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Iran and dreams of a Eurasian diplomatic revolution

July 22, 2011

In the fluid and changing realm of geopolitics, there is a great danger into assuming that any arrangement is permanent because it is present, or rational because it is longstanding. The elevation of history into laws of history, and those into maxims of policy, leaves great opportunities for those who recognize the potential for change, and the ability to see that not all political arrangements are as natural as they may seem. Nevertheless, the eruption of such discontinuity into opportunity for policy change may not arrive on the schedule of those who would hope to exploit it. In the meantime, it is well to think about the potential for such radical changes, and recognize that while many of the principles of geopolitics, war, and strategy may be immutable, their present character is inherently ephemeral.

Persia was a country relatively friendly to the United States. When the idea of an American military presence in the Middle East was a ludicrous notion – indeed, when the very notion of a “Middle East” was finding coinage in the works of Curzon and Mahan – Persia was relatively friendly and open to US economic interests. American business came without fear of gunboats or imperial concessions, unlike the British and Russian empires closer to home. Americans tried to assist in supporting the development of the Persian armed forces as well, though all these efforts were comparatively minor.

By the time of the Pahlavis, the politics of empires had changed. America was on the ascent, Russia was undergoing upheaval, and Britain was in decline. All three collaborated to expel Iran’s pro-Axis Shah and open a lifeline to the embattled USSR. Iran’s new Shah was pro-Western in the new struggle against the Soviet Union, but a coalition of leftists and nationalists under Mossadegh struck fear into Britons and Americans, fearful not just for oil, but for losing a state which abutted both Moscow’s Caucasian and Caspian possessions – and, in the most extreme scenario, one which could provide the Soviets with a warm water port. So the power of the Shah was reaffirmed and Iran was a far more dependable friend of the West – and Israel – than the Arab countries. We now know that the US had seriously considered launching military actions to secure oil fields during the energy crisis of 1973 – not against Iran, but against Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Now, in the wake of 1979, it is the monarchical Arab states which agitate for US military action against Iran, now our most mortal and implacable foe in the Middle East.

History, however, demonstrates that nothing is forever. Internal, regional, and global changes in power politics can upend conventional arrangements. There is little love lost today between Tehran and Washington, which do not even maintain formal diplomatic ties. America is the guarantor of security in the Persian Gulf, and its partners in this task are the Gulf Arab states who see Iran as their greatest enemy. Iran and Israel appear mortal foes, and the specter of an Iranian nuclear bomb strikes fear into the hearts of much of the region’s leadership. The Pasdaran have helped fill the gaping void the US opened in Iraq, and the groups they aid and technology they provide have cost many American lives. Iran is a theocracy in an age of ascendant democracy, a recalcitrant violator of human rights in one which extols them.

Yet there is no reason to think the enmity between the US and Iran can or will endure forever. For the time being, there is neither much incentive nor opportunity for a real change. Yet in the coming decades, some things will. The vast growth of non-OECD Asian fuel demand, likely a doubling by 2030, will result in an increasing push to seek dependable suppliers. Energy security issues will provide both reason and venue for Indo-Chinese competition. Tom Barnett, reviewing an entry from Claremont in his summaries of Wikistrat’s Grand Strategy competition, explained a team playing Pakistan’s forecast of what might be to come:

China will side with the Saudi bloc for three reasons.  First, given Iran’s commitment to its nuclear program, the Iranian-Saudi rivalry favors Pakistan due to Pakistan’s nuclear expertise and its close links with the Saudis.  China, therefore, will not risk alienating both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to appease Iran and India.  Second, the Saudis have larger reserves than the Iranians.  As the global leader in proven reserves, the Saudis are able to remain the chief energy provider into the next 80 years, making them a better long-term bet for the Chinese (the Chinese have also transferred strategic missiles to the Saudis – a level of cooperation not seen with the Saudis and Indians).  Third, geographical considerations come into play in that Afghanistan’s continuing instability closes off its options to act as a reliable pipeline from Iran to China.

One can quibble with the analysis, but the potential for a major change is clear. One of Iran’s primary advantages in the energy sector, especially over Saudi Arabia, is in natural gas. However, China has the options of pursuing purchases from Central Asia or Russia that are simply infeasible, economically or geopolitically, for India. India, on the other hand, will find increasing economic reason to seek Iranian natural gas. From a security standpoint, as well, a Saudi relationship is easier to manage with respect to China’s ally in Pakistan. As American pressure on Pakistan relieves in coming decades, China will reassert itself as Islamabad’s most visible patron. This makes over-reliance on Iran somewhat problematic, since Iranian-Pakistani cooperation, as neighboring states, a risky bet. The warming of relations between Iran and Pakistan, most notable in President Zardari’s visit to Iran, says more about the rapid deterioration of US-Pakistani ties than any major areas of potential cooperation for Iran and Pakistan in the near future. Without the American irritant in Afghanistan, feelings of common cause will probably diminish. Saudi Arabia, then, would be a logical alternative to Iran.

