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What Can Washington Do About Iran?

The current U.S. strategy is not exactly a raging success—perhaps detente rather than military power is how we might breach that Wall of Mistrust with Iran.

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 3:39 PM EST

Only with such an admission (to itself, if not the world) are real negotiations leading to a Wall of Mistrust-blasting deal possible. This would undoubtedly include a genuine détente, an acceptance of Iran's lawful pursuit of a peaceful nuclear program, guarantees that the result would not be a covert weapons project, and a turning away from the possibility of a devastating war in the Persian Gulf and the oil heartlands of the Greater Middle East.

Theoretically, it could also include something else: an Obama "Nixon in China" moment, a dramatic journey or gesture by the US president to decisively break the deadlock. Yet as long as a barrage of furiously misinformed anti-Iran hawks in Washington, in lockstep with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Israeli government, deploy a relentless PR offensive burning with incendiary rhetoric, "red lines," deadlines, and preemptive sabotage of the P5+1 negotiations, such a moment, such a gesture, will remain the faintest of dreams.

And even such an elusive "Obama in Tehran" moment would hardly be the end of the story. It would be more like a salutary twist in the big picture. To understand why, you need to grasp just how crucial Iran's geopolitical positioning is. After all, in energy and other terms that country is the ultimate crossroads of Eurasia, and so the pivot of the world. Strategically, it straddles the supply lines for a sizeable part of the globe's oil and gas reserves and is a privileged hub for the distribution of energy to South Asia, Europe, and East Asia at a moment when both China and India are emerging as potential great powers of the twenty-first century.

The urge to control that reality lies at the heart of Washington's policy in the region, not an Iranian "threat" that pales as soon as the defense spending of the two countries is compared. After all, the US spends nearly a $1 trillion on "defense" annually; Iran, a maximum of $12 billion—less, that is, than the United Arab Emirates, and only 20% of the total defense expenditures of the six Persian Gulf monarchies grouped in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Moreover, the Iranian nuclear "threat" would disappear for good if Obama 2.0 ever decided to push for making the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. Iran and the GCC have endorsed the idea in the past. Israel—a de facto (if never officially acknowledged) nuclear power with an arsenal of up to 300 warheads—has rejected it.

Yet the big picture goes way beyond the strategic gaming of the US and Israel about Iran's possible future arsenal. Its position at the ultimate Southwest Asian strategic crossroads will determine much about the future New Great Game in Eurasia—especially whose version of a modern Silk Road will prevail on the great energy chessboard I call Pipelineistan.

I've argued for years that all these intertwined developments must be analyzed together, including Washington's announced Asian military "pivot" (aka "rebalancing"). That strategy, unveiled in early 2012 by President Obama, was supposed to refocus Washington's attention away from its two disastrous wars in the Greater Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region with a special focus on containing China. Once again, Iran happens to lie right at the heart of that new policy, given how much of its oil and natural gas heads east to China over waters patrolled by the US Navy.

In other words, it hardly matters that Iran is a rickety regional power run by aging theocrats with an only modestly impressive military. The relationship between Obama 2.0 and Iran is guaranteed to involve the nuclear question, but also (whether acknowledged or not) the global flow of energy across Pipelineistan, and Washington's future relations with China and the rest of Asia. It will also involve Beijing's concerted movements to prop up the yuan in relation to the dollar and, at the same time, accelerate the death of the petrodollar. Finally, behind all of the above lies the question of who will dominate Eurasia's twenty-first century energy version of the old Silk Road.

At the 2012 Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) meeting in Tehran, India, Iran, and Afghanistan pushed for the creation of what might be called a new southern Silk Road—really a network of roads, railways, and major ports that would connect Iran and its energy wealth ever more closely to Central and South Asia. For Delhi (as for Beijing), getting closer to both Afghanistan and especially Iran is considered crucial to its Eurasian strategy, no matter how much Washington may disapprove.

India is betting on the port of Chabahar in Iran, China on the port of Gwadar in Pakistan (and of course a gas pipeline from there to Iran) as key transshipment hubs linking Central Asia and the Gulf. Both ports will be key pawns in Pipelineistan's New Great Game, which is quickly slipping from Washington's control. In both cases, despite its drive to isolate Iran, there is little the Obama administration can do to prevent these and other instances of closer Eurasian integration.

Washington's grand strategy for a "Greater Central Asia" under its control once centered on Afghanistan and India. Its disastrous Afghan War has, however, blown a hole through its plans; so, too, has its obsession with creating energy routes that bypass Iran (and Russia), which looks increasingly irrational to much of the rest of Eurasia. The only version of a Silk Road that the Obama administration has been able to devise has been war-related: the Northern Distribution Network, a logistical marathon of routes crisscrossing Central Asia for bringing military supplies into Afghanistan without relying fully on an increasingly unreliable Pakistan.

Needless to say, in the long term, Moscow will do anything to prevent a US/NATO presence in Central Asia. As with Moscow, so with Beijing, which regards Central Asia as a strategic rearguard area when it comes to its energy supply and a place for economic expansion as well. The two will coordinate their policies aimed at leaving Washington in the lurch through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. That's also how Beijing plans to channel its solution for eternally war-torn Afghanistan and so secure its long-term investments in mineral and energy exploitation. Ultimately, both Russia and China want post-2014 Afghanistan to be stabilized by the United Nations.

The ancient Silk Road was humanity's first globalization highway centered on trade. Now, China in particular is pushing for its own ambitious version of a new Silk Road focused on tapping into energy—oil and natural gas—from Myanmar to Iran and Russia. It would, in the end, link no less than 17 countries via more than 8,000 kilometers of high-speed rail (on top of the 8,000 kilometers already built inside China). For Washington, this means one thing: an evolving Tehran-Beijing axis bent on ensuring that the US strategic target of isolating Iran and forcing regime change on that country will be ever just out of reach.

Obama in Tehran?

So what remains of the initial Obama drive to reach out to Iran with an "engagement that is honed and grounded in mutual respect"? Not much, it seems.

Blame it—once again—on the Pentagon, for which Iran will remain a number one "threat," a necessary enemy. Blame it on a bipartisan elite in Washington, supported by ranks of pundits and think tanks, who won't let go of enmity against Iran and fear campaigns about its bomb. And blame it on an Israel still determined to force the US into an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities that it desires. In the meantime, the US military build-up in the Persian Gulf, already at staggering levels, goes on.

Somebody, it seems, has yet to break the news to Washington: we are in an increasingly multipolar world in which Eurasian powers Russia and China, and regional power Iran, simply won't subscribe to its scenarios. When it comes to the New Silk Road(s) linking South Asia, Central Asia, Southwest Asia, and China, whatever Washington's dreams may be, they will be shaped and constructed by Eurasian powers, not by the United States.

As for an Obama 2.0 "Nixon in China" moment transplanted to Tehran? Stranger things have happened on this planet. But under the present circumstances, don't hold your breath.

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times, an analyst for al-Jazeera and the Russian network RT, and a TomDispatch regular. His latest book is Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

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