Playing Chess With Iran

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Since the British imperial moment of the late nineteenth century, the image of much of the world — especially Central Asia and the Middle East — as but a set of pawns in a “Great Game” on a geopolitical “chessboard” where the great powers of whatever era are at play has been a commonplace. Many have died in one version or another of this “game,” which, if you don’t happen to be in an office in London or Washington or Moscow thinking strategic thoughts, has always had such a distinctly unplayful aspect to it, but the image persists.

In our time, that “chessboard” was revived by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Carter, who made it the title of a 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard, American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives. It has since been picked up by the Bush administration whose key officials, thinking such grand thoughts, had little doubt that, a decade after the Soviet collapse, the U.S. would have its way in the energy-rich former SSRs of Central Asia. Now, with Iraq acting as the geopolitical equivalent of a black hole, sucking all U.S. attention its way, other powers turn out to be capable of playing the game too; and new, still not fully coherent power blocs, are slowly coalescing to thwart Washington’s desires.

As historian Immanuel Wallerstein wrote recently about the leftward shift in Latin America, State Department officials “are quite aware that their voice is no longer heard with the respect and fear it once was.” Just this week in Asia, where perhaps the greatest tectonic shifts have been taking place, the energy-rich Russians and the energy-eager Chinese are hosting a meeting of a five year-old group, the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO), which we ordinarily hear little about. But it’s no less significant for that. To it belong the coming power in Asia and what’s left of the fallen superpower of the Cold War era as well as the ‘stans of Central Asia that were once its possessions.

Representatives of other countries are also in attendance in Shanghai, trying to detect the shape of the New Asia and of our new world of scarcer energy resources — the President of Pakistan, an important Indian oil and gas minister, and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is but one of many key figures in the world of energy resources — including that close American ally, the Saudi king — who are increasingly migrating toward Beijing (or Shanghai) for audiences. Ahmadinejad is eager to move Iran from observer status to membership in the Shanghai organization.

Not welcome: the United States. For the last two years, SCO members have even been conducting joint military exercises and they may someday become “a corral of countries capable of countering Western influence.” After all, the organization’s founding charter calls for it to be the foundation stone of “a new international political and economic order.”

Some of this is still little more than wishful thinking from a group of disparate nations with often contradictory needs and goals. But it has certainly rattled the Bush administration and the SCO has lately been termed an “OPEC with [nuclear] bombs” — on the OPEC front, at least, that’s quite an exaggeration. Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation (a neocon hotbed) recently called the SCO, “a Eurasian powerhouse with an increasingly strong military component.” Tied down endlessly in Iraq and irritated by Iran’s nuclear pretensions, Bush administration officials are increasingly worried about the way the world is trending — and lately, they’ve been getting more pugnacious about it. Michael Klare, author of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum (which anyone who cares to understand the Great Game of Oil must have in their library), takes the Iranian nuclear dispute out of the narrow constraints in which it is always found in our press, connects the necessary dots, and offers us a seldom encountered view of our world. ~ Tom

The Tripolar Chessboard:
Putting Iran in Great Power Context

By Michael T. Klare

For months, the American press and policy-making elite have portrayed the crisis with Iran as a two-sided struggle between Washington and Tehran, with the European powers as well as Russia and China playing supporting roles. It is certainly true that George Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are the leading protagonists in this drama, with each making inflammatory statements about the other in order to whip up public support at home. But an informed reading of recent international diplomacy surrounding the Iranian crisis suggests that another equally fierce — and undoubtedly more important — struggle is also taking place: a tripolar contest between the United States, Russia, and China for domination of the greater Persian Gulf/Caspian Sea region and its mammoth energy reserves.

When it comes to grand strategy, top Bush administration officials have long attempted to maintain American dominance of the “global chessboard” (as they see it) by diminishing the influence of the only other significant players, Russia and China. This classic geopolitical contest began with a flourish in early 2001, when the White House signaled the provocative course it planned to follow by unilaterally repudiating the U.S.-Russian Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and announcing new high-tech arms sales to Taiwan, which China still considers a breakaway province. After 9/11, these initial signals of antagonism were toned down in order to secure Russian and Chinese assistance in fighting the war on terror, but in recent months the classic chessboard version of great-power politics has again come to dominate strategic thinking in Washington.

Advancing the Strategic Pawns

This resurgence was perhaps first signaled on May 4, when Vice President Dick Cheney went to Lithuania, the former Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), to lambaste the Russian government at a pro-democracy confab. He accused Kremlin officials of “unfairly and improperly” restricting the rights of Russian citizens and of using the country’s abundant oil and gas supplies as “tools of intimidation [and] blackmail” against its neighbors. He also condemned Moscow for attempting to “monopolize the transportation” of oil and gas supplies in Eurasia — a direct challenge to U.S. interests in the Caspian region.

