The nuclear standoff and adversarial objectives that Iran and the US have pursued in the expanded region comprising West Asia, Central Asia and Afghanistan can only be understood in perspective within a larger geopolitical framework. Iran’s aspiration to develop nuclear weapon is directed towards projecting its offensive capacity to dissuade US from acquiring larger regional space working through allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. The nuclear issue revolves around the core issue – Iran’s aspiration to be an independent and strong regional power by maintaining monopoly over energy politics and by developing multidimensional strategies both on land and sea and the American efforts at containing Iran’s ambitions and establishing its hegemony in the region through multiplying the pipelines and cultivating the Rimland countries.
Iran started to turn away from the nuclear agreement of 2015 (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), by choosing incremental violations and time-bound escalations since mid-2019. Meanwhile, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) head Mohammad Eslami has recently claimed that the country has produced more than 120 kilogrammes (265 pounds) of 20 percent enriched uranium dwarfing the numbers put out by a report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) according to which Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium stood at more than 84 kilogrammes (185 pounds), up from 62.8 kilogrammes (138 pounds) three months before.
Notwithstanding the claims and counter-claims, one fact is clear that Iran is engaged in building more advanced centrifuges engendering speculations that it may become a nuclear-weapon power soon unless diplomatic channels open up with the US. However, the diplomatic stalemate continues as Iran wants the US to drop sanctions before it recommits to the deal’s restrictions and the US insists that Iran shows its commitment towards the deal first.
Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the deal has been followed by many significant happenings hardening Iranian stance such as the assassination of the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, who was reportedly working to bolster Iran’s regional power and influence by strengthening its allies and proxies, sabotage attacks on Iranian nuclear sites and assassination of a top nuclear scientist in November this year. Iran has blamed either the US or its ally Israel for these subversive activities against it. The nuclear standoff between Iran and US is just an illustration of geopolitical tensions that characterize bilateral relations between the US and Iran over a host of other regional issues including Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine. These issues, on the other hand, revolve around the core issue which is Iran’s aspiration to be an independent and strong regional power and the American efforts to contain Iran’s ambitions and establish its hegemony in the region. The trust-deficit will continue so long as Washington does not recognize Iranian claims in the expanded area ranging from the West to Central Asian region and Tehran does not reconcile its ambitions with American geopolitical interests.
The Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979 changed the geopolitics in the West Asian region dramatically as it not only ended the status of Iran as an American protégé (Iran courted the US under the ruler Shah), it engendered a long-term Iranian desire to assume an independent role for itself in the region. It became a key challenger to the prevailing status quo in the Persian Gulf which the US with the support of its allies assiduously maintained. To realize its independent status, Iran abandoned the CENTO just after the Islamic revolution and joined Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). It was also witnessed cancelling many weapon orders from the West. The fact that Iran successfully withstood Iraq’s overwhelming military power propped up by the US during the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) although it did not win the war was considered a remarkable achievement in the Iranian foreign policy establishment and enhanced its confidence to play a significant role in regional geopolitics. Following the decline of Iraq’s power position, Iran has been aspiring to be a strong regional power by playing a major role in oil politics and by extending its influence and connectivity with other parts of the region through land and sea. This would not only benefit Iran in terms of trade and supply of oil, it would allow Iran to develop multidimensional strategies based on sea as well as on land.
Historically, all the great powers wanted to master both naval and continental strategies but could develop only one and therefore their power was challenged at one time or the other. In this context, the countries which join Eurasian Heartland with the Indian Ocean have had assumed significance and Nicholas J. Spykman introduced the concept of Rimland to describe these areas. Controlling these regions would not only allow a great power the potential to develop both continental and maritime strategies at the same time, this can be instrumental in sustaining its power in the long-term.
The American and Iranian aspirations have been shaped by pure strategic considerations apart from energy politics. Iran is not only a Rimland country which joins the Eurasian Heartland with the Indian Ocean; it is surrounded by many such countries of strategic significance. While the US sought to cultivate the areas spanning West Asia, Central Asia and Afghanistan in order to be able to develop multidimensional military strategies, Iran has been seeking to attain predominance by undercutting the American strategies and objectives in the expanded region. Great powers’ strategies to prevent regional powers from cultivating the Rimland countries can be observed in the undeclared cooperation of the US and the erstwhile USSR against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and the declared coalition against Iraq in the Gulf War. On the one hand, while both the superpowers militarily supported Iraq to prevent Iran from consolidating the Rimland by a wave of revolutions, they co-operatively destroyed Iraqi military capacity later which had provided Iraq with a superior strategic position in the core of the Rimland on the other.
In a similar vein, Iran’s ambition for a greater regional role was reflected in its attempt to become a nuclear power despite international sanctions, in its massive support for non-state militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in terms of finance and arms, seeking support of the Islamic countries against the occupation of Palestine by Israel and in its continued role of strengthening Shiite groups in the neighboring countries where they are a minority.
