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The Tripolar Chessboard

Putting Iran in a "great power" context

| Thu Jun. 15, 2006 3:00 AM EDT

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

Since the British imperial moment of the late nineteenth century, the image of much of the world -- especially Central Asia and the Middle East -- as but a set of pawns in a "Great Game" on a geopolitical "chessboard" where the great powers of whatever era are at play has been a commonplace. Many have died in one version or another of this "game," which, if you don't happen to be in an office in London or Washington or Moscow thinking strategic thoughts, has always had such a distinctly unplayful aspect to it, but the image persists.

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In our time, that "chessboard" was revived by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Carter, who made it the title of a 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard, American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives. It has since been picked up by the Bush administration whose key officials, thinking such grand thoughts, had little doubt that, a decade after the Soviet collapse, the U.S. would have its way in the energy-rich former SSRs of Central Asia. Now, with Iraq acting as the geopolitical equivalent of a black hole, sucking all U.S. attention its way, other powers turn out to be capable of playing the game too; and new, still not fully coherent power blocs, are slowly coalescing to thwart Washington's desires.

As historian Immanuel Wallerstein wrote recently about the leftward shift in Latin America, State Department officials "are quite aware that their voice is no longer heard with the respect and fear it once was." Just this week in Asia, where perhaps the greatest tectonic shifts have been taking place, the energy-rich Russians and the energy-eager Chinese are hosting a meeting of a five year-old group, the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO), which we ordinarily hear little about. But it's no less significant for that. To it belong the coming power in Asia and what's left of the fallen superpower of the Cold War era as well as the ‘stans of Central Asia that were once its possessions.

Representatives of other countries are also in attendance in Shanghai, trying to detect the shape of the New Asia and of our new world of scarcer energy resources -- the President of Pakistan, an important Indian oil and gas minister, and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is but one of many key figures in the world of energy resources -- including that close American ally, the Saudi king -- who are increasingly migrating toward Beijing (or Shanghai) for audiences. Ahmadinejad is eager to move Iran from observer status to membership in the Shanghai organization.

Not welcome: the United States. For the last two years, SCO members have even been conducting joint military exercises and they may someday become "a corral of countries capable of countering Western influence." After all, the organization's founding charter calls for it to be the foundation stone of "a new international political and economic order."

Some of this is still little more than wishful thinking from a group of disparate nations with often contradictory needs and goals. But it has certainly rattled the Bush administration and the SCO has lately been termed an "OPEC with [nuclear] bombs" -- on the OPEC front, at least, that's quite an exaggeration. Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation (a neocon hotbed) recently called the SCO, "a Eurasian powerhouse with an increasingly strong military component." Tied down endlessly in Iraq and irritated by Iran's nuclear pretensions, Bush administration officials are increasingly worried about the way the world is trending -- and lately, they've been getting more pugnacious about it. Michael Klare, author of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum (which anyone who cares to understand the Great Game of Oil must have in their library), takes the Iranian nuclear dispute out of the narrow constraints in which it is always found in our press, connects the necessary dots, and offers us a seldom encountered view of our world.

The Tripolar Chessboard
Putting Iran in a Great Power Context

By Michael T. Klare

For months, the American press and policy-making elite have portrayed the crisis with Iran as a two-sided struggle between Washington and Tehran, with the European powers as well as Russia and China playing supporting roles. It is certainly true that George Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are the leading protagonists in this drama, with each making inflammatory statements about the other in order to whip up public support at home. But an informed reading of recent international diplomacy surrounding the Iranian crisis suggests that another equally fierce -- and undoubtedly more important -- struggle is also taking place: a tripolar contest between the United States, Russia, and China for domination of the greater Persian Gulf/Caspian Sea region and its mammoth energy reserves.

When it comes to grand strategy, top Bush administration officials have long attempted to maintain American dominance of the "global chessboard" (as they see it) by diminishing the influence of the only other significant players, Russia and China. This classic geopolitical contest began with a flourish in early 2001, when the White House signaled the provocative course it planned to follow by unilaterally repudiating the U.S.-Russian Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and announcing new high-tech arms sales to Taiwan, which China still considers a breakaway province. After 9/11, these initial signals of antagonism were toned down in order to secure Russian and Chinese assistance in fighting the war on terror, but in recent months the classic chessboard version of great-power politics has again come to dominate strategic thinking in Washington.

Advancing the Strategic Pawns

This resurgence was perhaps first signaled on May 4, when Vice President Dick Cheney went to Lithuana, the former Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), to lambaste the Russian government at a pro-democracy confab. He accused Kremlin officials of "unfairly and improperly" restricting the rights of Russian citizens and of using the country's abundant oil and gas supplies as "tools of intimidation [and] blackmail" against its neighbors. He also condemned Moscow for attempting to "monopolize the transportation" of oil and gas supplies in Eurasia -- a direct challenge to U.S. interests in the Caspian region.

The next day, Cheney flew to the former SSR of Kazakhstan in oil and natural gas rich Central Asia, where he urged that country's leaders to ship their plentiful oil through a U.S.-sponsored pipeline to Turkey and the Mediterranean rather than through Russian-controlled pipelines to Europe.

Then, on June 3, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld weighed in on China, telling an audience of Asian security officials that Beijing's "lack of transparency" with respect to its military spending "understandably causes concerns for some of its neighbors." These comments were accompanied by publicly announced plans for increased U.S. spending on sophisticated weapons systems liked the F-22A Air-superiority Fighter and Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines that could only be useful in a big-power war for which there were just two candidates, Russia and China.

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