Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Musical Chairs

I make it a habit, during media-dominating events like the Iowa caucuses or the Bhutto assassination, to keep an eye on some of last month's crises, like the Turkey-PKK conflict or the Iranian nuclear standoff. The idea being that some interesting things occur when the world's attention is diverted. And sure enough, today it was reported that Saeed Jalili, the man Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed to head Iran's nuclear negotiating team last month, just reshuffled the rest of the team to include two Ahmadinejad loyalists. The move is sure to harden the Iranian negotiating position in future rounds of talks.

In other news out of that part of the world, a region-wide game of musical chairs has broken out, only instead of chairs, they're playing for gas supplies. Apparently Turkmenistan closed off the pipelines ensuring Iran's domestic supply, which led Iran to severely limit its exports to Turkey to cover the shortfall. Turkmenistan blamed the shutdown on technical complications, but the entire episode brings into stark focus Iran's curious status as an energy importing country, despite sitting on oceans of gas and oil reserves.

Both developments play out against the backdrop of the "pipeline wars" going on in the region. Russia just sealed a deal for a pipeline linking Turkmenistan's gas supply to Europe, while China and India are busy lobbying for the right to develop Iranian gas and oil fields. Throw in Iran's recent pipeline deal with Pakistan and you've got the guiding logic behind the tactical alliance between Russia and Iran: the European gas market for Russia, the Asian market for Iran, even if both countries are in need of renewed investment to fully exploit their reserves.

But if their energy alliance incarnates the threat posed by the emerging multi-polar world to America's interests, it also represents the opportunities presented. In the same way that the end of the bi-polar world order removes the necessity of aligning with the United States, it also removes the necessity of aligning against us. In the context of an aggressive American posture, Russia and Iran seem like natural bosom buddies. But a shift in American policy towards either could just as easily provoke their latent rivalry.

Perhaps the biggest foreign policy mistake committed by the Bush administration, besides the Iraq War, is believing that we could afford to contain both Russia and Iran at the same time. One or the other, or one then the other. But not both at once.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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