Iran Caught in the Middle of the 21st Century Great Game

We are witnessing the wholesale realignment of global economic and political forces. Brexit, and US-China relations are only a few manifestations of a much larger ‘game’. At the heart of the transformation is the creation of a set of direct land routes to Europe from China (across Russia and Iran) and India. This is the so-called “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) or “New Silk Road” project.

Once completed, OBOR, will further integrate the economies of China, Russia, Europe, India and Iran (along with its central Asian neighbors). This will increase the overall volume of trade between these ‘regions’ geometrically. With over 2/3rds the world’s population in the midst of this integration process, it will also account for over 2/3rds of the world economy.  And, because of U.S. sanctions and isolation, much of this trade will be done in an economic context that will exclude the U.S. and the U.S. dollar. This will be devastating for America.

Iran sits squarely in the middle of all this realignment. It is not the first time in Iran’s history that Iran was at the center of a ‘Great Game’ between superpowers.

In the 19th Century, there was a political and diplomatic confrontation between the British and Russian Empires. Russia was fearful of British commercial and military inroads into Central Asia, and Britain was fearful of Russia adding “the jewel in the crown”, India, to the vast empire that Russia was building in Asia. This resulted in an atmosphere of distrust and the constant threat of war between the two empires. Britain made it a high priority to protect all the approaches to India. This confrontation was called the “Great Game”.

Britain intended to gain control over the Emirate of Afghanistan and make it a protectorate, and to use the Ottoman Empire, the Persian Empire, the Khanate of Khiva, and the Emirate of Bukhara as buffer states between both empires. This would protect India and key British sea trade routes by stopping Russia from gaining a port on the Persian Gulf or the Indian Ocean. Russia proposed Afghanistan as the neutral zone. The results included the failed First Anglo-Afghan War of 1838, the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845, the Second Anglo-Sikh War of 1848, the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878, and the annexation of Khiva, Bukhara, and Kokand by Russia.

Iran was ‘stuck then’ ! Today Iran is ‘stuck now’ in a rivalry between the U.S. and China.

The “Great Game” in the 19th Century was devastating for Iran. And it led to a massive shrinkage of Iran’s sovereign territory. In sequential wars with Russia, Iran lost what is now Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to Russia. At the same time Britain supported an Afghan insurgency and splintered Afghanistan from Iran. Over a period of 50 years – Iran lost 50% of its land! And the process has continued even in the 20th Century, with the loss of Iran’s sovereignty in much of the Caspian Sea.

But now, the U.S. is seeking ways to ‘cut’ China’s access to Europe; and even Russia’s access to Europe. This is a difficult task; but Iran sits in the ‘middle’ of both these challenges.

Western Europe is dependent on Russia for energy supply. Its an umbilical cord for both Russia and Europe. Russia needs the income; and Western Europe needs energy security. The only feasible alternative to Russian energy is the Persian Gulf region – including (especially) Iran. To cut Russia from Western Europe, the U.S. must provide alternative sourcing for European energy supplies. A transformed Iran could NOT only be a source of massive energy supply to Europe (and India by the way) – but also provide a land route for other (large) suppliers such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia. Iran also has some degree of political control over other land routes such as Syria and Iraq.

And at the same time, Iran provides an alternate route for Chinese and European flow of goods to each other (circumventing Russia and Kazakhstan). Iran is a key node in China’s OBOR strategy.

Controlling Iran would lead to controlling both China and Russia. And effectively enable the U.S. to cut off increased European dependence (and therefore alliance) with Russia and China. This is the great game!

Iran is key. The question is: Will Russia and China stand with Iran (as the U.S. plays its cards in Iran)? Will China be ‘forced’ to choose between an alliance with the U.S. or an alliance with Russia and Europe?

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