by Howard Schweber

Huffington Post
Sept 1 2008

Yesterday, Dmitry Medvedev said Russia will provide military aid to
South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This is significant for several reasons,
but the most important may be that a continued Russian presence
means a continued threat to the operation of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan
pipeline. Russian forces did not take over the pipeline in their
operations in Georgia, but they certainly demonstrated that the can
close it down at will and that the U.S. has no military capacity to
stop them -- particularly so long as our forces are tied up in Iraq.

The obvious target of all this is Europe. Russia has established its
willingness to use its control over oil to gain leverage over European
nations, and the Europeans are very rightly afraid of the consequences
of Russian control of the pipelines in Georgia and especially the
pipeline in Ukraine. But it's worth taking a moment to look East: what
does Russia's presence in Georgia do to its relationship with Iran?

First, a little review is in order. First, let's recall the U.S. moves
over the past seven years that have left Russia feeling threatened. The
Bush administration cut off participation in U.S.-Russian actions that
stretched back through the Clinton and G.H.W. Bush administrations,
abrogated the anti-ABM treaty, pushed for the expansion of NATO
right up Russia's borders and have made noises about including
Ukraine and Georgia in the alliance, built an oil and gas pipeline
through Southern Georgia explicitly in order to ensure that it would
be outside Russia's control, armed and trained the Georgian military
and brought the Israelis in to do the same, and reached an agreement
to station missiles and U.S. forces in Poland and Czechoslovakia on
the laughable premise that these nations need to be protected against
Iran. In the last month that pretense has been dropped completely:
Polish government representatives, in particular, are quite explicit
about their desire to have Americans standing in the way of any
Russian incursion to guarantee an American military response.

The point is that Russia is not just feeling unfriendly toward
us; Putin and Medveydev view the U.S. as something close to an
outright enemy. On August 27th Russia's envoy to NATO stated that
U.S. assistance to Georgia would be a "declaration of war"; on August
29th Putin suggested that the U.S. had deliberately encouraged Georgia
to attack South Ossetia in order to help McCain's presidential
campaign and that U.S. military advisors had helped the Georgian
forces during the conflict; today (Sept. 1) Russian sources are
claiming that U.S. ships carrying humanitarian aid have also been
supplying the Georgians with weapons..

Second, a quick review of the background with respect to oil and gas
pipelines. Since 2005 Russia has coveted control over the oil and
natural gas pipelines that run through Georgia, particularly since
the opening of an oil pipeline running from Azerbaijan through Georgia
and into Turkey. Control that pipeline and you control the spigot on
the flow of fuel into Armenia and points South, and into Turkey and
points West. Russia wants control over the pipelines running through
Ukraine for the same reason, which would give Russia total control
over the flow of oil and gas into Europe from the East.

But! Control over the Georgian pipelines also limits the flow
of oil from Iran West and North. In 2006, around the same time
Russia was cutting off fuel supplies to various other nations to
demonstrate its muscle, Gazprom imposed a huge price increase on
Georgia in an effort to coerce it to accept an offer to purchase the
Georgian pipelines. Georgia refused and went looking for suppliers
elsewhere. One source was Azerbeijan; the other was Iran. Russian
control over the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline gives it the ability
to limit Iran's (and Azerbaijan's) ability to sell its own oil and
deprives Georgia of their previous security against a Russian fuel

All of this also provokes the U.S. and Israel, which from Russia's
perspective is also all to the good. Which brings us to the other
news of the day: a positive flurry of reports predicting imminent
military action against Iran. The Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf reports
that Dutch military intelligence has suspended an operation aimed
at sabotaging Iran's weapons industry based on their expectation
of a U.S. attack in the coming weeks, a story that is being pushed
by Israeli sources. Then there is a report in the Sunday Telegraph
about a proposed deal in which Russia would sell sophisticated S-300
anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. A Pentagon official is quoted as
saying "Purchase of S-300 missiles would change the game." Unnamed
U.S. intelligence "operatives" are quoted as saying that Russia
plans to use the proposed sale to create a foreign policy crisis as
a way to test the incoming administration president. In response,
the Israelis reportedly have stopped providing weapons to Georgia,
and have sent representatives to Moscow to try to persuade Russia
not to sell the missiles to Iran.

>From the Russian perspective, all of this is close to ideal: they
have everybody running scared. Having demonstrated their ability to
threaten the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, they have shown Iran that
they can cut off their land route for exports - the only route that
would be available if the Straits of Hormuz were to be closed. (From
the Russian perspective, how great would it be if the U.S. were to
shut down the Straits by a blockade? True, experts have cast doubt
on the feasibility of closing the Straits completely, but no one
really knows what would happen in the event of military action.) If
Russia is really, really lucky the U.S. could remain in an expanded
Iraq-Iran quagmire for a decade or more, absorbing the brunt of
the reactions, increasing resentments throughout the Muslim world,
ensuring a steady stream of terrorist attacks, pushing the Americans to
continue bellicose support for the Israeli Right and its expansionist
strategies -- all of which makes the Russians look positively benign
by comparison. Alternatively, if the U.S., its domestic political
will exhausted, pulls out altogether, to whom can the Arab states
turn for help in containing a potentially expansionist Iran?

Or, well, what is the endgame for Iraq? Five years from now, would
an independent or quasi-independent Kurdish state be interested in
hearing from new allies? The reference to a potential Kurdish state
takes us back to the days of the Great Game. During WW II both the
USSR and UK invaded Iran militarily, followed by a treaty in 1942 that
was supposed to put an end to interference, but didn't. The Soviets
stirred up separatists movements -- notably among the Kurds -- in
an attempt to destabilize the country. At the end of the war Stalin
proposed that Russia and the U.S. simply split Iran between them. We
were horrified, of course, and began our 40 years of intervention in
Iranian politics (remember the Twin Pillars of Stability back in the
1970s?) There are currently 4 million Kurds in Iran, concentrated in
the western part of the country.

So try this scenario. Israel launches preemptive strikes against
Iran with U.S. support. Iran strikes back in various ways (missiles,
terrorist operations, etc.) The U.S. moves aggressively to dislodge
the current Iranian administration by force. Joining us in our war
against terror -- "we have our differences but Islamic terrorism is
a therat to us all" -- Russia moves forces into northern Iran after
using its control of the Georgian pipeline to compel the Azarbaijanis
to permit them to cross their territory. One has to go pretty far
South to get to major oil fields, but even in the Northwest there is
plenty of strategically interesting territory: there is a gas pipeline
into Turkey, a refinery at Tabriz. Now declare a Kurdish puppet state,
with Russian peacekeepers in place just to be sure the Turks do not
launch aggressive military action the way those evil Georgians tried
to do way back in 2008.

No matter what happens, Russia's establishment of a strategic presence
to the South gives it tremendous indirect leverage over the Middle
East, and the missile deal announcement suggests that they want to
continue in that direction. And what opened up the possibility for
all this mischief? Our invasion of Iraq.