The Washington Post reported on March 26, that “As U.S. influence wanes across the Middle East, Iran and Russia have joined forces to expand their power in the region, strengthening political and diplomatic ties and stepping up joint military operations in Syria”. This is precisely the case. However, those few words hide a story that go even beyond the Middle East.
Iran’s Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Moscow is not only about Syria or the Middle East. The context of the visit points to Moscow’s drive to execute some qualitative moves on its overall global strategy, particularly in central and south Asia, and the Middle East as well of course.
Now, more confident, and sensing that the Western alliance is in shambles, and that the political establishments in major Western countries is going through an increasingly deepening crisis, President Vladimir Putin seems to realize that it is an opportunity to take few more bold steps.
Moreover, events in Central Asia seem to be making a surprise turn in favor of Moscow or, in other words, in favor of strengthening the Russian-Iranian alliance in both fields, energy and geopolitical influence.
One central development in the arena of energy was China’s decision to indefinitely postpone the fourth branch of China’s far-flung pipeline system to carry gas from Turkmenistan through neighboring Uzbekistan. After at least two previous delays since late 2015, the news suggests that the planned project known as Line D, approved by President Xi Jinping in 2013, has been dropped. The reason behind shelfing the project, besides being economically questionable from the start, is China’s economic slowdown and the fact that long term LNG contracts will get the Chinese almost 50 billion cubic meters of surplus by 2020. But the consequences are significant for any Russian-Iranian plan to coordinate their moves in the energy markets of Central and South Asia.
Now, the future of Tajikistan’s giant Bokhtar gas field, and even of projects to develop Turkmenistan’s and Kyrgyzstan’s gas capacity have come again into questioning, more than ever before.
The ambitious Chinese plan to build a network of energy infrastructures in Central and East Asia seems to have been subjected to the cold shower of economic realities. This plan entailed a security and geostrategic dimension which must have been shelved with it as well. The implication for China’s “One Belt, One Road” are not determinable yet. But it cannot be positive. And in all cases, the trend creates a vacuum that can practically be exploited by both energy exporting nations, Iran and China.
Now, what will Rouhani and Putin talk about in this aspect of their cooperation as in other aspects?
Russia now has to reorient its Asian natural gas strategy and slow its Power of Siberia project to invest instead in alternatives, south rather than east, access. This fits fine with Iran-India plans, as it raises questions about China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Russia must have higher interest now to participate in the game Central and South Asia, in addition of coordinating its policy in the Caspian with the Iranians, which will remain the anchor of their energy ties.
Moreover, Russia needs Iran’s investments in its Islamic-majority regions and is pushing for a free trade agreement between Tehran and the Eurasian Economic Union. A plan to have a similar agreement with India is already in place. For some reason, China does not seem to be interested much in Iran. It is not even worried about the Russia-Iran-India trade axis, except from the point of view of how it will intersect with its one belt one road program. And to a certain extent, it does, particularly in Afghanistan.
The faltering Chinese pipelines network projects sheds light on the fact that transiting China’s allies’ exports of natural gas, through Afghanistan to Pakistan, is problematic. Now, it is the turn of transiting Iran’s natural gas to India, through Afghanistan as well. And to do that, you need big muscles and additional help from friends with geostrategic influence.
Most likely. Russia’s card of improving ties with the Taliban will not work well, hence hopes to transit Tajikistan natural gas south will remain shaky for few more years, until then Iran stands as a more important partner in Moscow’s gas game in central and south Asia. The main focus turns to be the Caspian. And there, Russia and Iran are aware that their partnership is a barrier to China.
In many aspects, the Asian bed is prepared for both Rouhani and Putin. If India joins, that will be the threesome party that will define the energy strategic future of Central and South Asia. China is showing signs of fatigue. Moreover, its map of allies is difficultly configured with quite a bit of weak links.
Then comes the Middle East.
Iran needs Russia to circumvent any US pressure. Russia needs Iran as a bridge to a region that is vital to Russian interests. Both need each other to weaken the US influence. The mantra that Russia and Iran will never be close allies should be now questioned. Let us take, for example, what is said about the “different views” of Russia and Iran in terms of the endgame in Syria.
Whatever the differences are, and they may be real, they are worth as much as they are reflected on what each country of the two wants for itself. Therefore, the issue turns to be a comparison between Russian and Iranian geostrategic objectives in Syria. And when this comparison is made, we will find out that those differences are actually marginal.
Russia does not care about respecting human or political rights in Syria. Multi-party, free elections, freedom of speech, etc. are not part of what Russia wants anywhere. What is important for Moscow is its presence, its military sales, its projection of power, and, of course, weakening US presence in the region.
Iran shares all this plus keeping a corridor to Hezbollah. It needs a direct access to the Mediterranean and a leverage over regional countries.
Why do the two countries need to collide over Syria when they can easily find a common ground to meet and iron out whatever marginal or tactical differences they have? We do not see anything irreconcilable in what the two want in Syria. Recently, the issue of reopening Iran air bases to Russia is revived. Does that surprise anyone? The surprise is that it was shelved for few months.
Elsewhere in the region, they both share the cardinal objective of kicking the US out if possible. Besides the fact that the US usually makes this job easier, as it did during the last 16 years, they stand a good chance of progress based on what they achieved so far, and on the disarray in the Western alliance at this moment.
What we currently see in the Iranian-Russian alliance could very well be the spearhead that will trigger a replay of the “East of Suez”, era after it successfully crossed the Atlantic in only 60 years.
30 March, 2017