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The Big Picture

25 May 2009 16:59No Comments

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An evolving geopolitical landscape: U.S., Iran, Russia and Central Asia

By REZA AKHLAGHI in Toronto

[TEHRAN BUREAU] Iran's geographic position situates it uniquely in Central Asia, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea region. Therefore, in formulating a foreign policy, post-revolutionary Iran has looked after its national interest in the region, while at the same time positioning itself to become a major player in both the existing and emerging energy chess game. Some analysts argue that this approach by Iran is part of a grand vision aimed at developing Iranian hegemony.

The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations for three decades now. Locked in a virtual state of cold war, they have each tried to contain the other in every geographic articulation where the two have vital interests. The rivalry between the two countries has been complex in Central Asia as well. Iran's energy resources, and a recent spike in instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have prompted policy makers and analysts to play closer attention to rivalry between U.S. and Iran.

After Russia, Iran sits on the world's second-largest known reserves of natural gas (an estimated 940 trillion cubic feet with upside potential for discoveries of more deposits). The country also has the second-largest proven oil reserves after Saudi Arabia (an estimated 131 billion barrels). Iran's long-standing experience in the energy sector and its grand geo-political goals prompt it to pay enormous attention to Central Asia's largely untapped energy resources. Iran's strategic imperatives in Central Asia can be summarized as follows:

-- To develop a stable and lucrative market for Iranian products as a means to expand trade and increase political and economic influence;

-- To secure transport of energy resources (those in the Caspian region in particular) to Europe and China via Iran's northwest and to the Persian Gulf in the south;

-- To secure political stability free of religious extremism; and

-- To reduce American influence by investing in the region's infrastructure, social and cultural projects

Iran is also a member of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), which includes Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Central Asian states of Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. ECO's chief objective is to advance trade and expand economic relations among member states. Iran is pragmatic in its relations here, both taking into account and overlooking its Islamic and revolutionary ideology. This approach depends on a region's ethnic, social and religious make-up. Iran's pragmatism in Central Asia has articulated itself in the country's efforts to ensure regional stability by investing in infrastructure projects, preventing religious fundamentalism that would destabilize the young republics, and renewing its cultural ties to the region.

Iranian investment in the region includes railway projects; construction of multi-lane highways connecting the newly independent states to bordering Iranian provinces; and the construction of large hydroelectric power plants, to name a few. These efforts, combined with Iran's continued cold-war style relationship with Washington, have served to further cement Tehran's ties to Moscow.

Iran & Russia

The freedom of religious expression conferred to the newly independent states of Central Asia has raised concerns in the West and neighboring states about the potential rise in militant Islam. The Iranian leadership has been cognizant of this potential rise and how it can be detrimental to its strategic interests as well as those of Russia. The latter remains Iran's sole provider of nuclear technology and one of its major suppliers of weapons systems. Russian fears of militant Islam have been compounded by the resurgence of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and their potential spillover effect in the mostly Muslim states of Central Asia. The bitter enmity between Iran and the Taliban has further motivated Iran to stop the militant group from achieving its strategic goals; so Iran's efforts here play into Russian interests in the region.

Another component beneficial to Russia's national interest has been continued Iranian-American hostility, which Moscow has deftly utilized to further advance its economic ties with Tehran. These advantages are evident in Moscow's continued assistance of Iran's nuclear energy program -- and transfer of arms to Tehran, as exemplified by continued negotiations over the purchase and delivery of highly advanced S-300 air defense systems. Moreover, along with China, Russia has worked to delay or soften U.S. and EU proposals for tougher sanctions against Iran in the United Nations.

Russia's relationship with Iran, however, is not always driven by mutual benefit. Moscow is concerned about potential developments in Central Asia vis-a-vis growing Iranian influence. Moscow would like to be involved in their facilitation or prevention. Areas of particular concern to Russia include the following:

-- Conflict involving Iran, U.S., and Israel. This could widen and destabilize Central Asia, particularly if a Central Asian state is used as a launching pad against Iran;

-- U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, which could lead to Russia's isolation both in the Middle East and Central Asia;

-- Iran's emerging role as a major supplier of oil and gas to Europe via Iran's western provinces and shipment of energy from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf

U.S. & Iran

Shortly after Central Asian states gained their independence from Soviet rule, Iran, under former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, forged diplomatic ties with the newly independent states and offered trade and investment in their ailing, decrepit infrastructure. Since then, Iranian investment in infrastructure has been concurrent with the creation of regional free trade zones, which have given these former Soviet states access to Iran's large market. Today in Central Asia Iranian products are easily recognized and accepted by consumers due to centuries-old cultural ties between their respective countries and Iran.