The next day, Cheney flew to the former SSR of Kazakhstan in oil and natural gas rich Central Asia, where he urged that country’s leaders to ship their plentiful oil through a U.S.-sponsored pipeline to Turkey and the Mediterranean rather than through Russian-controlled pipelines to Europe.

Then, on June 3, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld weighed in on China, telling an audience of Asian security officials that Beijing’s “lack of transparency” with respect to its military spending “understandably causes concerns for some of its neighbors.” These comments were accompanied by publicly announced plans for increased U.S. spending on sophisticated weapons systems liked the F-22A Air-superiority Fighter and Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines that could only be useful in a big-power war for which there were just two candidates, Russia and China.

Like Russia, China has also aroused Washington’s ire over its aggressive energy policies — but in China’s case over its increasing attempts to nail down oil and gas supplies for its burgeoning, energy-poor economy. In Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, its most recent report on Chinese military capabilities issued on May 23, the Pentagon decried China’s use of arms transfers and other military aid as inducements to countries like Iran and Sudan to gain access to energy reserves in the Middle East and Africa, and for acquiring warships “that could serve as the basis for a force capable of power projection” into the oil-producing regions of the planet.

There’s nothing new about the Bush administration’s urge to roll back Russia and “contain” China. Such thinking was famously articulated in the “Defense Planning Guidance for 1994—99,” written by then Undersecretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz and leaked to the press in early 1992. “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union,” the document famously declared. This remains the principal aim of U.S. strategy today, but it has now been joined by another key objective: to ensure that the United States — and no one else — controls the energy supplies of the Persian Gulf and adjacent areas of Asia.

When first articulated in the “Carter Doctrine” of 1980, this precept was directed exclusively at the Gulf; now, under President Bush, it has been extended to the Caspian Sea basin as well — a consequence of rising oil prices, fears of diminishing supplies, and the vast oil and natural gas deposits believed to be housed there. To assert U.S. influence in this region, once part of the Soviet Union, the White House has been setting up military bases, supplying arms, and conducting a sub-rosa war of influence with both Moscow and Beijing.

Knight’s moves in the Gulf

It is in this context that the current struggle over Iran must be viewed. Iran occupies a pivotal position on the tripolar chessboard. Geographically, it is the only nation that abuts both the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, positioning Tehran to play a significant role in the two areas of greatest energy concern to the United States, Russia, and China. Iran also abuts the strategic Strait of Hormuz — the narrow waterway from the Gulf to the Indian Ocean through which about one-quarter of the world’s oil moves every day. As a result, if Washington ever lifted its trade embargo on Iran, its territory could be used as the most obvious transit route for the delivery of oil and natural gas from the Caspian countries to global markets, especially in Europe and Japan.

As the most populous and industrialized nation in the Persian Gulf basin, Iran has always played a significant role in that region’s affairs — a situation that has often troubled neighbors like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (which invaded Iran in 1980, beginning a bloody eight-year war that ended in an exhausted stalemate). In recent years, Iran has also gained regional clout as the center of the Shia branch of Islam. Long despised and abused by Sunnis, the Shia are now in the ascendancy in neighboring Iraq and are gaining greater visibility in Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, and the Shia-populated areas of Saudi Arabia nearest to Kuwait (where crucial Saudi oil fields lie) in what is starting to be thought of as the “Shia crescent.”

At present, Iran’s military capabilities are not impressive — a result, in part, of the U.S. embargo on sales of spare parts to the Iranian air force (largely equipped with American aircraft during the reign of the former Shah). But Iran has acquired submarines and other modern weapons from Russia and has developed a ballistic missile capability — probably with help from North Korea and China. Were it ever to succeed in acquiring nuclear weapons, it would indeed become a formidable regional power, possibly calling into question America’s projected military domination of the Gulf. It is for this reason more than any other that Washington is so determined to block its acquisition of nuclear arms.

While both Russia and China claim to be opposed to such a development, they certainly wouldn’t view it with the same degree of dread and fury as does the Bush administration — a consideration that has no doubt given added impetus to its drive to block Iran’s nuclear efforts.

