Iran: A Geopolitical Conundrum

Iran: A Geopolitical Conundrum

This article was originally published in the Global Brief magazine

by Reza Akhlaghi

Political tugs of war, tireless lobbying efforts, a barrage of op-ed pieces vying for public opinion support, not to mention fear-mongering by various interest groups, all point to a long-standing and undeniable reality: dealing with post-revolutionary Iran is a conundrum of considerable proportions.

Case in point par excellence: the seemingly never-ending Iranian nuclear saga, compounded by recent negotiations over sending Iran’s stockpile of its low enriched uranium (LEU) outside of the country. The negotiations, which started in Geneva last October, followed the brouhaha over an ostensibly grand discovery of a new enrichment site near the city of Qom. At present, the five UN Security Council permanent (and nuclear) powers (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France) and Germany are contemplating their next move, further to Iran’s recent announcement that it has no intention of sending its stockpile of LEU out of the country.

As these powers contemplate their next move in confronting Iran in the wake of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) censure of Iran’s nuclear programme, it is important to be cognizant of the complex geopolitical factors that make dealing with Iran such a very intricate affair. In an energy-hungry world, where new and emerging economies become increasingly integrated into the global economy, developing one’s own independent foreign policy and energy security has become a standard practice. Central Asia is one such region, where regional and global powers alike are actively pursuing their own energy security interests. And that is where the new fronts of the new century’s geopolitics are being shaped.

There are two increasingly intertwined factors affecting the geopolitics of global energy: one is energy development, and the other is transport routes for energy delivery. With its geographic vicinity and the ability to offer energy transport routes, Iran has become an integral part of geo-energy rivalries in Central Asia. Iran is therefore destined to play a crucial role in global energy markets, with far-reaching implications for the future of international diplomacy; hence the makings of a diplomatic tug-of-war that has barely begun to make itself felt on the international scene. Iran’s nuclear programme and the debate over whether the country deserves to be the subject of painful sanctions (or even military action) can be analyzed within this context.

So what does this mean for major world powers when it comes to dealing with Iran’s nuclear programme, its increasingly illegitimate leadership and its growing geopolitical clout?

Iran neighbours Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Armenia and, via the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan and Russia. Iran has been actively pursuing its interests in the region, carving out an indispensable role for itself in the region’s economic development. It has also been in direct geopolitical rivalry with the US in the development of Central Asia’s energy resources. With or without Ahmadinejad in power, Iran will continue to pursue its strategic goal of becoming an energy hub.

As part of its greater geo-energy strategy, Iran is actively pursuing a role in the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO). Its goal is accession to full membership in the SCO, and it managed in 2005 to gain observer status. Accession to the SCO is a way of assuring its economic interests as it taps into Central Asia’s immense energy reserves. And, from a security standpoint, SCO membership is seen by Iran as a buffer to the development of any Western-led (in particular, US-led) alliance – economic or military – against Tehran.

One global power that is ready to pump legitimacy into Ahmadinejad’s regime and its geopolitical aspirations is, of course, China. Beijing has been a major player in Central Asia’s energy politics – one that relies on Iran’s role in the region. China is a power on the global stage, developing an increasingly sophisticated economy, while Iran is a regional superpower sitting on a sea of hydrocarbon energy, with grand hegemonic designs. Nearly 45 percent of China’s crude oil imports come from the Middle East. Iran is the second largest oil exporter to China, after Saudi Arabia. In the first half of 2009, Iran provided 15 percent of China’s oil; Saudi Arabia provided 20 percent.

Given its unquenchable thirst for energy and its mega-investments in Iran’s energy sector, China would never wish to see Iran’s strategic role and influence in Central Asia diminished; that is, Beijing is very cognizant of the fact that an Iran in turmoil would translate into increased American influence in Central Asia. It would also mean an end to Iranian investments in Central Asia, and indeed the destabilization of the region. China has a plethora of contracts to both develop and buy Iranian energy. The contracts are worth well over US $150 billion, including China Sinopec’s mega-contract to buy US $100 billion of gas from Iran over the next 20 years.

China is also making significant investments in Central Asia, developing the region’s energy resources, putting in place a lofty transport infrastructure to deliver oil and gas to its westernmost provinces in order to meet its growing energy needs. Part of the transport route, unsurprisingly, involves Iranian and Kazakh oil and gas from the Caspian region. China is in the early stages of building a pipeline of about 3,000 km from the Caspian oil fields across Kazakhstan and into Western China. With the help of Chinese technology, Iran would also pump Caspian oil and gas south into Iran’s existing transport network to be shipped to international markets via the Persian Gulf. This can further Iran’s cause of leadership in both the Middle East and Central Asia. The US, with no direct access to Central Asia, through its allies Turkey and Azerbaijan, is working on its own energy routes to transport Central Asian energy to open markets that mainly bypass Russia and Iran.

