Western approach such as Iran to these bodies can strengthen this aspect of SCO and BRICS," Yazdanshenas said. "Iran has been under the most severe sanctions in the last decade, yet it has been able to significantly expand its power in the region."

And, like Saudi Arabia, Iran's oil and gas reserves make it an important strategic partner, especially given the worsening frictions over global energy that have been exacerbated by Western sanctions on Russia, and heated rivalry between Beijing and Washington.

"Iran is the only producer of energy resources in the Persian Gulf that is not an ally of the United States and will not refuse to supply energy to China in the event of an escalation of the trade war between Beijing and Washington," Yazdanshenas said. "In addition, Iran's geopolitical position has been strengthened in the wake of Russia-Ukraine war and that is of great importance for great powers in these bodies i.e. Russia and China."

The energy problem plays into two key reasons having both Iran and Saudi Arabia on board for BRICS would be a "major gain" for the organization, according to Akhil Ramesh, a fellow at the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum.

"For countries like China and to an extent India, import dependency for oil has been a major headache, both from an economic standpoint of trade deficits and from a geopolitical standpoint of having to make security and strategic sacrifices for the sake of oil imports," Ramesh said. "Having three large oil producers in the grouping [Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia] could possibly give these countries the option of securing oil at discounted rates or through alternative arrangements [barter]."

Tehran and Riyadh's oil reserves would also lend BRICS a stronger hand in taking on the U.S. dollar's hegemony over the world financial system as Ramesh argued that, "in order to replace the USD as the global reserve currency you would need to have more commodity-exporting countries, especially oil exporting ones buying into the idea."

"Moreover," he added, "China and Russia are expanding the grouping to create a coalition of countries that have pending disputes with the West or have been humiliated by the West in the past [thinking Argentina and Falklands]."

And in this respect, Ramesh expressed that the U.S. and its allies had committed "a grave error" in overlooking the importance of BRICS, as well as the SCO, emerging financial institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the National Development Bank and China's broader Belt and Road Initiative, which counts some 148 countries and 32 international organizations as partners.

"The U.S. and its allies are grossly underestimating China, in particular," Ramesh said. "BRICS, SCO, development banks such as AIIB, NDB, and infrastructure initiatives such as China's BRI are all different platforms for engaging mostly poor countries that do not get a say in world affairs or have a seat at the high table."

As internal divisions have threatened to derail NATO's agenda, feuds among members also serve as a complicating factor for organizations led by China and Russia. And even if Iran and Saudi Arabia were to both join BRICS, it would not necessarily prove a breakthrough in their bitter rivalry.

The two nations have pursued quiet diplomacy over the past year, but their regional bout for influence has continued to rage across the Middle East, most violently so in Yemen, which has been devastated by a years-long war between a Saudi-led coalition in support of an exiled government on one side and the Iran-aligned Ansar Allah, or Houthi, rebels on the other. The conflict has only quieted in recent months as a result of a fragile three-month truce and not necessarily because of any lasting solution.

But China and Russia have demonstrated a capacity to bring enemies together under a common banner as seen with the SCO's simultaneous admission of India and Pakistan five years ago.

Belt, Road, Initiative, countries, map, Newsweek
China's Belt and Road Initiative counts more than 200 cooperation documents signed by 148 countries and 32 international organizations as of February 6, 2022, according to the country's official Belt and Road Portal. Newsweek/Belt and Road Portal

Yaroslav Lissovolik, a Moscow-based Russian International Affairs Council expert and Valdai Discussion Club program director, said BRICS too has the capacity to host countries with clashing worldviews, mentioning the specific case of China and India, whose rivalry has turned occasionally turned violent, and even deadly, along their disputed Himalayan border.

And while he said that the "expansion of the BRICS core membership may indeed result in greater challenges in attaining consensus on key decisions going forward," he felt there was ample room to work together on broader questions.

"In this respect, the addition of Iran and Saudi Arabia would not change matters fundamentally within BRICS as there is scope for a divergence in views," Lissovolik told Newsweek, "and while there may be disagreement on particular local/regional problems, there may be greater unity on global issues."

He argued that disputes among members have not stopped BRICS from managing "to advance with an increasingly ambitious development agenda, including with respect to launching the BRICS+ initiative and the pragmatic cooperation within the BRICS development institutions."

"What this means is that the BRICS offer the possibility of development on the basis of divergence in economic models and approaches to economic modernization rather than convergence towards one particular universal model," Lissovolik said.

"While allowing for the differences in views and approaches among their members," he added, "BRICS economies can move decisively forward in tackling those global challenges where they manage to forge a consensus."