Geopolitics and Energy: The 'Great Game'

Underlying the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the confrontation with Iran and third-power interest in the insurgency in Pakistan, is a much broader shift in the tectonics of geopolitical influence among the great powers, China, Russia, the US and the emerging European state.  And as usual it is founded on resources, trade and, consequently, the distribution of wealth and power among nations.

It is all about control of the world's dwindling energy resources and their chains of distribution and it is focused on the Middle East and Central Asia.  The world's remaining abundant petroleum resources are localised in the Middle East and while the traditional maritime distribution model places the supply of these resources largely in the Persian Gulf, with the guarantor of delivery the US Navy, this model is slowly changing.  As described by former Turkish Minister of State, Hikmet Uluğbay, we are now entering the final phase of this competition:

The discovery of oil, the popularization of the automotive industry and the introduction of motor vehicles to the army has led industrialized countries, which lacked oil to back the process of industrialization, including Britain, Germany and France, to enter a race for control over oil fields. Considering that its own oil resources may be exhausted, the US also joined the race after the end of World War I. This started the first battle of apportionment over oil resources. Currently, the final fight is taking place to have control over oil and natural gas resources, as well as over routes to deliver these resources. Scholarly studies show that global oil production will peak in the short run, after which oil production will enter a decline. According to the research, during the 2019-2030 period natural gas production will peak. The increase in oil prices to $150 per barrel was a harbinger of this. The current decline in oil prices should not mislead us. This temporary development is a product of expectations that the world economy will soon suffer from stagnation.

Fatih Uğur - World is Witnessing Final Fight For Oil Zaman 5 Oct 08

Partly due to the shift towards reliance on natural gas, pipeline distribution overland to Europe has become a highly competitive undertaking.  Europe is already dependent on Russian natural gas travelling overland from the Caspian region, a situation not lost on US policymakers:

Unfortunately, Russia has shown itself increasingly willing to use energy as a tool of foreign policy, posing a threat to EU energy security. Meanwhile, the fourth largest proven natural gas reserves in the world sit in the Caspian region - including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan - effectively locked away from a natural market in western Europe by Russia's stranglehold over Europe's natural gas pipeline system.

Robert F Winchester - European Energy Security: Wrestling with the Russian Bear for Caspian Natural Gas US Army War College 30 June 2007

And Europe is seeking to establish it's own alternate routes to the Caspian Basin, the Middle East and Iran:

The aftermath of the January energy crisis between Russia and Ukraine, which resulted in the interruption of the natural gas supply to some European countries, has once again made relevant the establishment of alternative energy routes from Russia to supply natural gas to Europe. Additionally, alternatives are also needed to Ukraine, through which Russia transported about 80% of Europe's gas. In this case, the actual construction of the natural gas pipelines `North Stream` and `South Stream` again rise. Both projects will guarantee the unimpeded transit of natural gas through pipelines which will be laid on the seabed (of the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea). But these pipelines do not provide an alternative to Russian gas, and so a possible alternative for Central and Eastern European countries could be the Nabucco gas pipeline project, which plans to export gas from the Caspian Sea basin states and perhaps from Iran, Iraq and Egypt in the future.

Rovshan Ibrahimov - Nabucco Pipeline - I Turkish Weekly 19 Feb 09

Small wonder the US is having trouble getting European partners in it's effort to impose economic sanctions on Iran.  But it is not just a reality affecting our inability to impose sanction on Iran, this competition for energy resources is global, strongly affecting US policy on Gulf and regional alliances, not to mention the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the security crises in Afghanistan and Pakistan, conflicts usually portrayed in terms of threats to our physical security and ideology.  This reality informs the foreign policy of every major power, not to mention the geopolitical motivations of the US in the Middle East and South Asia, now and in the past, for both 'realists' and neoconservatives.

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Relations with Iran at the Crossroad

Obama's election win was a clear mandate for a change of policy regarding US relations with Iran and expectations of new diplomatic initiatives were briefly sustained by Obama's greeting to Iran on Nowruz, the Persian new year, and by the resumption of dialogue between mid-level foreign affairs representatives of both nations.

Then Ahmadinejad delivered his anti-semitic tirade in Geneva, although the Saberi case was basically a wash, an early provocation wrapped up by the speedy decision for her release.  Ahmadinejad, initially rebuked by Khamenei, now seems to enjoy his support and is likely to win the pending elections in spite of some heavyweight moderate competition.  The launch, recently, of the Sajjil-2 surface-to-surface intermediate range missle followed closely on Obama's unexpected imposition of a deadline on relations with Iran at his meeting with Netanyahu:

Iran's launch comes less than a month before Iran's presidential election and just two days after President Barack Obama declared a readiness to seek deeper international sanctions against Tehran if it did not respond positively to U.S. attempts to open negotiations on its nuclear program. Obama said earlier this week that Tehran had until the end of the year to show it wanted to engage with Washington.

