The real failure of President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia is shown by their refusal of his attempt to initiate an energy war against Russia in retaliation for the annexation of Crimea. The war would have been undertaken by means of compelling a sharp reduction in oil and gas prices and ejecting Russia from the EU’s energy market. However, the failure of the President’s visit has compelled Washington to open a dialogue with the Russian leadership based on the idea of federalising Ukraine. However, this does not signify that the Americans, whether we are looking at the current Democrat administration or the powerful Republican presence in the legislature, are wavering in their intention to strike against Russia. This strike is in the form of a primarily economic plan to weaken the Russian Federation and its impact on world politics. In the USA, people are well aware of what is the weakest link within Moscow’s power, its heavy reliance on income for the supply of hydrocarbon based fuel to the European market. This weak link can only be affected via the Arab countries and Iran which, along with Russia, are the main suppliers of oil and gas to the European market. Therefore, we should expect an intensification of Washington’s efforts in the Middle East to weaken the position of Russia within the region and to create an “energy coalition” on an anti Russian basis.
Now, following the failure of Obama’s mission to Saudi Arabia, America has begun making moves on Qatar which is a large scale gas supplier and a competitor of Gazprom. However, there is a serious obstacle here, Doha cannot increase the production and supply of LNG to Europe and, furthermore, it has to fulfil its long term contractual obligations to the Asian countries. These include India, Japan, Pakistan, China, South Korea, and South East Asian countries, which pay a higher price by comparison with what the country receives for its European exports. In addition Qatar cannot supply gas via a pipeline at this time, when Syria presents an obstacle to laying a gas pipeline from the North field in the Persian Gulf along the route through the territory of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria to the Mediterranean coast and subsequently the EU. In order to realise the project, it is necessary first to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad. Therefore we should expect an increase in the subversive activities directed by the USA and its allies in the CCASG against Damascus.
The possibility of laying a pipe along an alternative route out of that region, from Qatar’s North field and Iran’s South Pars field is also unrealistic, given the conflict in Iraq and the Syrian factor. Therefore Washington is attempting to take advantage of the upcoming parliamentary elections in Iraq on 30 April. They aim to replace the current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who is loyal to Moscow and Tehran, with a pro US candidate Al Alawi. Al Alawi may well reach an accord with the Sunnis and choke off Russia’s economic presence in the country, which is primarily through contracts between Baghdad and Lukoil and Gazpromneft. If Al Alawi does not come to power then Washington is prepared to launch a plan for the partitioning of Iraq along ethnic and religious lines. This would result in three separate states, Kurdistan and separate Sunni and Shia states, which we refer to as Sunnitostan and Shiitostan. After that gas from Iran and Qatar could bypass Syria and be sent towards Turkey, across northern Iran.
However, in order to achieve this, the USA must first normalise its relations with Iran and then worsen relations between Tehran and Moscow, which will not be a simple task. The crisis in Ukraine has, in reality, been transformed into a confrontation between Russia and the West concerning the boundaries of their influence in the region and the entire world. This has again renewed the old discussion within Iranian political circles regarding whether they need to make a choice in favour of the East (in fact Russia) or the West and what Iran’s policy should be in these circumstances. Several important points need to be considered in connection to this.
Firstly, Ukraine is Iran’s competitor in terms of gas supplies from the gulf through Turkey and the Southern Mediterranean to Europe. In addition, almost the entirety of the pipeline which supplies Russian gas to Europe runs across Ukrainian territory.
Further more, Russia and the USA are directly engaged in connection with the two main current problems of Iran’s foreign policy, e.g. negotiations on its nuclear programme and the Syrian issue. Tehran is extremely concerned regarding the outcome of the current events in Ukraine. Russia is not only a foreign partner of Iran and its ally in the negotiations between Iran with “the sextet” of Western countries, it is also its main ally in terms of a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Iran is simultaneously realising a programme of normalising relations with the West (and especially the EU) with the goal of removing international sanctions and reducing the political pressure applied to the country.
A significant portion of Iran’s ruling class, as represented in more influential political circles, is convinced that it is more natural for Iran to adopt a pro Russian position. Tehran holds common views with Russia regarding the need to curb the growth of Western influence in the CIS states and surrounding regions. After the revolutionary events in Arab countries it has become the policy of Western countries to bring pro Western governments to power in these states. In Tehran they understand that if today it is Ukraine’s turn, then tomorrow it may be Iran’s who takes its place. Therefore, the common ground in the positions of Moscow and Iran regarding policy considerations is the neutralisation of Western threats and the development of their bilateral cooperation in the region, in order to strengthen their own positions. If there is a suggestion that Iran inclines towards supporting the West it may compel Russia to abandon its support for the conclusion of a universal agreement on the nuclear issue.
