The Caspian Sea Connection:
Iran’s nukes, the war in Georgia, and the New Great Game
by Stephen Smith
(original to La Russophobe)
In Obama’s first television interview, given to al-Arabiya, he said of Iran: “If [they] are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Presumably at least a couple of fingers on this “clenched fist” that Obama speaks of represented Iran’s nuclear ambitions — an issue which has taken on an added urgency as UN officials reported recently that Iran is closer to having enough highly-enriched uranium to make a bomb than previously thought.
Unfortunately, though, Obama is unlikely to have much more success in dismantling Iran’s nuclear program than Bush did, since he doesn’t recognize the root cause of Iran’s nuclear ambitions: Russia’s ambitions for the Caspian Sea region.
Putin’s lust for the rich oil and natural gas reserves which abut Iran’s northern coast is not just a pissing contest with the West, but rather a necessary survival strategy. His regime’s popularity rests largely on the overflowing coffers of Russian energy exports, but with a plunge in oil and natural gas prices and a global economic slowdown, protecting Russian energy export revenues is Putin’s most pressing task. It is with this money that Putin buys the support necessary to manage his increasingly autocratic state, and the money that he uses to fund his repressive allies such as Belarus, Armenia, and Uzbekistan in Russia’s near abroad. This is the key motivation for enabling Iran’s nuclear program and belligerent bravado that came along with it – to win allies and cut off Western competitors in the Caspian region, raising the price of its energy exports in a 21st century version of the Great Game.
As far as Russian intentions in publicly helping Iran to build nuclear weapons (or at least giving the appearance thereof), none are as convincing as a desire to isolate Iran from the lucrative market for Caspian Sea oil and gas in Europe. Obama might have thought that Russia’s aid to Iran’s nuclear program was just a bargaining chip, though Russia’s recent lukewarm reception to a quid-pro-quo offered by Obama whereby Russia stops supporting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the US giving up on its plans for an anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe has quashed that idea. Money is the only other obvious reason for Russia’s nuclear support to Iran, though it’s hard to believe that Russia would sell its UN Security Council veto and goodwill from the West for a few billion dollars in contracts. Another possible motivation is simply to stir up trouble for the US and Israel, though given Russia’s reliance on access to European energy markets for desperately-needed revenue, it’s difficult to see why Russia would value pissing off the US and Europe as an end in and of itself.
Besides Iran to the south, Russia only directly controls the top portion of the land directly west of the Caspian Sea. In order to corner the market on Caspian Sea energy in Europe, Russia also has to deal with the three remaining countries wedged between Iran and Russia’s North Caucasus: the independent South Caucasian republics of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan. Armenia has been a staunch Russian ally since Russia’s support of Armenia over Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, ruling out the possibility of Armenia hosting a Western energy pipeline. Unfortunately for Russia, given the geography of the South Caucasus, having Armenia wasn’t enough to give Russia a solid bloc from Iran to the North Caucasus. The government of Azerbaijan built the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline across Azerbaijan and Georgia in the 1990s, and a consortium of Western oil companies headed by BP completed the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in 2005, which connected Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea terminals to Turkey’s network and onwards into Europe via Georgia.
Despite its best efforts, the Russian government was too weak to stop the construction of either pipeline, though it has not remained passive as the Caspian Sea’s riches trickle westwards. The August war in Georgia was part a strategy by Russia to heighten the risk premium that Western investors placed on non-Russian pipelines running through the Caucasus, and it paid off handsomely. By dropping bombs not 100 yards from the pipeline, Russia was able to spook investors, while avoiding diplomatic sanctions for damaging the pipeline. In the wake of the August war, both the BTC and Baku-Supsa oil pipelines were temporarily shut down.
But even more importantly for Eurasian energy geopolitics, the conflict appears to have dashed any hopes of building the Nabucco natural gas pipeline, which would have done for Caspian Sea natural gas what the BTC and Baku-Supsa pipelines did for oil – allow it to flow into Europe from the Caspian, bypassing Russia and its allies. Though Turkey and the EU continue to heroically insist that the natural gas pipeline will be built, Russia is pushing its own alternative gas pipeline, South Stream, which would of course run through Russian territory, and few believe that Nabucco is anything more than a pipe dream.
Though most in the West see Iran’s nuclear ambitions as distinct from Russia’s meddling in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Ukraine, the fact is that Iran’s anti-Israel rhetoric and Russia’s newfound love for the South Ossetians and Abkhazians are little more than a cover for Russia’s desire for a monopoly on selling Caspian Sea oil and natural gas in Europe. If Obama were to realize this and normalize relations with Iran despite its nuclear program (which would eventually allow Iran’s Caspian Sea oil and gas to reach European markets), it would go a long way to weakening Putin’s autocratic grip on power both within Russia and in Russia’s near abroad.