Tehran exploits US-Russian tensions
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - Iran could emerge as a big winner, at least in the short term, from the rapidly escalating tensions between the United States and Russia over Moscow's intervention in Georgia, according to analysts here.
Whatever waning chances remained of a US military attack on Iran before President George W Bush leaves office next January have all but vanished, given the still-uncertain outcome of the Georgia crisis, according to most of these observers.
Similarly, the likelihood that Moscow will cooperate with US and European efforts to impose additional sanctions on Tehran through the UN Security Council, where Russia holds a veto, for
not complying with the council's demands to halt its uranium-enrichment program has been sharply reduced.
Not only has Washington's confrontation with its old superpower rival displaced Tehran at the top of the administration's and US media foreign policy agenda, but Tehran's geopolitical leverage - both as a potential partner for the West in containing Russia and as a potential ally of Moscow's in warding off Western pressure has also risen sharply as an incidental result of the crisis.
"When the US invaded Iraq, it didn't do so to improve Iran's power position in the region, but that was the result," noted Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University who served on the National Security Council staff of former presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. "That wasn't the purpose of the Russian invasion of Georgia either, but it, too, may be the result."
So far, Tehran's response to the Georgia crisis has been measured. Despite calls by some right-wing voices to side with Moscow, according to Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, the government, including President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, has expressed disapproval of the Russian action, particularly its recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.
"The reason is on grounds of principle - if Iran is going to start supporting the secession of territories that are unhappy with the central government, then Iran itself has some similar issues with ethnic dissatisfaction," Farhi, who also teaches at the University of Hawaii, told Inter Press Service.
In addition, she said, most of Tehran's foreign policy establishment "don't view Russia as a reliable partner. They understand that Russia may support Iran on the nuclear file depending on its own security or policy interests, but Russia has also been quite clever in using Iran as a bargaining chip in terms of its relationship with the United States".
"The Iranians are being very clever here; they're not likely to rush to Russia's defense unless Russia comes to them and ask for their help, and then they can ask for something in return," Farhi added.
The latter may include anything from the accelerated completion of the long-delayed Bushehr nuclear plant, to providing advanced anti-aircraft systems (something that Tehran's ally Syria has already asked Moscow to provide in the wake of Damascus' public support for the Russian intervention), to full membership in the Sino-Russian-sponsored Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a defense group that is coincidentally holding its annual summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, this week.
Teheran's leverage is not just confined to its status, along with Turkey's, as the most powerful nation in a strategically critical neighborhood inhabited by relatively weak US-backed buffer states like Georgia. During the Cold War and until the 1979 revolution, after all, Iran served as Washington's most important bulwark against Soviet influence in the Gulf.
It also derives from its being a major oil and gas producer that could also play a much more important role as a trans-shipment point for Central Asian and Caspian energy resources bound for Europe, whose growing dependence on Russia for its energy supplies looks more risky than ever. This is particularly so in the wake of Moscow's demonstration that it can easily reach - and disrupt, if it wishes - the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, the only pipeline that transports oil from the Caspian to the West without transiting either Russia or Iran.
"Oil and gas companies now must factor in a new level of uncertainty," according to Jay Stanley at Kent Moors, an expert on energy finance who writes for Caspian Investor. "... Georgia is now unstable and that increases the risk of transporting hydrocarbons across it."
"If the BTC and Georgia won't be a reliable source of energy, then Iran will absolutely step up to the plate," according to Professor William Beeman, an Iran expert at the University of Minnesota. "You want gas? We'll sell you gas, will likely be their position," he added, noting that Switzerland signed a 25-year, US$42 billion gas supply and pipeline deal with Tehran last March over strong US objections. "I think the Swiss are a very good bellwether for the rest of Europe on this."
While Iran has alienated some major European energy companies - most recently France's Total - by demanding tough terms, it might "see the present crisis as an opportunity to go back to European colleagues and say, 'Let's take another look at this'," said Sick. "It gives them some more leverage by going to the West and saying 'You're shooting yourselves in the foot here. When are you going to come to your senses'?"
That argument naturally becomes more compelling as tensions between Russia and the West continue to escalate and could affect internal Bush cabinet-level deliberations on whether to act on a State Department recommendation to seek Iranian approval for opening an interests section in Tehran. Such a move, at the present juncture, would likely be seen as a major move on the geostrategic chessboard. Despite reports earlier this month that Bush had approved the recommendation, the issue appears to be unresolved.
Still, some experts say Iran's advantage could be short-lived. With a Russian veto over new Iran sanctions all but assured, Washington could decide to drop the UN route and try to impose a "coalition-of-the-willing" sanctions regime with its allies, according to Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council.
Michael Klare, author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy, told Inter Press Service he believes that Russia's unilateral resort to military action against Georgia may actually embolden Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, the leader of the administration's hawks who travels next week to Georgia and Azerbaijan.
"The question is whether Bush and Cheney will feel empowered to behave in a more belligerent fashion or not," he said.
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy, and particularly the neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.
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