Above all, of course, Iran possesses the world’s second largest reserves of petroleum — an estimated 132 billion barrels (11.1% of the world’s known reservoirs); and also the second largest reserves of natural gas — 971 trillion cubic feet (15.3% of known reservoirs). The Iranians may possess less oil than the Saudis and less gas than the Russians, but no other country controls so much of both of these vital resources. Many states including China, India, Japan, and the European Union countries already depend on Iran for significant shares of their petroleum supplies; and China and the others have been busy negotiating deals to develop, and then draw on, its mammoth natural gas reserves. Iran will not only remain a major energy supplier, but also one of the few that has the capacity — with the right kind of investment — to substantially boost its output in the years ahead when many other sources of oil and gas will have gone into decline.

In 1953, after the CIA helped oust Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who had nationalized the Iranian oil industry, American energy firms came to play a commanding role in Iran’s oil industry with the blessing of the Shah. This remained true until he fell in the Khomeini revolution of 1979. They would no doubt love to return to Iran, if given the opportunity; but Washington’s hostility to the Islamic regime in Tehran now precludes their reentry. Under Executive Order 12959, signed by President Clinton in 1995 and renewed by President Bush, all U.S. companies are barred from operating in Iran. But should “regime change” ever occur there — the implied objective of U.S. policy — this Executive Order would be lifted and U.S. firms would be able to do what Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and other firms are now doing, exploiting Iranian energy supplies. Just how much energy figures into the administration’s desire for political change in Iran cannot be fully judged from the outside, but given the close ties Bush, Cheney, and other key administration officials have with the U.S. energy industry, it is hard to believe that it doesn’t play a highly significant one.

For China’s energy plans, Iran’s “pariah” status has certainly been a boon. Because U.S. firms are barred from investing and European companies face American economic penalties if they do so (under the congressionally mandated Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996), Chinese companies have had a relatively open playing field as they shop for promising energy deals like the $50 billion one signed in 2004 to develop the massive Yadavaran gas field and to buy 10 million tons of Iranian liquefied natural gas (LNG) annually for 25 years.

Russia, unlike energy-desperate China, is practically drowning in oil and natural gas, but has an abiding interest in not seeing energy-rich neighboring Iran fall under the sway of the U.S. and, as a major supplier of nuclear equipment and technology, also has a special interest in lending a profitable hand to Iran’s energy establishment. The Russians are completing the construction of a civilian nuclear reactor at Bushehr in southwest Iran, a $1 billion project, and are eager to sell more reactors and other nuclear energy systems to the Iranians. This, of course, is a source of considerable frustration to Washington, which seeks to isolate Tehran and prevent it from receiving any nuclear technology. (Although an entirely civilian project, Bushehr would no doubt be on the target list for any American air attack intended to cripple Iran’s nuclear capacity.) Nevertheless, the head of the Russian nuclear energy agency, Sergei Kiriyenko, announced in February, “We don’t see any political obstacles to completing Bushehr” and bringing it on line “in the swiftest possible period.”

Given what is at stake, it is easy to see why the United States, Russia, and China all have such an abiding interest in the outcome of the Iranian crisis. For Washington, the replacement of the clerical government in Tehran with a U.S.-friendly regime would represent a colossal, threefold accomplishment: It would eliminate a major threat to America’s continued dominance of the Persian Gulf, open up the world’s number two oil-and-gas supplier to American energy firms, and greatly diminish Chinese and Russian influence in the greater Gulf region.

From a geopolitical perspective, there could be no greater win on the global chessboard today. Even if Washington failed to achieve regime change but, using its military might, crippled Iran’s nuclear establishment without sustaining major damage itself in Iraq or elsewhere, this would still be a significant geopolitical win, exposing the inability of either Russia or China to counter American moves of this sort. (This would only work, of course, if the Bush administration was able to contain the inevitable fallout from such action, whether increased ethnic strife in Iraq or a sharp spike in oil prices.)

Not surprisingly, Moscow and Beijing are doing everything in their power to prevent any American geopolitical triumph in Iran or Central Asia from occurring, though without provoking an outright breach in relations with Washington — and so endangering complex economic ties with the United States.

As this grand geopolitical “Great Game” unfolds, with the potential economic well-being of the planet at stake, all sides are trying to line up allies wherever possible, using whatever diplomatic levers are available. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. position in both the Persian Gulf and Central Asia has noticeably deteriorated. At present, the Bush administration’s greatest weakness remains the schism in U.S.-European relations created by the unilateral U.S. invasion itself. Because the Europeans felt betrayed by that action, they have largely refrained from helping out either in the counterinsurgency effort in Iraq or in funding the reconstruction of the country. This has imposed a ghastly and mounting cost on the United States. Fearing a repetition of this fiasco in Iran, the White House has clearly decided to let the diplomatic process play out on the Iranian crisis in a way they refused to do when it came to Saddam’s Iraq. So, within limits, they are letting the Europeans set the diplomatic game plan for “resolving” the nuclear dispute.