The plausible result – or antecedent – of such an arrangement would be the strengthening of already quite friendly Indo-Iranian ties. Iran can counter against the Sunni Arab Gulf states, from which support to jihadist groups flows into Pakistan. Iran is also close enough that a pipeline – perhaps the Iran-Pakistan-India route, might be able to feed India’s hunger for natural gas. If this proves implausible, Iran is still a geopolitically attractive energy supplier and security partner. It provides a balance against Pakistan far more plausible than Indian clients in Central Asia could provide, and certainly a more reliable energy conduit than the much-ballyhooed TAPI pipeline, both in terms of security and in competition for Central Asian natural gas with China.

Yet would a closer Indo-Iranian rapprochement harm US interests? Washington pushed hard for India to support UNSC resolutions and sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, but Iran’s nuclear program is hardly a threat to India. Iran is the primary security threat to the US in the Persian Gulf, both in terms of support for covert warfare against the US, potential for anti-access operations to close the Strait of Hormuz, and a nuclear wildcard against current US allies. Iranian hegemony, particularly under a nuclear umbrella, would lead to all-out regional war or Iranian hegemony and the implicit subjugation, if not destruction, of Israel.

That Iran would ever launch a nuclear strike on Israel is rather unlikely. Just as Arabian leaderships see Iran as a more serious threat to the state than Israel, Iran is more concerned about its closer neighborhood than the doings of Tel Aviv. Opposing Israeli actions and supporting anti-Israeli groups is an easy way for Iran to compensate for some of its shortcomings in appeal across the Arab world. While popular, Iran would have little to gain by exchanging its current proxy conflict for a hot nuclear war.

Of course, there is the danger of Iran to America’s Arab allies. Their value, however, is not sacrosanct. Indeed, Iran’s emergence from pariah status and expansion of its foreign policy options would allow the US to play Iran off the Arab countries as it did in the past, and wean itself from its uncomfortably close relationship with Arab regimes. Iranian influence in Iraq is primarily a threat to US interests because it threatens the interests of Arab regimes. So too is much of Iran’s other security activity. Yet it is not a given that whatever threatens Arab interests must also threaten US interests. Internalizing this fact for US dealings with Iran would be particularly useful as China gains more and more influence over the Middle East. In a multipolar world, flexibility is strength.

As for the threat of anti-access, it is worth recognizing that the most likely cause for Iran to essentially destroy its own economic viability and provoke its neighbors would be a scenario in which the US and Arab states back Iran into a corner. Indeed, one might wonder why the US would not want to try and reduce its risk exposure to Iranian anti-access capabilities by attempting to bring a greater degree of normality to the US-Iranian relationship and backing away from America’s over-reliance on Arab Gulf states that are so vulnerable to Iranian power. The solution to a rising threat, at a certain point, is not necessarily to double down the most risky dependents in one’s foreign policy.

Indeed, in the coming future an anti-access campaign in the Middle East would likely cause greater potential harm to the PRC than to the United States, which can more readily afford and access alternate venues and varieties of energy supplies than China. As theaters of Asian powers’ security operations extend further westward across Eurasia, being able to keep the Chinese from counting on Iran’s massive military capability as a partner – or indeed, as a threat – would provide additional advantages to the US in the great power game.

A geopolitically “disinfected” Iran would provide opportunities to Europe, as well. For those worried about Russian influence taking a toll on European reliability, Iran would help diversify Europe’s energy sources by providing a viable supplier for the Nabucco pipeline. So too would Iran provide the Western world with an additional avenue of influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Naturally, there are a great many obvious political impediments to such a diplomatic revolution in Eurasia. The ideology and behavior of Iran’s present regime are noxious to American values and threatens its present – if not necessarily permanent – interests in the region. Its antagonistic stance towards Israel and the Arab states, along with its history of anti-American terror, renders discussion of rapprochement a serious political risk. Its nuclear program threatens global non-proliferation norms, although one must think that closer ties to India will do similar amounts of damage. Some would hope that the Green Revolution, which so far is not particularly concerned with foreign policy, might save the United States the trouble of worrying about the Iranian regime or adjusting America’s own foreign policy and create a new, democratic ally in the Middle East. However, so long as the United States insists on backing Iran’s Arab rivals and limiting Iran’s own ambitions in favor of its neighbors’, it is hard to imagine a democratic Iran simply acquiescing to the false notion that democratic states must oblige US interests or forego their regional security. Indeed, if Iranian democracy acquired a nationalist tone – which is entirely possible, given the need for an alternative to Iranian theocracy – one might even expect more friction at Iran’s borders.

A combination of both internal and external change could turn these possibilities into genuine foreign policy options, but they are hardly inevitable from the trends apparent in the status quo, nor any knowable expiration date on either US policy or the Iranian regime. If nothing else, it is interesting to consider the possibilities of politics as they might be, without the blinders of the present moment. Perhaps then we might be more able to recognize the opportunity for a grand strategic breakthrough when it appears.

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