Thursday, October 30, 2008

Between a rock and a hard place

There has always been a very close relationship between war and natural resources – from cavemen fighting over a hunt to colonialism to a whole host of conflicts since. As time has passed, many of these conflicts have gone soft – meaning non-violent confrontations via soft power, which are equally as destabilizing. We may be seeing the rumblings of another conflict of just this sort. The next American president is going to face a tough decision between two gas lines through the Caucuses: either Europe gets natural gas from Iran, or Russia gets to horde the continent’s energy supplies for a generation. Neither is a very tantalizing choice.

They may seem like to diverging conflicts: Iranian influence and nuclear weapons and Russia’s threat to European security. Iran will be an existential threat to the Israel and the stability of the world, and if Russia decides to sell its rockets and war heads or air-defense systems, or vetoes sanctions, even more so. By contrast, Russia’s threat to Europe is a slowly evolving reality: Europe ends up more beholden to Russian energy czars in a politically unhealthy way.

Europe’s energy future lies in a much talked about but thus far unrealized independent pipeline, the Nabucco (meaning “freeing the slaves”). The line would take gas from Central Asia and the Caspian via Turkey to the Balkans and Central Europe in the hopes of replicating the success of two lines that cross Georgia, which have significantly dented Russia’s grip on the east-west routes (see: the August War). Russia is trying hard to block this line. It has revived the idea of an international gas cartel with Qatar and Iran, and offered an alternative project, the South Stream pipeline (again, see: the August War). Backed by Gazprom and Italy’s ENI it already has support from Austria, Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia. This creates exactly the kind of contest that the Kremlin likes, in which European countries battle each other to get the best deal from Russia.

This only works because the EU is disorganized and flailing. European leaders publically maintain that the two lines are not competitors, which could not be further from the truth. Nabucco means relative energy independence from Russia, who has always used energy supply as a means of political leverage against Europe, while South Stream means increased Russian dominance and control over Europe’s energy supplies and costs. Complicating matters is the lack of gas independently available. Securing the Nabucco would mean huge, orchestrated diplomatic pushes from the EU and America in countries like Turkmenistan, and would require the construction of a Transcaspian gas pipeline.

Nabucco is technically easier to build than South Stream (South Stream would go through the deep, toxic, and rocky depths of the Black Sea). However, it faces legal obstacles and could be vetoed by both Russia and Iran. As Zeyno Baran of the Hudson Institute recently argued, “the fortunes of the two pipelines are inversely related.”

And here is where the next American president will find dilemma. Befriending Iran, as it appears a President Obama may attempt to do, would create problems for Russia. An Iranian bypass around the Caspian allows Turkmen gas, and Iran’s reserves for that matter, to flow to Turkey and then on to Europe via the Nabucco. But the American officials, politicians, and analysts who are concerned about Russia tend to also be skeptical about starting talks with the mullahs or even allowing Iranian gas to flow through an American-supported pipeline, for good reason (this would create another huge funding sources for terror groups – see Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed – an excellent and well researched read, increase Iran’s political stock, empower current leadership by opening an Iranian commodity to a huge market, etc).

Supporting the Russian project would mean subjecting our European allies to the whims of hostile Russia, yet it would also mean a higher likelihood of receiving Russian support at the UN for sanctions and actions against Iran. Supporting the European project would mean increasing the influence of Iran in the world and demonstrating, for the first time, that America is reassessing its support of Israel. Neither a President Obama nor a President McCain is going to want to have to entertain this thought, but one of them is going to have to.

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