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Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The New Great Game – Expanding Rivalry through Iran

The Iran nuclear deal seems to be like a break-through in the long-term difficult relations between the US and Iran, finally leading to a conflict consolidation, improving relations to the West and a final end of the endless economic sanctions against Iran – all to be ended with a multilateral cooperation among the leading nations of the world. But on a second glance, it just marks the beginning of a power struggle in the Middle East.

It seemed like everything was going splendidly well for US President Barack Obama these days. Re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years of isolation, and now the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) about Iran’s nuclear programme; made in conjunction with the other P5 members Russia, China, the UK and France, and Germany – another Détente movement with one of the US’ archenemies since 1979?

Western media praises Obama for having finally “deserved his Peace Nobel Prize” that was prematurely awarded to him in 2009. After a seemingly endless list of failures and non-action regarding Libya, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – not mentioning the high tensions with Russia regarding Ukraine, Obama seems to want to end his presidency with this agreement.

However, looking at the constellations rising in the Middle East now, it would be anything but an actual Détente policy.

Iran between the Powers

Shortly after the agreement was made, President Obama had a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, thanking him for his efforts in the negotiation process with Iran. What sounds like a tiny little glim of hope of re-kindling the deep frozen relations between the US and Russia, has however need to be understood as a mere public signal, an impression that both superpowers have reinitiated talks.

As ever, neither the US nor Russia would set up an agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme if it wasn’t for their own vital power and strategic interests. In particular, as stated by Ekaterina Blinova on, it was the US that was pressing to an agreement with Iran.

After a disastrous Middle East Policy in the past decades, and the ongoing indirect involvement in the fight against IS, the US was predominantly scared of losing the entire Middle East as their selected area of key strategic interest. With Syria and Iraq drowning in chaos, Iran is the biggest non-aligned player in the Middle East surrounded by either mostly Russia controlled Central Asia, and US controlled Middle East countries Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and above all Israel.

Logically, Russia and the US – and even China – will not let any chance untried to gain Iran aligned to their geostrategic interests, the pressure is actually on Washington and Moscow to gain Iran’s alliance. For the US, as Blinova says, it is essential that Iran won’t be incorporated into the non-western alliance structure that has been gaining significance over the past years – specifically regarding the BRICS states and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Russia’s Quest for more Allies

In the past few weeks, while Europe was desperately avoided a near-Grexit – almost overseen by media –, Russia had held three mayor summits in Ufa, Russia (Bashkortostan Republic) at the same time: The 7th Summit of the BRICS states, parallel to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) Summit, and the annual SCO Summit. For the latter case, it was announced in the final declaration that Pakistan and India will be admitted as future SCO members by 2016. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, founded in 1996, is enforcing military and economic cooperation in the wider East and Central Asian region, in the process of building up a counter-balance to the Western Alliance. Simultaneously, Russia is accelerating the linkages among the BRICS states, and they have decided to strengthen the role of their New Development Bank (NDB) as an independent alternative to the US dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Russia has been enforcing its institution and cooperation regime efforts in the past year, after being side-lined and sanctioned by the Western World due to the ongoing Ukraine crisis. As a result, Russia turned eastwards, and after having tightened its relations with China (something US strategists were warning of), it consequently continues to widen cooperation in trade, monetary assets, energy and security.

With the potential danger of expanding or even enlarging sanctions against Russia – even on the energy sector – Russia needs to secure its energy and trading channels. By winning Pakistan and India into the SCO, and mostly controlling Central Asia through the EEU and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Iran is the single remaining white spot between the US and Russia.

However, Iran could be either a chance for Russia, or a huge risk.

Iran’s energy potential – Who will get it first?

The US is under pressure now. With Pakistan and India – two potential allies in the South Asian region – most probably lost to Russia, it is trying to widen its ties in the Middle East, which is the only region in the world on which the US still can expands its influence. Russia knows it very well and will do its part to win the access to Iran’s energy sector first.

For Russia, access to Iran’s gas and oil sector could lead to an emerging export market for its own gas business. But on the other hand, if Russia fails to make economic and energy ties with Iran, its own in recession dropping economy could be even more shaken. As a worst case scenario, assuming that the US get access to Iran’s oil sector, they could have a powerful instrument to control the oil price and probably even lower it more – to put more pressure on the weakened Russian economy.

The energy giant Gazprom has a vital interest in Iran’s LNG (Liquefied Natural  Gas) exports, the same for expanding nuclear energy after the conclusion of the Iran deal. As stated on by Ellie Geranmayeh, the Iran expert at the European Council for Foreign Affairs, Russia has already existing contracts with Iranian nuclear facilities and the deal will grant them even more access.

As a side note, China has already made an even quicker step forward to build two nuclear power plants in southern Iran, as reported by today. The race is now fully on.

The New Geographical Pivot of History

Back in 1904, Geographer and Professor of London School of Economics, Halford J. Mackinder, had once formulated the theory of a “heartland”, a “Geographical Pivot of History” that was crucial to bring under control. Though he formulated this theory to the British Empire of that time, it is still very up to date nowadays. For the British Empire, Eurasian continent was this so called “heartland”, and an imperial strategy was to prevent an approach between the Russian Empire and the German Empire. As Mackinder had put it to the point in his book “Democratic Ideas and Reality“ from 1919:

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.”

Now, this pivot has switched from Eastern Europe to the Middle East, and the great powers are playing for domination, again. The question is: how far are they ready to go, and what means would they take to get it?

Hence, yet another potential conflict zone.

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