If Obama Wants Anything Productive with Iran, He's Going to Have to Show a Little R.e.s.p.e.c.t
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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 U.S. 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 offensiveburning 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.