However, it is not only the energy companies of China that are having a rave party in the Iranian market; a whole slew of other Chinese companies have active presence in Iran. Take, for instance, the Chinese companies involved in the construction of Tehran’s subway system for a contract worth well over US $600 million. The firms involved in the project are China North Industries (known as NORINCO), China National Technology Import and Export Corp, as well as China International Trust and Investment Corp.
And, despite the more prominent media coverage of Russian cooperation with Iran in the nuclear field, from 1984 to early 2000, China itself provided considerable aid to Iran’s then fledgling nuclear programme. The aid included training of Iranian nuclear scientists, assistance in the construction of new facilities, and sale of hardware. Moreover, China has close ties with Pakistan and an in-depth understanding of America’s unpopularity in that country. It is also constructing huge development projects centred on sea and air transportation, with the goal of transporting Iranian gas. Although China is watching US involvement in the AfPak theater very closely, it will not sit idly in the face of further destabilization of that region should Iran become the latest country to be engulfed in a military confrontation with the West or NATO allies.

The interplay of the above geopolitical factors, combined with Iran’s post-election legitimacy crisis, is what makes Iran the international wild card of 2010.

What about Russia? Well, as the politics of geo-energy indicate, an Iran closely aligned with the West would simply spell a strategic nightmare for Moscow. The Russians will do everything in their power to minimize the odds of such a scenario; hence Moscow’s relentless support of Ahmadinejad and Co. It is in the light of such strategic interests that Moscow and Beijing have been generously transferring advanced missile and air defense technologies to Tehran. They have supported Iran with their veto power in the Security Council – something that has only emboldened Iran in its pursuit of a hegemonic agenda. Recent inclusion of Russia and China in the censuring of Iran’s nuclear programme at the IAEA is by no means an indication of equal support by Moscow and Beijing for tough UN sanctions against Tehran.

From the Russian strategic point of view, an Iran tilting toward the West could practically make the US a neighbouring state in Central Asia – one with the ability to exert enormous influence in shifting the balance of geo-energy rivalry toward the US. The Russians therefore view their close economic and military ties with Iran as strategically critical. The Iranian relationship enables Russia to exert influence in Central Asia with greater ease, without a major US ally in the picture, except Turkey. With the current state of Russo-Iranian military and energy ties, Russia stands a chance to challenge the US in the heart of the Middle East, and together with China in the SCO, present a new global energy block.

As for Turkey – America’s powerful regional ally neighbouring Central Asia – for much of the 1980s and 1990s, Turkey had frosty and tension-ridden relations with Iran. Iran’s clerical theocracy (now a military dictatorship) and Turkish secularism, as two distinct systems of governance, had been consistently at odds over a host of issues, resulting in low levels of bilateral trade and the development of mutual distrust. However, Turkey, under the semi-pro-Islamic government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has forged close economic and diplomatic ties with Tehran, particularly in the field of energy. Turkey has also moved to distance itself from the anti-Iranian camp, as Ankara charts a new strategic vision known as ‘neo-Ottoman,’ which places great importance to Turkey’s relations with the Muslim world (see the November 24th GB web exclusive by Sami Aoun). Based on this vision, Turkey views a stable and prosperous Iran as in its greater strategic interests, which include increased involvement in Central Asia and the carving out of a position in both the development and transport of the region’s energy resources.

For Turkey, therefore, an Iran in chaos is a nightmare. For Turkey has agreed to construct the Tabriz-Erzurum pipeline, which will carry natural gas from Iran to Turkey; Iran remains Turkey’s second biggest source of energy after Russia; and Iran is viewed in Turkish policy circles as a potential strategic replacement for Russian energy.

Policy makers in Moscow – very much similar to their global and regional counterparts in Beijing and Ankara – would consider a Western-led attack on Iran to be a direct assault on their national geo-energy interests. One can imagine what the implications of such an attack would be were Iran granted full accession to the SCO.

The 64,000-dollar question re-emerges: Will Iran be engulfed in a military confrontation with the West; and should this come to pass, who will be dragged into it? One thing is clear: as Iran is set to become the international wild card of 2010, an international tug-of-war is now starting between war- and peace- mongers. Not only will political lives be on the line, but also the actual lives of thousands of ordinary people stretching from Tel Aviv to Tehran.

 

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