Dimensions and Consequences of NATO Expansion to Eurasia: Reviewing Iran’s Security Environment

Print Friendly


Arif Kemal[*]


(NATO expansion on Iran’s northern flank is a reminder of the latter’s encirclement which reached a pinnacle earlier in the decade with the US ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. However the driving force behind NATO expansion in the Eurasian region is energy and trade centred thereby signifying an obvious European dimension. A “new Great Game” is being enacted in the region in which Czarist Russia and Imperial Britain have been replaced on the one hand by the US-led coalition and, on the other, by Russia and China. A neo-Cold War could be in the making. To achieve the multiple objectives of energy security, trade corridors, stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan and stemming the resurgence of the Taliban, co-opting rather than isolating Iran is essential. Policy revisions, therefore, need to be made by both Washington as well as by Tehran. Editor)

NATO expansion on Iran’s northern flanks is a reminder, if any were needed, of the country’s encirclement. Earlier in the decade, the process had reached its zenith with the US military ventures in Afghanistan in the east, and Iraq in the west. Yet the accretion in the ‘encirclement’ caused by NATO’s expansion is primarily motivated by energy and trade interests thereby signifying an obvious European connection which, in turn, implies that it is   not patently Iran-specific. The measure lacks the potency to outweigh Iran’s geo-political standing or to deny it the dividends that are built into the very opening of the great landmass of Central Asia and the Caucuses to Europe and the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, NATO presence in the region faces competition from Russia and China, which casts doubt upon its sustainability. The ‘New Great Game,’ being played out on Iran’s northern flanks, therefore, presents both challenges as well as opportunities that are critical to the country’s current strategic environment as it confronts, in parallel,  the sanctions’ regime imposed by the US after the 1979 Revolution.

‘The New Great Game’ in the contemporary Eurasian scene is a replay of the 19th century contest for advantage in the region. The old actors, Czarist Russia and Imperial Britain, have been replaced by the US-led coalition with a sizeable West European interest on the one side, and, on the other by Russia (as well as China). The competing players do share common ground on the perceived threat emanating from ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’ in the backdrop of 9/11. However, the game as it emerges today, essentially relates to control over energy resources, development and pricing, and supply routes that are vital to the Western economies. It has already set in motion NATO’s active engagement, both economic and military, with newly independent states in the region, and has led to an evolving response from Russia and China that smacks of a neo-Cold War in the making. Concurrently, the contest holds the promise of greater openings in trade to and from Central Asia and of its long-term development. In the scenario, Iran ought to be seen as the foremost gatepost in the neighbourhood and thus very much in the fall-out range.

To recall, NATO’s ascent in Central Asia was at first identified with the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) Programme started in the mid-1990s and later with the high visibility gained with its military presence. The alliance has, since 2003, successfully negotiated military transit agreements and other support arrangements with several Central Asian governments in order to linkup with its operational bases in Afghanistan. It is now designated as an area of NATO’s “special focus.”[1]

The core US objectives in Central Asia relate to “securing access to energy resources”[2] (energy supply routes in more specific terms), besides efforts to limit ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islamic extremism,’ as well as promote human rights and democracy. The primacy of energy in its agenda is based on the premise that, in the coming decades, energy scarcity and manipulation are likely to become the most likely causes of armed conflict in the European theatre and the surrounding region. In this context, NATO has a new “expanded role in energy security”[3] and, towards this end, is forging strategic partnership equations with the energy-rich states in Central Asia and the Caucuses.