But both U.S. government officials and independent American missile experts said Wednesday that the Iranian missile itself did not appear to be a new model.

Charles Vick, a senior technical analyst for, analyzed photos and videotape of the launch released by Iran.

"I'm not all that impressed," Vick said. "It's just another test that confirms they've got the system that was operational last summer."

Pamela Hess and Pauline Jelinik - Iran Missile Launch Confirmed By US Huffington Post (AP) 20 May 09

This suggests limited, if any, progress and the successful confounding by Netanyahu, on behalf of Likud, of the Iranian and Israeli relationships.  But things are not always what they seem and in spite of an almost wilfull ambivalence on the part of the mainstream media it may be up to us to modify some of our presumptions about Iran's intentions and the genuine level of risk they present before meaningful negotiations are possible:

Everything you know about Iran is wrong, or at least more complicated than you think. Take the bomb. The regime wants to be a nuclear power but could well be happy with a peaceful civilian program (which could make the challenge it poses more complex). What's the evidence? Well, over the last five years, senior Iranian officials at every level have repeatedly asserted that they do not intend to build nuclear weapons. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has quoted the regime's founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who asserted that such weapons were "un-Islamic." The country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa in 2004 describing the use of nuclear weapons as immoral. In a subsequent sermon, he declared that "developing, producing or stockpiling nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam." Last year Khamenei reiterated all these points after meeting with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei. Now, of course, they could all be lying. But it seems odd for a regime that derives its legitimacy from its fidelity to Islam to declare constantly that these weapons are un-Islamic if it intends to develop them.

Fareed Zakaria - They May Not Want The Bomb Newsweek 22 May 09

The bottom line, however, is are we still intent on attempting to destabalise Iran through covert operations not unlike those prosecuted by Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel or by Iran itself against us in Iraq?:

But [Obama administration disappointment] ignores the real reason Iranian leaders have not responded to the new president more enthusiastically: the Obama administration has done nothing to cancel or repudiate an ostensibly covert but well-publicized program, begun in President George W. Bush's second term, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize the Islamic Republic. Under these circumstances, the Iranian government -- regardless of who wins the presidential elections on June 12 -- will continue to suspect that American intentions toward the Islamic Republic remain, ultimately, hostile.

Flyntt and Hillary Mann Leverett - Have We Already Lost Iran? NYT 23 May 09

The Obama administration has a choice to make here which is governed by many factors, not least of which the somewhat narrow range of US public opinion largely informed by eight years of what is arguably alarmist neoconservative rhetoric regarding Iran.

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Secretary Clinton's Remarks on Pakistan Misread in Pakistan

Today Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced $100 million USD in humanitarian support for Pakistan's emerging IDP crisis that involves somewhere north of 1.5 million people and perhaps as many as 2 million. In the question and answer portion, she said this:

QUESTION: What assurance do you have that our assistance will not go to expand their nuclear power and arsenal? And what brought it center stage? We've been helping Pakistan for years and years and years, poured a lot of money into it. Why now -- I mean, I don't say why now -- I know the challenge of extremists. But what is it that that has been broken down?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, first I have to say how honored I was to share the podium and the stage with Helen Thomas last week at the NYU graduation ceremonies -- (laughter) -- where we were both given honorary degrees, and in Yankee Stadium, which was a pretty exciting experience.

You know, Helen, I think that it is fair to say that our policy toward Pakistan over the last 30 years has been incoherent. I don't know any other word to use. We came in in the '80s and helped to build up the Mujahideen to take on the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis were our partners in that. Their security service and their military were encouraged and funded by the United States to create the Mujahideen in order to go after the Soviet invasion and occupation.

The Soviet Union fell in 1989, and we basically said, thank you very much; we had all kinds of problems in terms of sanctions being imposed on the Pakistanis. Their democracy was not secure and was constantly at risk of and often being overtaken by the military, which stepped in when it appeared that democracy could not work.

And so I think that when we ask that question it is fair to apportion responsibility to the Pakistanis, but it's also fair to ask ourselves what have we done and how have we done it over all of these years, and what role do we play in the situation that the Pakistanis currently confront.

I believe that what President Obama is doing with our new approach toward Pakistan is qualitatively different than anything that has been tried before. It basically says we support the democratically elected government, but we have to have a relationship where we are very clear and transparent with one another; where we have the kind of honest exchanges that have come out of our trilateral meetings, where we're sitting across the table and we're saying, what do you intend to do about what we view as an extremist threat to your country, which by the way, also threatens us.

And so in the last week I think we've seen an answer, which is very encouraging. And, therefore, it is our responsibility to support the democratically elected government, to be a source of advice and counsel where requested, but also to step in with aid that can try to make this government as successful as possible in delivering results for the people of Pakistan. That's what we are engaged in.

