07.05.2015 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The Iran deal and the Western Geo-Politics

5322211The peace deal between the US led coalition and Iran has some critical geo-political benefits in its blossom that the West aims to harness in due course of time to further buttress its position in the wake of fast emerging strategic changes. Amidst an ever increasing tension between the West and Russia over Ukraine, the Iran deal has come at a time when the West, especially the EU, wanted it more than ever. In as serious a geo-political ‘crusade’ as the Western orchestrated crisis in Ukraine, the EU stands to lose the most if Russia, at any time, starts playing the “gas card.” Whether Russia would deploy such a strategy is a moot question; however, it is quite clear that in the EU’s calculations, Russia does have this trump card which it can use at any ‘suitable’ time. Therefore, the reason for the EU to strongly support this deal is not merely the fact that the EU does not want another war in the Middle East; the real reason for this support is that the EU (and the USA) wants to utilize Iran as a means to diversify its dependence on Russian gas, and by so doing, they wish to deny Russia a crucial edge the latter has over the former.

In the EU’s calculations, import of gas from Iran would not only help it counter-balance Russia, it would also help stabilize gas prices, which would also contribute to stabilizing their depressed economic condition. The EU’s strategic consideration has also been largely facilitated by Iran’s own downtrodden economic condition. As a matter of fact, Iran is excitingly seeking to bring more foreign companies into its energy sector, which according to recent statistics, has the world’s first-largest natural gas reserves (33.6 trillion cubic meters). The instability in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, and the scheduled pipelines including TANAP, TAP, IAP, IGB and IBR projects, which constitute the EU-proposed Southern Gas Corridor, seem to be increasing the significance of the Turkish route for the diversion of Iranian gas to European markets.

However the question remains: would Turkish route reduce the EU’s dependence over imported gas, which always remains subject to geo-political fluctuations, or would it just replace its over-dependence on Russia with over-dependence on Turkish route, and by default on Iran? This question becomes even more significance when we take into account the historical tussle between Turkey and the EU over the question of the former’s inclusion into the EU and the latter’s stubborn refusal. Utility of Turkish route becomes even more questionable when we consider the foreign policy shift that has recently taken place within Turkey with a strong urge to re-build relations with Russia on new lines. From a Turkish perspective, warmer relations with Russia are part of a greater pivot to Eurasia. After flirting with Europe for decades and being constantly spurned, Turkey no longer seeks to be an attachment to a failing EU. Indeed, many Turks are now seen expressing the view that being rejected by Brussels has turned out to be a lucky escape.

An additional spur to the changing Turkish outlook has been provided by the collapse of Russia-EU relations. On the whole, Ankara has very cleverly positioned itself as a major energy conduit to Europe, dramatically adding to its collection of bargaining chips. Had this shift not taken place, Turkey would have probably used this advantage to increase its hopes of joining the EU – but now it will be used as leverage in other areas. As a matter of fact, instead of ‘dreaming’ of joining the EU, Turkey is now positioning itself as a potential member of an expanded BRICS alliance, as it continues to slide away from its Cold War position in the pro-American camp. In simple words, the EU, by increasingly engaging in an anti-Russian strategic postures, is creating all sorts of problems for itself which may not have a quick and ready-made solution available in the near future. However, it is yet to be seen how Turkey finally responds to the fast changing political environment. Given the specific situation arising out of Iran-US deal and the increasing significance of the Turkish route, it seems that Turkey would keep its cards close to its chest to increase its bargaining power on both sides of the global spectrum i.e., the West and Russia.

Notwithstanding the crucial significance of Turkey in making or un-making these strategic shifts, the fact remains that the primary reason for the EU to support Iran deal is to diversify its dependence upon Russia. Indeed, the very reason for the EU’s interference in that Ukraine is the transit route for about 16 percent of Europe’s total consumed gas. A number of eastern European countries such as Bulgaria import up to 100 percent of their gas from Russia. Even the mere threat of a Russian supply cut to Europe due to ongoing tension in Russia-US-EU relations because of the crisis in Ukraine, at a time when demand and supply of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in global markets are hardly balanced, could have serious repercussions for the economy of the financially crippled “old continent.”

It is perhaps for none other but for this very reason that the EU is getting eagerly interested in lifting restrictions on the import of Iranian oil and gas. But doing this is not going to be an easy task given the fact that the Republicans—who are in control of the US Congress due to their majority—- are vehemently opposed to any nuclear deal with Iran. Given the changing terms of EU-Russia relations, if a more militant policy approach by the Republican-controlled US Congress ultimately prevails, the US might well be facing the danger of losing the ally that makes the key difference for the sanctions’ success. Indeed, on this issue, the US might rapidly find itself isolated from all other global actors. For the US, therefore, the deal is important not merely for securing an ally in the Middle East but also for keeping the erstwhile alliance with Europe as part of its anti-Russian strategic posture.

On the other hand, the US has come to realize, after fighting two major wars in and around the ME, that Iran is indispensable for securing a permanent influence in the region. Whether American elites like it or not, Iran is an unavoidable power in today’s Middle East. The Islamic Republic’s influence, many argue, is due to its revolutionary commitment to independence. Its influence is, therefore, rising in arenas across the region — and will continue to do so as is evident from the way it has been resisting the Saudi and the US led vandalism in Syria and now in Yemen.

Indeed, the US also needs Iran to counter-balance the counter-productive policies as well as the emerging alliance of Israel and Saudi Arabia. To reduce the mounting costs that Israeli and Saudi policies impose on America’s position in the Middle East, Washington needs to reduce its dependence on Israel and Saudi Arabia—hence, a friendly Iran. At least this is how new US approach towards the ME is developing. The rational being that a rising Iran could be very helpful in checking the counter-productive policies of America’s traditional regional allies, and thereby help the US in counter-balancing them.

Indeed it is not to suggest that the Saudia and Israel will adopt an anti-US strategic posture, or that the US would abandon its erstwhile allies. However, what is becoming apparent with everyday passing is that the US wants to convene Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab monarchies to deepen collaboration on Middle Eastern “security,” without in any serious way engaging Tehran.

It is apparent that the deal with Iran is going to have repercussions at global level. The reason for this is involvement of all major powers in this issue directly or indirectly. It is not out of a sudden that Iran has emerged as a strategic necessity for the US and the EU. This change has necessarily emerged due to the collapse of the US-EU-Russian relations due to the former’s interference in Ukraine to restrict the rise of Russia. The deal is, as such, as much a part of the West’s new containment policy as of the new outlook towards the Middle East—-the erstwhile home to all sorts of conflicts: political, strategic, economic, ethnic and religious.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook