(June 6, 2013) Russia and Iran are now aligned against the U.S. and Sunni states.
This article was first published by the National Post.
Oh, for the days of the Cold War, when most of the players were either in the communist Soviet camp or the capitalist American camp, and everyone knew where everyone else stood. Today, with the communist and capitalist labels defunct, it all seems a muddle. How to sort out the players in today’s hot spots, let alone figure out the game, what with Syria a battleground for Russian and EU proxies, Libya having succumbed to NATO, Iran subsuming Iraq, groups like al Qaeda, Hizbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Free Syrian Army and Hamas running states or statelets of their own, and the U.S. skulking in or out or behind most of them?
Here, then, is a Guide to the Perplexed, to help sort out the new alignments. The post Cold War world doesn’t provide all the players with convenient labels but it isn’t all that much more complicated. Think of it as a Cold War Lite, with Russia and the U.S. still the Superpowers, albeit greatly diminished, but with a strong infusion of religion adding a new dimension to the game. In uneasy alliance with the U.S. are Saudi Arabia, Turkey and most of the other Sunni Muslim players. In uneasy alliance with the Russians are Iran and other pro-Shiite Muslim players. The game is geopolitical but the stakes are energy exports, which have both strategic and economic value.
Why is Russia allied with Iran? A chief reason is Chechnya, the breakaway republic that has fought wars against Russia in each of the last two decades, with casualties estimated as high as 200,000 dead among civilians, 40,000 dead among Chechen fighters and 40,000 dead among Russian soldiers. The West doesn’t hear much of these wars, whose toll far exceeds the 80,000 estimate of deaths in Syria, but the threat of both separatism and Islamic fundamentalism looms large within Russia. As Russian President Putin put it, “If extremist forces manage to get a hold in the Caucasus this infection may spread up the Volga River, spread to other republics, and we either face the full Islamization of Russia, or we will have to agree to Russia’s division into several independent states.”
In this potentially existential war against the Chechens, who are Sunnis, Shiite Iran is solidly in Russia’s corner, not only by declaring Russia’s war on Chechens to be an internal Russian affair but by supporting Russia’s claim that the Chechens have been financed by their Sunni brothers in Saudi Arabia, trained by their Sunni brothers in Pakistan, reinforced by Sunni fighters from some 30 to 40 states, and backed diplomatically by Sunni Turkey and the U.S., two countries which both Russia and Iran see as interfering in their spheres of influence.
To limit American influence in the Middle East and beyond, Russia militarily supports Iran — Iran’s nuclear plant comes courtesy of Russia – and Iran’s allies, chiefly Syrian president Assad, who like Putin must repel Saudi-backed Sunni rebels to keep his regime intact. But all these geopolitical maneuvers are also driven by an economic rationale.
Russia and Iran – numbers one and two in world reserves of natural gas — have a common money interest: the domination of gas deliveries to both Europe and Asia, to augment their dominant position as oil exporters. To control energy deliveries, they need to prevent the U.S. and Turkey, their historic regional foe, from muscling into their territory by building competing pipelines. Because Russia and Iran depend entirely on their energy exports for their status as major political players, control over the pipelines becomes vital to guaranteeing markets for their energy and respect, if not obeisance, from their customers.
Opposing the Russia-Iran alliance for both geopolitical and economic reasons are the U.S. and most Sunni states, along with most of the Sunni organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Free Syrian Army. These alliances are not stable, however, because many of the countries in the alliance, being religiously or ethnically diverse, are themselves unstable.
Before the Iranian revolution of 1979 began a sweep of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Middle East, the countries of the then-mostly secular Middle East were aligned with either the Soviets or the West. Once the Middle East shunned secular rule, the countries realigned themselves along religious lines. Sunni Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, which were already in the Western camp, stayed put but Shiite Iran, in overthrowing the Shah, switched to become anti-American. Hybrid countries without overwhelming Sunni or Shiite majorities fit comfortably in neither camp. The resolution — civil war to remove the hybrid — is what we’re seeing now in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. We will likely continue to see civil war in other parts of the Middle East, until these countries break up along religious and ethnic lines, and find their place in the new world alignment.