SINGAPORE — Between corralling like-minded states in Asia to counter Chinese influence, patching things up with Europe and nudging the Saudis into making nice with Israel, the Biden administration is pursuing diplomatic realignments that favor American interests. But as Russia amasses troops on the Ukrainian border, Iran deploys anti-missile defenses and North Korea launches missiles from submarines, today’s headaches have throbbed for too long — and each undermines long-term prospects for global stability.
“Frozen conflicts” never really are. Rising tensions in the Balkans and flare-ups in the Caucasus are among the numerous reminders today that until contested terrain is settled, it remains very much unsettled. Furthermore, Iran, North Korea and Russia are increasingly strategic tiles on the geopolitical chessboard. China has been backing these rogue authoritarian regimes for many years, thwarting American sanctions and rendering Western pressure inert.
In none of these cases does the U.S. have decisive leverage or the appetite for direct military confrontation. Washington therefore needs a plan to deal with pariah states while it can still sway them or build coalitions to shape their behavior. It’s time for a new approach: radical connectivity.
Iran: Once Bitten, Twice Shy — Third Time A Charm?
Iran’s isolation from the international community has now lasted over four decades since its 1979 revolution. Western regime-change efforts dating to the 1953 coup have only emboldened its theocratic leaders, and its newest hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, isn’t one to fold. Since the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) framework and “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign, the country’s stockpile of enriched uranium has grown — demonstrating how, perversely, the longer sanctions are in place, the less likely it becomes that Iran can be swayed.
Indeed, Iran’s strategic position has enabled it to sow instability across the Gulf region from Lebanon and Yemen to the Strait of Hormuz. Furthermore, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan has been read by many in Tehran as a sign of weakness. In October, a U.S. Navy destroyer looked on as Iranian commandos seized an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman.
Iran is a populous, young, energy rich nation at the crossroads of Eurasian and oceanic trade routes. But absent a change in the country’s diplomatic leanings, its growing role as a bridgehead for Chinese and Russian interests is all but certain. Iranian oil exports to China are soaring. Beijing and Tehran also recently inked a 25-year, $40 billion agreement as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Clearly, when the cat’s away, the mice come out to play.
Yet there is alternative momentum to build on. The U.S. pullback from Afghanistan has changed the Gulf states’ calculations. Saudi Arabia and Iran have had several rounds of talks, and last month Saudi Arabia issued visas for three Iranian diplomats to take up posts in the kingdom. Iranian officials have also been on a charm offensive with Abu Dhabi. Russia is moving ahead with plans to convene a regional security conference to bring all the region’s powers — including Israel and Iran — under one tent.
Recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) negotiations in Vienna signal that the country may consider a return to the Nuclear Deal with JCPOA nations. But even if it does, this laborious diplomatic process is unlikely to yield fruit unless Iran is given what it wants. Perhaps, then, that’s precisely what the West should do.
The key shift is to separate rather than link the nuclear and economic tracks. Iran is unlikely to agree to the JCPOA’s “Additional Protocol” that provides for IAEA inspections of civilian nuclear facilities to ascertain if nuclear fuel is being diverted to its weapons program. And there is good reason to doubt the efficacy of such safeguards, which experts have described as “obsolete.” Furthermore, Iran will only sign a deal that doesn’t include “snapback” clauses requiring universal sanctions compliance of UN members in the event that Iran resumes significant uranium enrichment.
But lifting sanctions doesn’t mean giving up on monitoring or obstructing the country’s nuclear program. Where a diplomatic solution cannot be found, credible military options remain available — interdicting illicit Iranian trade, for example, or even targeted strikes or hacks of Iranian military facilities. The country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps can still be treated as a rogue actor and be directly confronted in its attempts to secure sensitive military technology. This would be real “maximum pressure,” well justified as preventive action. After all, Iran may choose to violate its commitments to the Non-Proliferation Treaty — especially if it withdraws from it, as it has threatened to do.
Engagement and hedging can go hand in hand. Israel has watched as the same countries it has reconciled with, partially in the name of confronting Iran — Saudi Arabia and the UAE — now reconcile with its mortal enemy. Yet Israel’s overwhelming priority is Iran’s nuclear program, and it would gladly continue covert operations to prevent it. Indeed, Israel and the UAE are jointly developing unmanned anti-submarine vessels that could counter Iran in the Gulf waters.
This stratagem has the added benefit of opening the mostly young Iranian population to greater exchange with their Arab neighbors and the West. I vividly recall an entire week of my visit to Tehran spent primarily with youth, who impressed me with their plucky ability to navigate around oppression. In no other country I have visited has the gap between regime and public been so yawning: The ordinary Iranians I met viewed their own regime with far greater suspicion than they do the West.
Under a connectivity strategy, quality investment in Iran would rise, oil prices would sink and Chinese influence would be diluted. New commercial and social — and eventually political — power centers could eventually arise in Iran, challenging a theocracy that would no longer have a “Great Satan” to rail against.
