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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Russian Roulette
 
Every now and then Talleyrand finds himself privy to a useful bit of information. Here is one: The Russian government is banking hard on a long-term stake in the European energy distribution system and has geared much of its foreign policy toward that end, not to mention its domestic policy—one of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, that Mikhail Khodorkovsky was imprisoned, for example, was because he reportedly was on the verge of selling Yukos to Exxon/Mobil.

The Russian plan includes, paradoxically, acquiescing (or worse) to Iran’s nuclear program because it has convinced itself (or has been convinced) that Iran is waiting until that program is online before going full speed ahead with its plans for gas export, much of which would presumably transit Russia. Russia along with Iran possesses the largest natural gas reserves in the world. In the words of one well-informed Russian, neither the Americans nor anyone else will dare to intimidate the Iranians once they become a clear-cut nuclear power, which, among other things, will put an end to all the half-baked efforts to exclude it from the most lucrative Eurasian energy markets; and this is only a matter of time.

For their part, European governments needn’t be worried. Indeed, they should support Iran’s nuclear ambitions, according to the Russians, for the simple reason that doing so will ultimately lessen the Russian monopoly over their energy supplies. Now, this certainly is a strange argument. But it continues to be touted by eminent Russians.

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Monday, October 6, 2008

More Proxy Wars
 
The focus of American public opinion now shifts back to Afghanistan, as though its oddly named “war on terror” were a zig zag centered somewhere over Tehran. Indeed, Iran still holds many cards in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as it does elsewhere in that part of the world.

It is sad then to read about people in Washington obsessed with arguing overthe number of troops on a pinhead: where do we send more “to get the job done”? This really is the wrong question.

To put it all simplistically, the Americans and their Iraqi allies to date have been fighting a proxy war against Iran in Iraq with one hand tied behind their back by Sunni insurgents. The USA and NATO now risk worsening an even tougher proxy war in Afghanistan against Sunni hardliners based in and around Pakistan. Here again, they will do so with one hand tied behind their backs—this time by Iran and its own Afghan proxies and by NATO’s own ambivalence over getting sucked deeper into the maze of Pushtun tribal politics.

To this end, Iran’s nuclear brinkmanship poses a gift to the West since the spectre of a nuclear Iran mobilizes all non-Iranians in the Middle East, for better or worse, and places them momentarily and rhetorically on the side of Europe and America. A more creative strategy, then, would do its utmost to play the various sides off one another, keeping in mind that holding their regional vassals in line is as important to many of the men who run Iran as are fantasies of nuclear hegemony.

On the ground this means flipping the Afghan balance on its head: NATO should resist the urge to escalate the conflict with the resurgent Taliban in Helmand and elsewhere, and should instead dangle the prospect of a wider and tougher civil war to persuade the Iranians to step up their own commitment to proxies in other parts of the country so long as they help to mitigate the Taliban resurgence, a prospect that no doubt would not be unpopular in Tehran, not to mention in Herat or Kabul. This would mean in essence the US not only tying a Pakistani hand behind Iranian interests in Afghanistan but also tying an Iranian hand behind the backs of the Taliban in an effort to compel them to 1. change their name and become responsible political players and 2. hand over a respectable number of their most notorious jihadist allies.

Talleyrand is not so experienced with the lands of the East or at least his humility in this instance exceeds his natural deviousness, and so all of the above should be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, such an approach is certainly more attractive than the status quo, which is beginning to see defeat written all over it.

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