Thursday, June 15, 2006

Tomgram: Michael Klare on Playing Chess with Iran

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.

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. Tom

The Tripolar Chessboard

Putting Iran in Great Power Context
By Michael T. Klare

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