Iran’s regime wants sanctions lifted and it wants the bomb. A new strategy can give it the former while still preventing the latter. It can also empower constituencies vested in global integration to challenge the current regime from within. The Biden administration is soberly aware that sanctions won’t upend Iran’s regime, so long as Russia, China, Turkey and other countries provide it with lifelines. A grand bargain with Iran is hardly assured, but shaking things up would be a wiser course than a nuclear Iran permanently allied with China and Russia.
North Korea: Getting The Sequencing Right
Much more so than Iran, North Korea is almost entirely dependent on China for its economic sustenance, though COVID-19 has made the country’s already acute destitution even more severe. It recently reopened its border rail link with China (where satellite images suggest exports have bypassed UN sanctions). But with trade and tourism heavily restricted due to the ongoing pandemic, such moves amount to a placebo. North Korea’s recent hypersonic missile tests can also be read as a cry for help — but from a regime that faces little risk of collapse, no matter how hard one might wish for it.
The Trump administration’s charm offensive on the Kim regime, including summits in Singapore and Hanoi, failed to take at face value the logical sequence of steps that could lead to a more productive dynamic with North Korea. Pyongyang — and other relevant Asian capitals, not least Seoul — accept that Kim will not give up nuclear weapons before a formal declaration of the end of the Korean War and the launch of talks toward peaceful reunification. Washington should understand this, too.
Recently, China and Russia have been pushing for North Korean sanctions relief at the UN on humanitarian grounds, but by now Kim must have realized that neither country cares to deliver the modernization he craves. As with Iran, the U.S. could turn the tables by agreeing to lift sanctions and push for normalization. This has been the approach that successive governments in Seoul have wished for, as well, because they see the North as an intractable challenge best dealt with through de-escalation and engagement.
But engagement doesn’t mean appeasement. Concrete steps toward a peace treaty could be made conditional on material demilitarization of the border. Other mutual confidence-building measures could include lifting sanctions on North Korean officials and establishing liaison offices and embassies — but all of these steps must be contingent on improvements in human rights. In a nearly famine-stricken country, such steps amount to more than mere gestures.
On my visit to the Hermit Kingdom a decade ago, I had to hand over my mobile phone, which was wrapped in a plastic bag (along with my passport), only to be returned after a week’s unoffensive behavior. I met a mid-level executive from Egypt’s Orascom telecom, which was installing the country’s 3G mobile network (which was subsequently, and unsurprisingly, nationalized just as the company sought to expatriate its profits).
Today the country is awash in mobile phones, and ordinary North Koreans can, at great risk, access K-Pop and “Squid Game.” Even as the government surveils all through its new telecom giant, KoryoLink, it is losing its information monopoly. Despite having far less access to the world, the North Koreans I met were not brainwashed. One mother at a crafts fair lamented that her son was selected to participate in the spectacular Mass Games propaganda events, as he would be held back in school; she’d rather he do his math homework. Those we spoke with expressed a desire for exchange with the South.
South Korea knows precisely how to invest in the North, having participated in special economic zones such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex on their border. Expanding this manufacturing activity would not only be a cost-competitive way to boost Korean industry and exports, but further investments in the country’s mineral and agricultural sectors would also enhance the peninsula’s self-sufficiency.
North Korea is a declared, if unrecognized, nuclear power. The U.S. is rightly cynical about the Kim regime’s intentions, but serious negotiations are preferable to enabling it to become a fully-fledged nuclear power with ICBMs aimed at American soil. The question for the U.S., Japan and allied powers, then, is whether North Korea remains a hostile state, hostage to China and Russia, or whether it can be peacefully reunited with South Korea to produce another important counterweight to China in a region wary of its rise.
Russia: Toward Constructive Deterrence
Russia’s covert seizure of Crimea in 2014 shocked the world, but its current overt troop movements on the Ukrainian border and in the Black Sea remind that Russian ambitions extend beyond tactical gains. Its grand strategy seeks nothing less than establishing and codifying territorial shifts from the Baltics through the Caucasus and sowing dissent within and between Western nations. Russia’s aggressive naval patrols stretch from the Baltic Sea and Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan, and its interventions have shaped the local power balance in Libya and Syria. From poisoning opposition figures to hacking foreign governments and invading neighbors, nothing is off the table for Putin’s Russia — despite years of sanctions that have collapsed the ruble’s value and cost the economy $350 billion of lost economic growth.
Russia is economically robust and technologically capable enough to have become more self-reliant in key sectors. In this sense, sanctions led to sharper focus toward essential goals. At the same time, with oil and gas prices rebounding and both Europe and China dependent on Russian hydrocarbon exports, Russia can continue to finance its geopolitical adventurism. The Biden administration scuttled sanctions on German companies involved in the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline as a nod to Germany’s former chancellor, Angela Merkel, but it inevitably benefits Russia’s gas behemoth as well. Meanwhile, Russia and China are moving toward opening a second major gas pipeline southward from Siberia, further deepening the Sino-Russian embrace.
Russia has been playing its weak hand strongly, converging with China on arms deals, energy trade, and Belt and Road infrastructure projects, while opportunistically poking at the West — for example, by ferrying Arab and Afghan migrants to the Baltic borders. Along the way, climate change has accelerated Russia’s quest to be the leading Arctic power — with sizable military and especially naval assets dedicated to the region — and an agricultural powerhouse. In 2021, Russia was the world’s top wheat exporter.