The focal points of the Western interest to-date are the evolving route maps of energy supply to Europe, whether potential or actualized, and the investments that come in the way. Interestingly, these ventures rest upon the premise of minimizing the Russian and Iranian connections and thus denying these geographically contiguous powers any leverage they could possibly exercise. The case in point is the BTC pipeline, “designed to challenge Russian hegemony over energy in the Caspian region”[4] and already regarded a success story. It “relives Azerbaijan from dependence on Russia”[5] and brings dividends to Azerbaijan as well as Europe. Similarly, the option to carry Turkmen gas to the Indian Ocean via western Afghanistan, by-passing Iran, has been in the offing for quite some time. It would serve “as a symbol and milestone”[6] analogous to the window that BTC is already providing. These developments are seen as “a help to break the Russian and Iranian energy transit monopoly.”[7]

Conversely, Russia’s drive in the region aims at enforcing its role as the source and conduit of energy supply to Europe. Moscow’s economic goals extend to ensuring that its firms participate in developing the region’s natural resources and the “Central Asian oil and gas exporters continue to use Russian pipelines.”[8] In pursuing the objectives, it would like to maximize its inherent geographical advantage and interdependence from the Soviet era, including transport infrastructure for oil, gas and electricity. Concurrently, Russia continues to increase, in qualitative terms, its military activity in Central Asia around the erstwhile nucleus it inherited from the Soviet era.

The evolving Russian posture in the contemporary setting relates to “restoring Moscow’s influence”[9] in the region as a matter of priority rather than acquiesce with its exclusion. (Interestingly, President Putin is reported to have described the Soviet Union’s collapse as one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century”).[10] Russia’s message across the board in Central Asia is to caution against the US presence as a major source of instability, in the wake of its drive for ‘democratization’ and ‘human rights,’ and to call for greater interdependence within the region to ward off US pressure.

The resurgence of Russia–China ‘community of interest’ in check-mating the American inroads into Central Asia, even though in low key, is a phenomena of considerable interest. Both have shared an ‘unease at the elevated US deployment’[11] in Central Asia since 2001 and have cooperated to “reduce the US influence in the region.”[12] Besides the traditional Russian stakes, a newer driving force in the direction is China’s growing energy needs and efforts to acquire greater assets in the field.  Their leverage to prevent US encroachment into the spheres of influence would enlarge as they accrue more Central Asian energy assets. Contrary to earlier projections, the post-Soviet era Central Asia is “not an object of rivalry”[13] between Moscow and Beijing but ‘rather a major unifying element’ in their relationship.

An overarching objective in the Sino-Russian Strategic Partnership (1996) and its culmination in the Good Neighbourly Treaty of Friendship (2001) (‘love thy neighbour camaraderie’[14]), is to ‘limit US influence in Central Asian geo-politics.’[15] This came to the fore with the 2005 Sino-Russian military exercises, seen as a ‘grand affair’ that took place to the exclusion of US troops even though located in proximate bases. In the current scenario, the Shanghai process has emerged as a flag-carrier of the new direction. The process though initially precipitated by a drive against ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism,’ is now vital from the standpoint of its core participants: energy-rich Central Asians, and from the agenda that can take shape from a Sino-Russian convergence of interests.[16] The SCO summit (2005) caused a stir when it called the US and its allies “to set a timetable for their military withdrawal”[17] from the region.  The non-renewal of the US base in Uzbekistan in the period was indeed a test case in this regard.

What does the contemporary Eurasian scene signify for Iran and its security preoccupations? The region’s proven oil and gas reserves[18] are indeed tempting and perceived important as a strong alternative to the Persian Gulf energy.[19] It offers the possibility to ‘reduce the West’s perennial vulnerability to price increases and threatened cut-offs.’ The West is not ready to overlook the potential threat from political turmoil or terrorist threat in the Middle East and from the vulnerability of the Straits of Hormous, the lifeline of oil flow from the Gulf. “The use of energy as an overt weapon” is no more seen as theoretical.[20] Only a halt in Iran’s export of 3.5 million barrels a day carries the potential of destabilizing the world energy market.[21] In more specific terms, a contracting interest in Iran as a viable energy source even though a distant possibility, raises questions regarding Iran’s economic security. Secondly, the development of Eurasian energy potential and related infrastructure would not be unwelcome in the contemporary globalized environment. However, Iran’s exclusion in an expanded development, especially related to infrastructure linkup with Europe, would run counter to the country’s long-term interest. It is therefore, in Iran’s benefit to avail opportunities to participate in Central Asian infrastructure development projects, even as a minor investor, so as to keep its foothold in the arena, work towards eroding the US sanctions regime and thus relieve pressures. The ‘Great Game’ in which Russia and China are players, also holds the promise of dividends for Iran as a gatepost.

