Michael T. Klare: The Tripolar Chessboard


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

Jun 16 2006
The Tripolar Chessboard: Putting Iran in Great Power Context
By Michael T. Klare

For months, the American press and policy-making elite have portrayed the crisis
with Iran as a two-sided struggle between Washington and Tehran, with the 
European powers as well as Russia and China playing supporting roles. It is 
certainly true that George Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are 
the leading protagonists in this drama, with each making inflammatory statements
about the other in order to whip up public support at home. But an informed 
reading of recent international diplomacy surrounding the Iranian crisis 
suggests that another equally fierce -- and undoubtedly more important -- 
struggle is also taking place: a tripolar contest between the United States, 
Russia, and China for domination of the greater Persian Gulf/Caspian Sea region 
and its mammoth energy reserves.

When it comes to grand strategy, top Bush administration officials have long 
attempted to maintain American dominance of the "global chessboard" (as they see
it) by diminishing the influence of the only other significant players, Russia 
and China. This classic geopolitical contest began with a flourish in early 
2001, when the White House signaled the provocative course it planned to follow 
by unilaterally repudiating the U.S.-Russian Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and 
announcing new high-tech arms sales to Taiwan, which China still considers a 
breakaway province. After 9/11, these initial signals of antagonism were toned 
down in order to secure Russian and Chinese assistance in fighting the war on 
terror, but in recent months the classic chessboard version of great-power 
politics has again come to dominate strategic thinking in Washington.

Advancing the Strategic Pawns

This resurgence was perhaps first signaled on May 4, when Vice President Dick 
Cheney went to Lithuana, the former Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), to lambaste
the Russian government at a pro-democracy confab. He accused Kremlin officials 
of "unfairly and improperly" restricting the rights of Russian citizens and of 
using the country's abundant oil and gas supplies as "tools of intimidation 
[and] blackmail" against its neighbors. He also condemned Moscow for attempting 
to "monopolize the transportation" of oil and gas supplies in Eurasia -- a 
direct challenge to U.S. interests in the Caspian region.

The next day, Cheney flew to the former SSR of Kazakhstan in oil and natural gas
rich Central Asia, where he urged that country's leaders to ship their plentiful
oil through a U.S.-sponsored pipeline to Turkey and the Mediterranean rather 
than through Russian-controlled pipelines to Europe.

Then, on June 3, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld weighed in on China, 
telling an audience of Asian security officials that Beijing's "lack of 
transparency" with respect to its military spending "understandably causes 
concerns for some of its neighbors." These comments were accompanied by publicly
announced plans for increased U.S. spending on sophisticated weapons systems 
liked the F-22A Air-superiority Fighter and Virginia-class nuclear attack 
submarines that could only be useful in a big-power war for which there were 
just two candidates, Russia and China.

Like Russia, China has also aroused Washington's ire over its aggressive energy 
policies -- but in China's case over its increasing attempts to nail down oil 
and gas supplies for its burgeoning, energy-poor economy. In Military Power of 
the People's Republic of China, its most recent report on Chinese military 
capabilities issued on May 23, the Pentagon decried China's use of arms 
transfers and other military aid as inducements to countries like Iran and Sudan
to gain access to energy reserves in the Middle East and Africa, and for 
acquiring warships "that could serve as the basis for a force capable of power 
projection" into the oil-producing regions of the planet.

There's nothing new about the Bush administration's urge to rollback Russia and 
"contain" China. Such thinking was famously articulated in the "Defense Planning
Guidance for 1994-99," written by then Undersecretary of Defense Paul D. 
Wolfowitz and leaked to the press in early 1992. "Our first objective is to 
prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former 
Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed 
formerly by the Soviet Union," the document famously declared. This remains the 
principal aim of U.S. strategy today, but it has now been joined by another key 
objective: to ensure that the United States -- and no one else -- controls the 
energy supplies of the Persian Gulf and adjacent areas of Asia.