This, in turn, has given Moscow and Beijing their one obvious option for averting what could be a geopolitical disaster for them in Iran: the potential use of a Security Council veto to block the imposition of U.S.-threatened sanctions on Iran under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which could legitimize not only such sanctions but also the use of force against any state deemed to pose a threat to international peace. The Europeans want to prevent such a vote from occurring — knowing that any “failure” at the UN might only strengthen the arguments of the hawks in Washington who want to move unilaterally and by force against Iran. As a result, they are listening to the Russians and Chinese who insist on relying on diplomacy — and nothing else — to resolve the crisis, however long that takes.

“Russia believes that the sole solution for this problem will be based on the work of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency],”said the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, in March. Very similar statements have been issued by Chinese officials, who have expressly ruled out force as an acceptable solution to the crisis. In February, for instance, the Chinese Ambassador to the IAEA, Wu Hailongon, called on “all relevant parties to exercise restraint and patience” and “refrain from any action that might further complicate or deteriorate the situation.”

Checkmate for Whom?

That all key parties see this unfolding crisis as part of a larger geopolitical struggle is beyond doubt. For example, the Russians and Chinese have begun to create something of a counter-bloc to the United States in Central Asia, using the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a vehicle. Originally established by Moscow and Beijing to combat ethnic separatism in Central Asia, the SCO — now including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan — has become more like a regional security organization, a sort of mini-NATO (but also an anti-NATO). Clearly, the Russians and the Chinese hope that it will help them turn back U.S. influence in the energy-rich former Islamic territories of the old Soviet Union, and in this it has shown — in Uzbekistan, at least — some signs of realpolitik success. At a recent meeting of the organization, the current members went so far as to invite Iran to join as an observer — to the obvious displeasure of Washington. “It strikes me as passing strange,” Secretary Rumsfeld opined recently in Singapore, “that one would want to bring into an organization that says it’s against terrorism… the leading terrorist nation in the world: Iran.”

At the same time, the United States has sought to line up its own allies — including south Asian wildcard, India — for a possible military confrontation with Iran. Even though Bush insists that he’s prepared to rely on diplomacy to resolve the crisis, Pentagon officials have sought the assistance of NATO in planning air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. In March, for example, the head of NATO’s Airborne Early Warning and Control Force, General Axel Tuttelmann, indicated that his force was ready to assist American forces at the very onset of a U.S. attack on Iran. The German press has also reported that former CIA director Peter Goss visited Turkey late last year to request that country’s assistance in conducting air strikes against Iran.

Despite continuing calls for diplomacy to prevail, all sides in this wider struggle recognize that the current situation cannot last forever. For one thing, the shaky position of the Bush administration — politically at home, in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in its attempts to secure geopolitical advantage in Central Asia, and economically at a global level — continues to develop fissures and to embolden those countries, Iran included, which might frustrate its desires. To top Bush officials, still dreaming of global energy hegemony, the situation may seem increasingly perilous, but the window to act may also appear in danger of closing. Their appetite for European, Chinese, or Russian stalling tactics, no less Iranian intransigence, may not be great; and, however much Moscow and Beijing try to persuade the Iranians to back down on nuclear matters, thereby averting American military action, their influence in Tehran may not prove strong enough.

If, in the coming few months, Iran rejects U.S. demands for the complete and permanent termination of its nuclear enrichment activities, the United States will certainly insist on the imposition of sanctions at the UN. If, in turn, the Security Council (with the acquiescence of Russia and China) adopts purely symbolic gestures to no visible effect, Washington will then demand tougher sanctions under Chapter 7; and if either Russia or China vetoes such measures, the Bush administration will almost certainly choose to use military means against Iran, playing out Moscow’s and Beijing’s worst fears.

Russia and China can thus be expected to stretch out the diplomatic process for as long as possible, hoping thereby to make military action by the United States appear illegitimate to the Europeans and others. By the same token, the hawks in Washington will undoubtedly become increasingly impatient with the delays — viewing them as rear-guard strategic moves by Russia and China — and so will push for military action by the end of this year if nothing has been accomplished by then on the diplomatic front.

As the crisis over Iran unfolds, most of the news commentary will continue to focus on the war of words between Washington and Tehran. Political insiders understand, however, that the most significant struggle is the one that remains just out of sight, pitting Washington against Moscow and Beijing in the battle for global influence and energy domination. From this perspective, Iran is just one battlefield — however significant — in a far larger, more long-lasting, and momentous contest.

Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture. Michael T. Klare is the Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum (Owl Books) as well as Resource Wars, The New Landscape of Global Conflict.

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