Tuesday, July 29, 2008

China, Russia Cooperation on Iran (and Turkey)?

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar's latest column over at the Asia Times suggests that Beijing and Moscow have handed a diplomatic setback to Iran by refusing to consider Tehran's wish for closer links to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, including the possibility of actual membership.

So, instead of being brought within the embrace of the emerging Eurasian security organization, Iran still remains isolated. As the ambassador notes, "Since such issues are invariably decided within the SCO on the basis of a consensus between Russia and China, it stands to reason that either Russia didn't press Iran's membership case or China disfavored the idea. On balance, it seems to be a combination of both. Conceivably, Moscow didn't press after informally ascertaining Beijing's lukewarm attitude. Tajikistan, which hosts the SCO summit in August, has openly favored Iran's membership. If the two Big Brothers had given the green signal, Tajikistan would have asked Iran to come in from the cold. No doubt, Tehran, which openly canvassed for SCO membership, has suffered a diplomatic setback."

For many Americans--including presidential hopeful Senator John McCain--this might not seem like much at all--but it is significant, in that it shows the limits to which states like China and Russia are prepared to shield Iran from Western pressure--and I see this as a positive.

Also of interest in this column--the assertion that Turkey may be serving as Iran's new interlocutor with the West--and that this is alongside Ankara's efforts to broker talks between Israel and Syria. The ambassador notes that, despite harsh U.S. rhetoric about Iran's role in southern and central Iraq, "the US has largely looked away from Turkey-Iran cooperation in stabilizing northern Iraq." He also suggests that a Turkish opening to Iran might also serve the purpose of revitalizing the stalled Nabucco project. In turn, Iran might assist Turkey in its contentious relations with Armenia.

Bhadrakamur concludes:

"Washington will not throw a spanner into the Iranian attempt to mediate the easing of tensions in Turkey-Armenia relations or in bringing Armenia and Azerbaijan to a path of dialogue and negotiations. Such Iranian efforts would even serve the interests of US regional policies in the Caucasus. Most important, Iran can be the key to the realization of the Nabucco gas pipeline project, which would go a long way in reducing Europe's energy dependence on Russia. Turkey, in turn, would be the transportation corridor for any Iranian gas to be pumped to Europe.

"All in all, therefore, a fascinating pattern of interlocking diplomatic moves is forming on the regional chessboard in which Turkey, Syria and Israel are already openly engaged as protagonists with Iran now appearing on the scene."

An interesting column, to say the least.

A subsequent piece by Ambassador Bhadrakumar describes the 'dramatic turn' in 'the great game over Caspian energy' resulting from the agreements Gazprom has jut signed to purchase gas from Turkmenistan. According to the Ambasssador, 'the United States has suffered a huge defeat in the race for Caspian gas.'

An interesting excerpt describes signs of Chinese optimism about a shift in Russian energy exports away from Europe:

'Without getting into details, China Daily merely took note of the talks as "a good beginning" and commented, "It seems that a shift of Russia's energy export policy is under way. Russia might turn its eyes from the Western countries to the Asia-Pacific region ... The cooperation in the energy sector is an issue of great significance for Sino-Russian relations ... the political and geographic closeness of the two countries would put their energy cooperation under a safe umbrella and make it a win-win deal. China-Russia ties are at their best times ... The two sides settled their lingering border disputes, held joint military exercises, and enjoyed rapidly increasing bilateral trade."'

Another interesting suggestion by the Ambassador is that Russian interest in the idea of a 'gas cartel' may be less inhibited by European sensitivities than in the past:

'Until fairly recently Moscow was sensitive about the European Union's opposition to the idea of a gas cartel. (Washington has openly warned that it would legislate against countries that lined up behind a gas cartel). But high gas prices have weakened the European Union's negotiating position.'

What Bhadrakumar further suggests is that a reversal of policy towards Iran provides the only means by which the United States can now rescue its strategy to prevent Russian control of European gas supplies, which depends upon the Nabucco gas pipeline project. Without access to Turkmen gas, he suggests, 'Nabucco's realization will now critically depend on gas supplies from the Middle East - Iran, in particular.'

Put simply, the United States cannot at one and the same time make serious attempts to mitigate European dependence on gas exports, and pursue a strategy of all-out confrontation towards Iran.

Of course, divergencies of interest between Russia and Iran, which the Ambassador describes, would open up ample opportunities for a skilful American and European diplomacy designed to mitigate Europe's dependence on Russian gas.

But this would require the abandonment of the central underlying premise of post-Cold War American foreign policy -- which is, essentially, that of American omnipotence.

The Ambassador's piece is at http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/JG30Ag01.html.
Thanks, David--appreciate the link.
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