Although initially, following the Islamic revolution in 1979, the zeal to export Shiite ideology shaped Iran’s foreign policy, geopolitical considerations played a prominent role in the formulation of its foreign policies later. Unlike the early phase, Iran’s support for groups abroad began to be based on geopolitical considerations. For example, Iran’s relations with hardline Shiite factions, such as al Sadr were occasional, tactical and short term and aimed at undermining the unilateral US policy of excluding Iran from Iraqi politics. Iran was quite aware of the fact that any long term support for the Shiite factions in Iraq would disturb the power equations there and would not serve the interests of Iran in the long run by generating greater regional instability. Similarly, multiple supports for different non-Pashtun groups in Afghanistan to challenge the Taliban during the latter’s rise to power and alleged support for the Taliban to bog down the US forces point to the fact that co-ethnic groups did not remain the permanent constituency for Iranian support.
The geopolitical struggle for power between the US and Iran is not limited to using of proxies and allies. It is worth mentioning that the US with Israeli assistance resorted to cyber attacks in a bid to cripple an Iranian uranium processing facility using a digital worm called Stuxnet a decade before. Ever since, Iran has allegedly launched cyber attacks on US dams, financial systems and government networks. The global presence and interest of the US could enable Iran to find soft targets in a much wider landscape. To counter the US role in the expanded region, Iran has focused on “offensive defence” strategy. This strategy is a way to ensure defence through active military engagement. But the problem lies in the exaggeration of Iranian threat perception which might situate Iran in an irreconcilable position with the US in terms of respective geopolitical interests. According to Barzeger, “experience has shown that the more Iran feels threatened, the more likely it is likely to expand its regional presence”. Iran’s bid for nuclear weapon is directed towards projecting its offensive capacity to dissuade US from acquiring larger regional space working through allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The American drive for predominance in energy politics is grounded in the premise that by multiplying the number of pipelines, it would end the monopoly of a few particular powers such as Russia and Iran over supplying of energy resources. Second, controlling the production and supply of natural resources would require the projection of military power, which would go a long way in securing the supply of these resources to regional allies and denying the same to countries adopting adversarial foreign policies. Therefore, natural resources can be used as an instrument to control and shape foreign policies of state actors.
Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and emergence of the resource-rich Central Asian region, Iran looked for an expanded role for itself spanning from the Persian Gulf to Caspian Sea region. To Iranian advantage, the Central Asian states in their attempts to shed their past Soviet identity and carve an independent identity were willing to diversify their supplies to different markets through various supply routes diluting Russian monopoly over the supply routes.
Iran is better positioned than Pakistan vis-à-vis Central Asian states as the former does not necessarily need Afghanistan as a corridor to connect itself to the Central Asian energy resources for it borders on Turkmenistan and is a direct neighbor of the Central Asian states whereas Pakistan is separated from the Central Asian region by Afghanistan. However, the US engaged Pakistan in its attempts to contain Iran’s regional aspirations and in its bid to provide alternative routes to transfer of Central Asian resources to the world market. It is worthwhile to recall that the shortest and most secure routes from the former USSR’s energy sources to the Gulf Sea passing through Iran had been kept under sanctions by the US since the American Embassy takeover in Tehran.
According to most of the independent energy experts as well as the Western oil companies, Iran provided the shortest and cheapest route to the Gulf and to the South Asian markets as the Central Asian states could plug into the already existing Iranian pipeline system. While the countries of the Caspian Sea region turned their attention towards Iran as a future exit route, Washington sought to deprive Tehran of that privileged role and quickly invigorated its efforts to discuss proposals for alternative pipeline routes with Central Asian states such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline through Turkey and the other one TAP pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan which became TAPI later with India joining the project. Both routes were planned to bypass Iran and Russia.
It is well-documented that US granted official invitation to the presidents of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan for this purpose and it was further alleged that the US administration had exerted pressure on oil companies to accept the projects despite the security and financial non-viability of the projects. Some scholars argue that the US went to the extent of invading and destroying Iraqi oil resources to shoot up the price of oil to make the financially nonviable projects feasible. Paul A. Williams, Tekin and Ali argue “the prolonged damage to Iraq’s oil infrastructure under the occupation and the effects of disrepair and sabotage helped skyrocket the price of oil and made the projects viable. The projects aimed at the containment of Iran more than breaking Russian control over the Caucasus transport corridor.”
From the Iranian perspective, its interest in providing pipelines for the supply of Central Asian energy resources has the long term objective of enabling it to become a regional power rather than merely profiting from the transit fees. Tehran believes besides transit fees, by facilitating oil and gas transit, it would be in a better position to develop trade with the Central Asian region which could eventually become an important market for Iranian manufactured goods.
The nuclear standoff and adversarial objectives that Iran and the US have pursued in the expanded region comprising West Asia, Central Asia and Afghanistan can only be understood in perspective within a larger geopolitical framework. Iran’s aspiration to develop nuclear energy, to act as a bridge between Central Asia and Persian Gulf on the one hand and Central Asia and South Asia on the other for the energy supplies and its desire for leadership role in the West Asian and Central Asian region are some of the long term objectives that have been factored into Iran’s foreign policy making.