But COVID and climate change may also change Russia’s future circumstances in ways that create opportunities for the West. Despite being the first country to have developed a COVID vaccine (Sputnik V), Russia’s vaccination rate still hovers around 50%. Far more grim are the country’s COVID mortality figures, which, at an estimated 600,000 coronavirus-related deaths, are by far the highest in Europe.
In 2020, Russia lost more people to various maladies or emigration than it had in the previous 15 years. Putin has publicly confessed that the country’s precipitous population decline “haunts” him. It also desperately lacks the resources to adapt to a hotter climate, with parts of Siberia warming 2.5 times faster than the rest of the world and the permafrost that covers 65% of Russia’s territory rapidly thawing. In 2021, Siberia’s nearly 200 forest fires were bigger than those in the entire rest of the world combined.
The U.S. and Europe should consider several approaches to working with Russia today that set the stage for easing post-Putin Russia out of its fatal embrace of China. Already weary of inviting in more Chinese workers and investors, Russia has sought to lure Russian-speaking Uzbeks and others from former Soviet states into its economy, and it is considering inviting more Indian agricultural workers into the country. In late 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief guest at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. As frameworks such as the Quad develop to bring like-minded states together, a common Russia strategy should be high on the agenda.
Russia will also need assistance to confront its demographic and ecological reckoning. Perhaps the only way that is palatable to both Europe and Russia would be greater freedom of movement for Russians who seek to study and work in the EU. While European governments use visa restrictions as a source of leverage on Russia, they actually need Russian tourists and students to rejuvenate their hospitality and education sectors. Meanwhile, less politicized people-to-people ties might attract more Europeans to work and invest in Russia, stimulating its economy, raising its productivity and perhaps leading to higher intermarriage and birth rates.
Across Russia’s Far East, I’ve met officials and administrators who want to recruit construction workers, farmers and students from other Asian countries, even suggesting that Russian universities should start teaching in English to compete for Asian talent. This is the pragmatic way that Russians who actually govern the vast country think about its future, rather than the xenophobic vitriol one hears from the Kremlin.
After their early December call, Biden stated that he would convene key NATO allies to discuss accommodating Russia’s concerns. One option is to take NATO membership for Ukraine off the table — but only if Russia withdraws troops from the border and does something to quiet pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. If it does not, the West can and should ramp up arms sales to Ukraine, including anti-tank missiles, patrol boats and drones.
As with Iran and North Korea, the West must confront Russia at every turn to deter its military forays. But that does not mean it cannot seek constructive engagement in areas where Russia might prefer Western partnerships to Chinese ones. The alternative is an increasingly united Russian and Chinese front.
A Grand Strategy Of Connectivity
China’s grand strategy is as much about advancing its connectivity as modernizing its military. Its checkbook diplomacy thwarts Western soft power at every turn. If the West is serious about not ceding any more ground, it needs to offer real alternatives. As the U.S. girds for a new Cold War with China, its strategy must resemble that era’s: winning countries over through incentives ranging from trade and investment to immigration and education. China puts its money where its mouth is. The West must do the same.
As with the Obama administration after Bush’s tenure, Biden’s team sees itself as the reinstated guardians of global freedom. But make no mistake that friend and foe alike are less than impressed with Biden’s big talk and small action. The Biden administration’s democracy summit hardly made Iran, Russia and North Korea quiver.
Such gatherings do nothing to undermine China’s long-term strategic embrace of dangerous regimes. Passive pursuit of modest diplomatic aims represents little more than a stale status quo while time slips away. Even worse, hostility will only rise as proxy skirmishes break out and Iran, North Korea and Russia all augment their already formidable cyber-hacking capabilities. With Western firms frozen out of the Iranian market, China-based Huawei is the frontrunner to construct Iran’s 5G network and is already underway with North Korea’s. U.S. sanctions cannot stop these developments. On the contrary, isolated countries have no choice but to turn to China, elevating its influence in the geopolitical marketplace.
As I have observed from my travels in all three countries, Iran, Russia and North Korea are societies with enormous gaps between the regime and the people. Diplomatic openness helps blow that gap apart even further. The West can’t demonstrate its appeal to more than 80 million mostly young Iranians by closing off their access to it — it would be better to give them a choice. In countries where elections don’t matter, the most important right is the opportunity to vote with one’s feet.
Russia, Iran and North Korea are also nationalistic states whose proud identity can be weaponized against Chinese neo-mercantilism. They are in China’s orbit, but don’t want to be its exclusive satellites. They all seek sovereign, rather than colonial, futures.
This is why offering enhanced connectivity to these states is not a Hail Mary, but common sense. If given the chance, they will cleverly seek to multi-align and hedge against excessive dependence on China. The West, then, should not hold what could be multifaceted relations hostage to a single issue. Russia, Iran and North Korea do not want to become anything other than fuller versions of their sovereign selves. They will not become like us, but engagement can minimize their harm to us.