Now, the New 'Great Game' For Control in Central Asia

One hundred years ago, the Russian czars and British Raj played the sinister "great game" for control of Central Asia. It was a contest of wills through most of the 19th century, spiked with war, proxy wars, and covert derring-do. Russia, pressing down from the north, was held off by Britain, determined to block all approaches to India overland and by sea through the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.

Today, the new "great game" is for access to the wealth of a region almost as large as the US lower 48 states. And the action is not strategically choreographed by two great powers but a free-for-all fought on wobbling, interactive political and economic levels. The United States is deeply engaged. Iran, a pawn in the old game, is a major player in the new.

So is Russia, trying to preserve its influence in five independent states of the defunct Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. With the adjacent Caspian Sea, they hold the richest oil fields outside the Gulf, with twice the reserves of the North Sea and Alaska combined, and equally huge quantities of natural gas.

The economic and political subplots of this modern epic are intertwined. Russia considers the borders of the old Soviet Union to be its own security boundary. It acknowledges the sovereignty of the republics but has troops and border guards stationed in many. Moscow insists its oil and gas go to market in the West through its pipeline, giving it transit revenues and keeping its hands on the region's economic throat.

The Central Asians want to break this monopoly by directing their pipelines south, and big American oil companies, with billions of dollars already invested, are more than willing to help. Washington is, too, through close relations with the Central Asians and Azerbaijan, the Caspian oil giant. But the US has so many other fish to fry with Russia that it won't antagonize Moscow over energy. Iran is a different story. There, US policy is increasingly self-defeating.

US-Iranian relations have been a disaster since the Shah, America's man in the Gulf, was replaced by a radical theocracy; and especially since the hostage crisis of 1979-80. Washington's fury led it to support Saddam Hussein of Iraq in his war against Iran, creating a Frankenstein's monster that has haunted two administrations. The US has pursued isolation and embargo of Iran, justifying it by the brutality that marked the regime's actions at home and abroad. Even now, when there are signs of change in Tehran and when it is clear that containment has failed, Washington plows ahead.

At the end of December, Iran opened a big gas pipeline to Turkmenistan, as the natural export route for Central Asia. From Iran, which also can load tankers, the pipelines run west through Turkey and east through Pakistan to India and beyond. It also is the only reliable pipeline route until the nightmare of Afghanistan is ended.

President Clinton opposes the export of oil and gas across Iran. Congress has alienated allies and friends with the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, which would punish foreign companies that invest more than $20 million in Iran's oil industry. Both presidential rhetoric and congressional sanctions are blowing in the wind. They canceled a $1 billion Iranian oil contract with a US oil company but didn't prevent the $23 billion Turkish gas and pipeline deal with Iran. Nor did they hinder a $2 billion investment by French, Russian, and Malaysian companies to develop Iranian offshore gas and oil fields.

If anyone's isolated, it's the US. Late last year, two international meetings took the political temperature in the Gulf. One, sponsored by Washington, was a fiasco, boycotted by most Arab states including pro-American Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Morocco. A few weeks later, Tehran hosted those countries and others at a summit meeting of the 55-nation Islamic Conference Organization. Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia represented ailing King Fahd, bringing a curtain from the door of the Holy Kaaba of Mecca, Islam's most sacred shrine. It was a deeply symbolic act between Islam's two major branches, Shiite and Sunni. Not long ago, Saudis were accusing Iran of responsibility for bombing the al-Khobar US Air Force compound.

IRAN is mending fences all around, recently sending home 500 Iraqi prisoners of war, expanding trade with Russia, and wooing the Arab states of the Gulf by toning down Shiite radicalism. It has restored relations with the European Union, which withdrew all its ambassadors when a trial for the murder of Iranian dissidents in Berlin implicated Iranian officials at the highest level. The EU's envoys have now returned, essentially on Iran's terms.

All believe only normal contact will influence Iran's course. In a recent broadcast to Americans, President Mohammad Khatami urged a start down that road through cultural - not political - exchanges. He seemed to be looking over his shoulder at his own hard-liners; and he may need a response from the US to justify going further. Washington's first reaction, however, was to stand pat. It would do well to reconsider.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on foreign affairs.

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