NATO’s operation on Iran’s northern flank has unfolded a mix of the alliance’s ‘soft power’ (expressed in funding through the Euro Atlantic Partnership Programme) and ‘hard power’ (military bases/transit facilities) in line with activation of its energy–related interests. The military presence, though ostensibly a bridgehead for Afghanistan, tends to accentuate Iran’s fears arising from the US policy of containment. The northern factor, however small and transient, remains flagged in the wake of the massive US presence in Afghanistan and Iraq and operational bases in the Gulf. At least on the psychological level, this acquires particular significance amidst the oft-repeated possibility of surgical strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations.

Threat perceptions, whether rhetorical or real, have fuelled the fire of turbulent relations between Iran and the West, particularly the US, in the past decades since 1979. The Islamic Revolution was regarded a strategic loss[22] to the West’s primary interests in relation to Middle Eastern oil and Israel’s defence. The fears of what is seen as the country’s role in promoting ‘terrorism’ and now the focus on the nuclear programme, are only sequential to this concern. In the long journey through the sanctions’ regime, Iran has been viewed as the “single country that may pose the greatest danger to US interest.”[23] This, in turn, has convinced the US about the need to clip Iran’s wings and pursue a policy of containment.

The US policy of containment that overshadowed Iran’s security environment since 1979, is indeed up for a ‘reality-check’ so as to gauge its potency in the contemporary scene. Since the unfolding of the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s relations with the West and its proxies in the neighbourhood have been turbulent. The country “felt politically isolated, insecure and, above all, threatened[24]” in the backdrop of its exposure to WMD-capable Iraq, an unstable region and lack of international support. Almost three decades later, however, ‘most conditions have changed in Iran’s favour.’[25] Hopes for a change of regime have faded away. With the demise of al-Baath, there is no real threat to Iranian security from Iraq. In contrast to past decades, Iran enjoys good relations with most of the states within the region (Israel excluded) and is establishing growing economic relations with major powers. The sanctions’ regime has not bought about the isolation of Iran that was intended.

Ironically, the containment of Iran carried with it the seeds of reverse effect as well. Iran has been the greatest though un-intended, beneficiary of the US ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq: the fall of the Salfi-driven Taliban and of the Saddam-led Al-Baath. The collapse of the rivals on both flanks had, in turn, opened flood gates of Iranian influence beyond the traditional realm.[26] It also generated fears amongst the status quo forces regarding the so-called Shia Crescent which, in effect, transcends the sectarian divide.[27] There is a climatic change: Iran is acknowledged and respected as a regional player,[28] not just feared or dismissed as a coordinate point of radical forces. Rather than isolate and put the ‘squeeze’ on Iran, it would serve Washington’s interests more, if it pursues the opposite policy. Through co-opting Tehran, the US would be better placed to unknot the Iraqi quagmire and to stabilize Afghanistan so as to thwart the resurgence of the Taliban.

The potency of any particular threat from the north is perceptibly marginal in the overall containment scenario faced by Iran. Moreover, it carries greater inbuilt safety valves when compared with other flanks. First, Iran’s geographic disposition and its position as the region’s point of access to the outside world is indeed greater and more enduring than what any contrary assessment may like to project. Second, this advantage is re-enforced by institutional arrangements[29] which now extend to coordination and response to encroachments that come from extra-regional forces. Iran’s entry as an observer in the Shanghai process, besides being a member of the Economic Cooperation Organization and the club of Caspian region, adds to the strength[30] of the argument that it is relevant to   contemporary security concerns in the region. Third, an organic linkage between ‘Russian resurgence’ and its ‘strategic stakes’ in Iran is indeed a vital factor in the current scenario.[31] The competing interests of Russia (and of China) in Eurasia provide Iran sufficient time and space to increase its economic engagement in the region, specially a foothold in energy-related infrastructure investment, and thus, further erode the impact of the sanctions’ regime.