The supporters in Iran of another point of view are convinced that Iran should not lead the West into a misconception regarding the discharge of its current relations. Iran should, however, simultaneously strive to exploit it to the maximum, the possibility of rapprochement with the European Union in the sphere of energy security, including the transportation of gas to Europe via Turkey and the Mediterranean.
Secondly, these supposed trends in the transformation of Iran’s foreign policy, whether it concerns East or West, have currently ceased because they are not in accord with the political, strategic and economic realities of Iran. The reality is that Iran is an independent regional power that focuses its attention on the political and economic development of the countries in its own “near abroad”. This is in effect the countries in the area of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Southern and Central Asia and the Caucasus. In addition, Iran, in order to secure its own interests, does not necessarily need to maintain close contacts with the US. It can gain access to the American continent or to Europe without engaging with the US. The interests of the Islamic Republic may be secured by a strong regional policy in the Middle East. Iran, thanks to its actively pursued policies there, can avert the threat posed by the USA.
It is therefore most probable that Iran will pursue an “active neutrality” as regards the Ukrainian crisis, thereby showing Russia and the West that plays an independent role in participating in resolutions only when a crisis threatens its own national interests. This does not apply in the case of Ukraine.
Such a policy is in accord with the foreign policy conception of the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, who is committed to multilateral diplomacy and cooperating with all the key international players. Ultimately, it has an exclusive focus on solving the region’s internal issues and strengthening the position of Iran within the process of producing a universal agreement on the nuclear problem with “the six” foreign powers concerned. It also provides the regional players, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, with a clear understanding that their relations with the Islamic Republic must necessarily be built on the current political reality of its serious potential and significant regional position.
The USA, therefore, will work primarily for the overthrow of the ruling regime in Damascus, as they do not expect to cooperate seriously with Iran in the energy sphere, and have an even lower expectation that such cooperation could be directed against Russia. Turkey can play a crucial role here as a member of NATO, leading in a gradual approach towards a war with Syria. The salient point here is that the Prime Minister of Turkey interprets the result of the recent municipal elections as “approval” for military intervention. When delivering a speech “from the balcony” he uttered the phrase, “Syria is now at war with Turkey. They do not leave our aircraft in peace.” This signalled the possibility that the Turkish army could invade Syria. Everything that was discussed in the ministry of foreign affairs at a “secret meeting on Syria” was subsequently loaded onto YouTube it directly relates to a scripted scenario for a Turkish-Syrian war. The Minister of Foreign Affairs spoke during the secret gathering on Syria of the tomb of Suleyman Shah as a “cause for war”, which may be adopted on the international arena while stating in public that, “We have avoided a war with Syria.” However, there is simultaneously no reason to doubt the authenticity of the recordings that were reproduced in detail in the press. Even a government spokesperson noted that they were “very realistic”.
The hawks in the Turkish camp regard the reasons for commencing war with Syria as in part the threats to bomb the tomb of the Turkish Sultan, Suleyman Shah, from the organisation “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL) which is connected to Al Qaeda. This would pave the way for the occupation by and intervention of American and NATO forces. There is also the foreign minister’s view on the tapes that the war “should, of necessity, be viewed as an opportunity in current market conditions”. The subsequent reaction voiced on the tape by an individual who is allegedly the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation is as follows, “If necessary, we will send four men into Syria. They will fire eight missiles into Turkey and will therefore create a pretext for war with Syria, also ensuring an attack on the tomb.” There is also the phrase ascribed to the Deputy Chief of Staff, “That’s it, that’s what we will do.” This is nothing other than the creation of a direct reason to initiate war.
Syria will thus remain a fundamental goal of the USA, not only from the perspective of realizing the Middle Eastern plans of the USA but also to weaken Russia in Europe and undermine its influence in the Arab region, the Caucasus, Iran and Central Asia. Obama has the bit between his teeth now and is trying to work in every direction against Moscow. The Middle East, as was said above, is important for the USA from the perspective of undermining the influence of the Russian Federation in the energy sphere. This influence does not presently permit the Americans to compel the Europeans to adopt serious anti Russian sanctions because of Ukraine.
Alexander Orlov, political scientist, expert in Oriental Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.