Tuesday, February 22

The price of Indian tea in Iran

"Pundita, I'm seeing why you still refer to the Group of 8 as the G7. There's a move afoot to get Russia's membership suspended until Putin toes America's line. Russia's place in the group is still not secure, even though they were supposed to host the G8 summit in 2006.
[Signed] Caesar in San Francisco"

Dear Caesar:

During his Brussels speech Bush spoke of Russia taking their full place in the European community. He criticized Moscow's actions in the context of how they fit with the standards of the EU. Moscow has been very concerned that NATO's expansion is 'surrounding' Russia. Bush's speech seemed to be saying to Moscow, 'Where's the problem? If you keep your nose clean, you can join the WTO and down the line you can join the EU and NATO.'

The problem is that Russia doesn't need to become a part of the Europeon community. Russia sits on the invisible line that divides Asia and Europe. During earlier centuries a series of French diplomats managed to convince Russia's tsars that they were barbarians unless they learned to speak French. But today's Russia doesn't need to fit in with Europe. They can fit in with Asia.

European Union countries as well as the US were deeply involved in promoting Yushchenko--an involvement that included trashing Russia. So if Russia needed a lesson on where they'd stand in NATO and the EU if they joined, the Ukraine affair was it. The lesson is that Russia can be treated as a full-fledged European country only if the people running Russia allow Brussels a big say in how Russia is run.

That's the same message Dame Neville-Jones conveyed to the National Intelligence Conference during her keynote speech--not about Russia but about Europe's view of the United States. She was not speaking in an official capacity but her previous standing in the British government gives her words much weight. Stripped of polite language, the message she passed on is that the EU's idea of improved cooperation with Washington is for things to return to the way they were during the Clinton era. That was the era during which US foreign/defense policy was run from a post box in Brussels.

I add that Neville-Jones is a Good Guy--a very staunch friend of the US war on terror. That's why she squished herself into the middle seat of Coach class to fly from London to Washington just to deliver a heads up to the US defense community.

It's doubtful that President Bush first heard the warning via Neville-Jones's speech. It's obvious that the EU has taken a hard line toward Washington and there's no indication they plan to soften, even if they find agreement over Syria's role in Lebanon. The EU leaders want to have more say in how US defense/foreign policy is run; if they don't get it, they can drag their feet on a host of issues. From that view, Bush's tough stance on Russia can be read as a bone thrown at the EU's demands for more say in US policy.

However, there have been big changes in the world since the US invaded Iraq. The US triumph in Iraq--and it is a triumph--brought up a situation that was greatly suppressed because of Saddam Hussein's aggression in the Middle East. The situation is that Iran is a Persian island in a sea of Arabs. As long as Iran could act to keep Saddam's aggression in check, Arabs were happy to invite Iran to their backyard barbecues. But now that Saddam's threat is removed, Iran is feeling, well, like an island. And they aren't going to reach out to Israel--not as long as the present regime in Tehran is in power.

What would you do, in Tehran's position? For the answer, look at a map. Iran sits on that invisible line that divides the Middle East from Asia. Iran has long been a big purchaser of Russian weapons technology and so they've had good relations with Russia. But to interest Russia in forming a bloc would take more than arms trade. It would take a bunch of countries getting on board.

The map shows that the first choice among the bunch is China. That was Beijing's idea when they formed the hilariously named Shanghai Cooperative. Beijing envisioned an Asian arc of power that included Russia, Iran, India and various satellites, such as whatever Stans the bloc could pry away from US influence.

Put in unpussyfooting language, the Shanghai Cooperative is a pussyfooting attempt to form an Asian version of NATO. Vajpayee had his own idea; he wanted to create an IT trade alliance with China that would leave the EU trade bloc and the US eating dust for the rest of the century.

One sticking point for Vajpayee's party was bringing Tehran on board with the Shanghai Cooperative. The Islamic fundamentalists in Tehran don't say nice about Hindus behind their back. Vajpayee's party represents Hindu nationalism. Iran didn't see why they should be allies with India and vice versa. So the Shanghai Cooperative sort of bumped along in getting off the ground.

Also, Iran and Russia, having many centuries of experience with China, knew that the Chinese have a penchant for never naming anything for what it actually is, if it has unpleasant or forceful connotations. That's why Chinese gulags in Tibet were given names such as Bluebirds Nesting in Feathered Fan.

To boil it down, Tehran and Moscow weren't sure they wanted to be run from a post office box in Beijing. Months passed. Moscow waffled and watched India and China waltz each other around, and Iran lost a lot of money and caused a lot of unnecessary bloodshed while trying to swing things their way in post-Saddam Iraq. Meanwhile, large numbers of Indians were getting more and more steamed at Vajpayee, who was so busy entertaining Microsoft executives and wooing China that he neglected his voter base. In what was a stunning surprise to no one but Vajpayee, the Hindu nationalists were routed last year from the seat in Delhi and the Congress party returned to power.

The thing to write on your hand about the Congress party is that they trust China no further than they can throw it. And with a Sikh in the top post in India--Sikhs being sort of an Indianized Islamic sect with a few nods to Hinduism--Tehran found they could deal with India, after Tehran faced the writing on the wall about Iraq and looked around at the sea of Arabs lapping at their shore.

The upshot is that Tehran is talking up the creation of a common market that would include India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, the Central Asian states, and the Caucasus. Just to show they're willing to put their money where their mouth is, Tehran has dropped import barriers to Indian tea.

Tehran is doing more than agreeing to drink Indian tea. They want India to back them up regarding Tehran's stance on going nuclear. As sweetener, they've offered India a gas pipeline deal and India has reciprocated with all kinds of planned investment in Iran.

Thus, the outlines of the early 21st century are jelling. For all their hi-tech industrial knack, the EU, America, India and China are heavily dependent on regions in Russia, the Caspian Sea states, and the Middle East for energy supplies. Tehran has sized up the situation, and is making a pitch to Russia to play by the new geopolitical order.

Now put yourself in Putin's place listening to the pitch from Tehran. Putin's overriding concern is to build up Russia as a truly sovereign nation and from there a stable democracy. Imagine Dallas, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago running their own foreign policy counter to Washington's. That's pretty much where Russia's at.

Moscow has to get control of the regional governors and the oligarch clans. Putin doesn't want to do it by brute force, in the way China and Iran solved similar problems. So it's messy because Putin and his technocrats are making up solutions and correcting them as they go along.

Washington and Brussels don't care about the mess. They care about oil and gas and gas and oil and oil and gas. Russia has no other use to them other than maybe a place to set up US/NATO bases. Quite frankly, Russia doesn't have all that much offer during this era, aside from energy and a weapons industry left over from the Cold War era.

For now, Putin is trying to keep everyone at bay while he continues to fiddle with structural adjustment in the effort to wrest Russia away from the clan model of government.

The question is whether Bush should approach Russia in the way he indicated in his Brussels speech. His lecture to Russia might be a reflection of pressure from factions in the Democrat and Republican party that want to go along with Europe's lead on Russia.

However, the factions are still living in 1982 and Bush knows this. So we'll have to see what happens in Bratislava, now that Bush made his bread-and-butter speech to the EU and made a pass at placating the factions back home.

Just to throw in more suspense, Pundita suspects that Germany is particularly against the Bush-Putin friendship. Germany, we should all remember, is the most influential member of the European Union.

For more on Iran-India talks:

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