The American sanctions regime already suffers from fatigue and erosion[32] and therefore, newer steps unfolded in the direction are out of touch with reality. The US pronouncements and actions vis-à-vis Iran, though impregnated with negative images, continue to carry acknowledgement of the country’s important standing as a repository of the third largest oil and second largest gas reserves in the world and its ‘central location between Asian and European markets.[33] Today, the prime interest for stability in the oil-bearing region would be best served through a better understanding of the Iranian situation on three counts: First, Iran is now a front-ranking regional power in spite of the sanction-ridden history. Second, what Iran seeks today is recognition of this status rather than exporting revolution. The nuclear issue ought to be seen as one major denominator of this urge. Third, isolation of the Iranians is likely to push them back to the psyche of the post-revolutionary period, which should be avoided. Notwithstanding the neo-conservative mindset and Israeli interests, it is important from the standpoint of American interests to have a re-engagement with Iran even though incremental, and to benefit from the Iranian factor in assuring long-term stability in the region. This may come in time with the increasing US need to find an ‘exit strategy’ from Iraq and for that, a reduction of tensions with Iran would be needed.[34]

The Russia-China convergence of interests in response to NATO’s expansion in Eurasia and their appreciation of Iran’s standing, is indeed a source of strength for the Iranian endeavour to look beyond the ‘era of containment.’ This also raises questions about the very sustainability of NATO’s presence in the region. Iran can hopefully rely upon this factor as a balancer while factoring in the need for a future reconciliation with the US.


[*] Arif Kamal is a former Ambassador of Pakistan

[1] Richard Weitz, “Averting a New Great Game in Central Asia”, The Washington Quarterly, (Summer 2006), pp. 155-167.

[2] Ibid.

[3] U.S Sen. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Dick Lungar, “Lungar Speech in Advance of NATO Summit”, The Power and Interest News Report, (November 22, 2006).

[4] Michael Piskur, “The B.T.C Pipeline and the Increasing Importance of Energy Supply Routs”, (The Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation, August 8, 2006).

[5] Nicklas Norling and Niklas Swanstrom, “The Virtues and Potential Gains of Continental Trade in Eurasia”, Asian Survey, Vol. XLVII, No. 3, (May/June 2007).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ariel Cohen, “US Interests and Central Asia Energy Security”, Backgrounder # 1984, (The Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation, November 15, 2006).

[8] Richard Weitz, “Averting a New Great Game in Central Asia”, The Washington Quarterly, (Summer 2006), pp. 155-167.

[9] Ariel Cohen, “US Interests and Central Asia Energy Security”, Backgrounder # 1984, (The Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation, November 15, 2006).

[10] Richard Weitz, “Averting a New Great Game in Central Asia”, The Washington Quarterly, (Summer 2006), pp.155-167.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ariel Cohen, “US Interests and Central Asia Energy Security”, Backgrounder # 1984, (The Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation, November 15, 2006)

[13] Richard Weitz, “Averting a New Great Game in Central Asia”, The Washington Quarterly, (Summer 2006), pp.155-167.

[14] Priyanka Singh, “Russia and China Joint War Games: What Lies Beneath?”, (September 8, 2005): http://www.ipcs.org/China_east_asia_articles2.jsp?action=showView&kValue=1848&keyArticle=1009&issue=1009&status=article&mod=a

[15] Ibid.

[16] Rukmani Gupta, “The SCO: Challenging US Pre-eminence?”, (June 20, 2006): http://www.ipcs.org/China_east_asia_articles2.jsp?action=showView&kValue=2056&issue=1009&status=article&keyArticle=1009&mod=b

[17] Richard Weitz, “Averting a New Great Game in Central Asia”, The Washington Quarterly, (Summer 2006), pp.155-167.