The U.S., under the first Bush administration, was as quick as Iran to recognize the newly independent states. In addition to the importance it attached to the region's vast oil and natural gas resources, Washington was concerned about Iran's influence and its Shiite ideology. But similar to other parts of the Muslim world, Shiites remain a minority in Central Asia with the exception of Azerbaijan, where Shiites make up seventy percent of the population. The United States sent James Baker, then the Secretary of State, to open embassies in the Central Asian republics and then started to consult with Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia to prevent the newly independent republics from falling under Iran's political sway.

Turkey became particularly active due to its linguistic affinity with these states; its long secular tradition continue to be a source of consternation to Iran's clerical establishment. Most Central Asian republics speak Turkic languages. An exception is Tajikistan, where Dari, a Persian dialect used in northern parts of Afghanistan, is spoken. The Turkish leadership was pushed to develop new markets, strengthen cultural ties, and use every opportunity to take market share away from Iran.

An evolving geo-political landscape

Since the early part of this decade, the strategic picture in Central Asia has changed significantly due to America's 'war on terror' and the subsequent involvement of Central Asian states. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan was toppled, to the great advantage of Iran, opening the way for Iran to expand its influence in Afghanistan, and by extension, in Central Asia. Because of Afghanistan's central role in the spread of narcotics and the recent ascend of the Taliban in the region, Iran has spread its influence further through significant investment in Afghan infrastructure projects. Understandably, Central Asian states have become equally concerned about recent developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan and their impact on their own stability. These concerns have drawn these states to forge closer ties with Tehran and its anti-Taliban stance.

Iran shares a porous 1,600 kilometer border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. These borders have been central stage in Iran's long war on drugs which has cost Tehran billions of dollars and thousands of the lives of its security forces, who regularly battle well-armed smugglers. For this reason, Iran has been constructing a wall along Pakistan's border. The wall's construction is also believed to be an attempt at controlling the movements of Sunni militants with ties to Taliban and Al-Qaida.

The developments listed above have made it increasingly clear that Iran and the U.S. have common interests in the stability of the region. As such, it would make sense for the U.S. to accept more Iranian influence in Central Asia in exchange for much-needed stability.

Iran is in a position to further its influence in the region by allowing a supply route to NATO (Iranian officials have said it would have to be of a non-lethal nature). However, Iran is worried that developing new ties with NATO might have repercussions for its relations with the Russia, its sole partner in Iran's nuclear program. Therefore, Iran needs to walk a fine line in order to meet its strategic goals and at the same time keep its alliance with Russia intact. This is where a grand bargain between the U.S. and Iran comes in.

The idea of a grand bargain has been floated in policy circles, particularly after it became clear to the U.S. and its European allies that Iran wields significant influence over events in post-Saddam Iraq and post-Taliban Afghanistan and that Iran will not abandon its efforts in developing nuclear technology (efforts that the West deems as a cover for developing nuclear weapons). The term refers to a comprehensive approach by both countries to resolve all of their bilateral differences in one conclusive package. Such a development would undoubtedly include a clear understanding and acceptance of each country's role in the security and prosperity of Central Asia. This is particularly crucial given the growing instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Without positively engaging Iran and taking into account the country's security interests, the Obama administration will most likely face an increasingly bumpy road in its efforts to solve its ongoing or mounting problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, Arab-Israeli peace, energy security in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. Therefore, striking a 'grand bargain' in the national interest of both the United States and Iran should be more seriously pursued in any upcoming negotiations.

The SCO Effect and Iran's Security

Within the same contexts of a 'grand bargain' and Central Asian geo-politics, there is another front that the U.S. will have to pay more attention to in the coming months: Iran's role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the country's potential accession to it.

The SCO was founded in 2001 and currently includes six member states: Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In 2005 Iran was accorded observer status in SCO. For Iran, accession to SCO is a buffer to the development of any Western-led (U.S. in particular) alliance against Tehran, be it of an economic or military nature. It also ensures Iran's economic interests as the country, especially as it taps into the region's immense energy reserves that stretch all the way to China. Therefore, it is easy to see why Washington and its allies would like to see Iran's exclusion in the SCO and their interest in the development of energy routes that would exclude Iran and Russia.

As the U.S. leadership is pulled from multiple sides by powerful lobby groups in the formulation of a coherent Iran strategy, one wonders if Washington will eventually choose the path of confrontation or gradual rapprochement.

Given its untapped resources and its physical and cultural vicinity to Iran, Central Asia is poised to play an increasingly crucial role in the emerging geo-strategic game of hydro carbon based energy. This will have long-lasting implications not only for the Iranian-Russian-American nexus, but also for all the other players involved, including China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. What is unfolding in Central Asia and the Af-Pak region is likely only the opening act of a Shahnameh-like epic.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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