Now, we're doing this because we believe that the future of Pakistan is extremely important to the security of the United States. If we did not believe that I wouldn't be standing here, the President would not be directing us.

QUESTION: Why do you believe that?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, because we think that the advance of extremism is a threat to our security; that al Qaeda and their extremist allies are intent upon attacking not only our friends and allies in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, but our homeland and American citizens and interests around the world. And as the President has said, our goal, coming out of our strategic review of Afghanistan and Pakistan, was to defeat and disrupt and dismantle the al Qaeda network.

We have seen al Qaeda driven out of Afghanistan to find refuge in the mountains of Pakistan. I don't think anyone doubts their continuing efforts to plot against us. They have not given up on their desire to inflict damage, harm and murder on the United States of America. That is how we in this administration view the threat coming from al Qaeda and their allies. We have walked away from Pakistan before, with consequences that have not been in the best interests of our security, and we are determined that we're going to forge a partnership with the people of Pakistan and their democratically elected government against extremism -- and that's what we're pursuing.

What the Secretary of State omits about our 'incoherent' policy towards Pakistan was that beginning in 1985, Pakistan chose to defy the world community and begin developing nuclear weapons setting Washington and Islamabad on a collision course. Furthermore, the Secretary seems to have forgotten the role that Pakistan played in the 1988 uprising in Kashmir or that Pakistan's ISI controlled all the funding for Afghan Mujahideen. The United States provided the funds which were matched by the Saudis and the Pakistanis dispersed them to whom pleased them. Pakistan, then as now, was a rogue state supporting jihad in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Kashmir and the Horn of Africa. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the role of the Pakistani state in the BCCI scandal. Our policy towards Pakistan was not incoherent.

I bring this up because the Pakistani media is portraying these remarks with the following headlines: US wronged Pakistan for 30 years, admits Hillary and US created Taliban and abandoned Pakistan: Clinton. We are being take for a ride by Pakistan.

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The Drone Debate

This past weekend in the New York Times, David Kilcullen and Andrew McDonald Exum wrote an op-ed questioning the use of Predator Drones in the war against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants inside Pakistan. While acknowledging that the use of the predator drones have three clear advantages (effects are measurable, militant networks have been disrupted, no American loss of life), Kilcullen and Exum argue that the costs outweigh the benefits for three reasons.

First, the drone war has created a siege mentality among Pakistani civilians. This is similar to what happened in Somalia in 2005 and 2006, when similar strikes were employed against the forces of the Union of Islamic Courts. While the strikes did kill individual militants who were the targets, public anger over the American show of force solidified the power of extremists. The Islamists' popularity rose and the group became more extreme, leading eventually to a messy Ethiopian military intervention, the rise of a new regional insurgency and an increase in offshore piracy.

Second, public outrage at the strikes is hardly limited to the region in which they take place -- areas of northwestern Pakistan where ethnic Pashtuns predominate. Rather, the strikes are now exciting visceral opposition across a broad spectrum of Pakistani opinion in Punjab and Sindh, the nation's two most populous provinces. Covered extensively by the news media, drone attacks are popularly believed to have caused even more civilian casualties than is actually the case. The persistence of these attacks on Pakistani territory offends people's deepest sensibilities, alienates them from their government, and contributes to Pakistan's instability.

Third, the use of drones displays every characteristic of a tactic -- or, more accurately, a piece of technology -- substituting for a strategy. These attacks are now being carried out without a concerted information campaign directed at the Pakistani public or a real effort to understand the tribal dynamics of the local population, efforts that might make such attacks more effective.

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The Games Pakistan Plays

It is gratifying to see the nation's paper of record report on the seemingly bizarre games that Pakistan is playing with its nuclear arsenal.

Members of Congress have been told in confidential briefings that Pakistan is rapidly adding to its nuclear arsenal even while racked by insurgency, raising questions on Capitol Hill about whether billions of dollars in proposed military aid might be diverted to Pakistan's nuclear program.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the assessment of the expanded arsenal in a one-word answer to a question on Thursday in the midst of lengthy Senate testimony. Sitting beside Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, he was asked whether he had seen evidence of an increase in the size of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal.

"Yes," he said quickly, adding nothing, clearly cognizant of Pakistan's sensitivity to any discussion about the country's nuclear strategy or security.

Inside the Obama administration, some officials say, Pakistan's drive to spend heavily on new nuclear arms has been a source of growing concern, because the country is producing more nuclear material at a time when Washington is increasingly focused on trying to assure the security of an arsenal of 80 to 100 weapons so that they will never fall into the hands of Islamic insurgents.

It should be noted that these reports of Pakistan rushing to add to its nuclear arsenal of some 80 to 100 weapons are not new.

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