[18] According to the Energy Information Administration of the United States, Kazakhstan’s proven oil reserves amount to 40 billion barrels per day whereas her natural gas reserves range between 65-100 T cf. Proven oil reserves of Caspian region in totality range from 17-49 billion barrels per day and its natural gas reserves currently amount to 232 T cf.

Persian Gulf region, on the other hand possesses oil reserves of 728 billion barrels per day i.e. 55% of world’s proven oil reserves, whereas its Natural gas reserves currently stand at 2509 T cf i.e. over 40% of world’s total natural gas reserves

[19] Ariel Cohen, “US Interests and Central Asia Energy Security”, Backgrounder # 1984, (The Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation, November 15, 2006)

[20] U.S Sen. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Dick Lungar, “Lungar Speech in Advance of NATO Summit”, The Power and Interest News Report, (November 22, 2006).

[21] Tariq Fatemi,  “Is US determined to attack Iran”?, Dawn Newspaper, (February 18, 2006).

[22] Dr. Subhash Kapila, “Iran: United States – Strategic Options Re Examined”, South Asia Analysis Group, (April 18, 2007): http://www.saag.org/%5Cpapers23%5Cpaper2213.html.

[23] Jim Saxton, “Iran’s Gas and Oil Wealth”, The Joint Economic Committee Study of United States Congress, (March 2006)

[24] James E. Doyle and Sara Kutchesfahani, “Time for a US/Iran Patch up”, (March 21, 2006): http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/LosAlamos_Iran.pdf.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Geoffrey Kemp, “Iran and Iraq: The Shia Connection, Soft Power and the Nuclear Factor”, Special Report 156, (November 2005): http://www.usip.org/pubs/specialreports/sr156.pdf.

[27] The term “Shia Crescent” has been used by Jordan’s King Abdullah twice during 2004-2006 to denote the expanding Iranian influence among states and non-state actors in West Asia. A convergence of interest amongst the  non-state actors across the sectarian divide, was repeatedly expressed in the period:  e.g Hizbullah and Hamas shared fora to mobilize political support. Similarly,  Iraq’s Shia leader Muqtada Sadr proclaimed himself as the “beating arm of both Hamas and Hisbullah….” (Khutba at Kufa Grand Mosque during 2004 revolt in Faluja).

[28] Ray Takeyh and Nikolas K. Gvosdev, Pragmatism in the Midst of Iranian Turmoil”, The Washington Quarterly, (The Centre for Strategic and International Studies and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Autumn 2004)

[29] Priyanka Singh, “Russia and China Joint War Games: What Lies Beneath?”, (September 8, 2005): http://www.ipcs.org/China_east_asia_articles2.jsp?action=showView&kValue=1848&keyArticle=1009&issue=1009&status=article&mod=a.

[30] Rukmani Gupta, “The SCO: Challenging US Pre-eminence?”, (June 20, 2006): http://www.ipcs.org/China_east_asia_articles2.jsp?action=showView&kValue=2056&issue=1009&status=article&keyArticle=1009&mod=b.

[31] Dr. Subhash Kapila, “Iran: United States – Strategic Options Re Examined”, South Asia Analysis Group, (April 18, 2007): http://www.saag.org/%5Cpapers23%5Cpaper2213.html.

[32] Lt Col Robert C. Dooley, “Iran: Threat or Opportunity? A Selective Economic Engagement Strategy Proposal”, (Washington: National Defence University, National War College: http://www.ndu.edu/library/n4/n045601I.pdf.

[33] For insights into the American view of the Iranian potential, see: “Iran’s Gas and Oil Wealth”, The Joint Economic Committee Study of United States Congress, (March 2006).

[34] For a fuller review of the subject, see International Crisis Group, “Iran in Iraq: How much Influence?” (March 2005, Brussels)