When first articulated in the "Carter Doctrine" of 1980, this precept was 
directed exclusively at the Gulf; now, under President Bush, it has been 
extended to the Caspian Sea basin as well -- a consequence of rising oil prices,
fears of diminishing supplies, and the vast oil and natural gas deposits 
believed to be housed there. To assert U.S. influence in this region, once part 
of the Soviet Union, the White House has been setting up military bases, 
supplying arms, and conducting a sub-rosa war of influence with both Moscow and 

Knight's moves in the Gulf

It is in this context that the current struggle over Iran must be viewed. Iran 
occupies a pivotal position on the tripolar chessboard. Geographically, it is 
the only nation that abuts both the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, 
positioning Tehran to play a significant role in the two areas of greatest 
energy concern to the United States, Russia, and China. Iran also abuts the 
strategic Strait of Hormuz -- the narrow waterway from the Gulf to the Indian 
Ocean through which about one-quarter of the world's oil moves every day. As a 
result, if Washington ever lifted its trade embargo on Iran, its territory could
be used as the most obvious transit route for the delivery of oil and natural 
gas from the Caspian countries to global markets, especially in Europe and 

As the most populous and industrialized nation in the Persian Gulf basin, Iran 
has always played a significant role in that region's affairs -- a situation 
that has often troubled neighbors like Saddam Hussein's Iraq (which invaded Iran
in 1980, beginning a bloody eight-year war that ended in an exhausted 
stalemate). In recent years, Iran has also gained regional clout as the center 
of the Shia branch of Islam. Long despised and abused by Sunnis, the Shia are 
now in the ascendancy in neighboring Iraq and are gaining greater visibility in 
Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, and the Shia-populated areas of Saudi Arabia nearest 
to Kuwait (where crucial Saudi oil fields lie) in what is starting to be thought
of as the "Shia crescent."

At present, Iran's military capabilities are not impressive -- a result, in 
part, of the U.S. embargo on sales of spare parts to the Iranian air force 
(largely equipped with American aircraft during the reign of the former Shah). 
But Iran has acquired submarines and other modern weapons from Russia and has 
developed a ballistic missile capability -- probably with help from North Korea 
and China. Were it ever to succeed in acquiring nuclear weapons, it would indeed
become a formidable regional power, possibly calling into question America's 
projected military domination of the Gulf. It is for this reason more than any 
other that Washington is so determined to block its acquisition of nuclear arms.

While both Russia and China claim to be opposed to such a development, they 
certainly wouldn't view it with the same degree of dread and fury as does the 
Bush administration -- a consideration that has no doubt given added impetus to 
its drive to block Iran's nuclear efforts.

Above all, of course, Iran possesses the world's second largest reserves of 
petroleum -- an estimated 132 billion barrels (11.1% of the world's known 
reservoirs); and also the second largest reserves of natural gas -- 971 trillion
cubic feet (15.3% of known reservoirs). The Iranians may possess less oil than 
the Saudis and less gas than the Russians, but no other country controls so much
of both of these vital resources. Many states including China, India, Japan, and
the European Union countries already depend on Iran for significant shares of 
their petroleum supplies; and China and the others have been busy negotiating 
deals to develop, and then draw on, its mammoth natural gas reserves. Iran will 
not only remain a major energy supplier, but also one of the few that has the 
capacity -­ with the right kind of investment -- to substantially boost its 
output in the years ahead when many other sources of oil and gas will have gone 
into decline.

In 1953, after the CIA helped oust Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who had 
nationalized the Iranian oil industry, American energy firms came to play a 
commanding role in Iran's oil industry with the blessing of the Shah. This 
remained true until he fell in the Khomeini revolution of 1979. They would no 
doubt love to return to Iran, if given the opportunity; but Washington's 
hostility to the Islamic regime in Tehran now precludes their reentry. Under 
Executive Order 12959, signed by President Clinton in 1995 and renewed by 
President Bush, all U.S. companies are barred from operating in Iran. But should
"regime change" ever occur there -- the implied objective of U.S. policy -- this
Executive Order would be lifted and U.S. firms would be able to do what Chinese,
Japanese, Indian, and other firms are now doing, exploiting Iranian energy 
supplies. Just how much energy figures into the administration's desire for 
political change in Iran cannot be fully judged from the outside, but given the 
close ties Bush, Cheney, and other key administration officials have with the 
U.S. energy industry, it is hard to believe that it doesn't play a highly 
significant one.

For China's energy plans, Iran's "pariah" status has certainly been a boon. 
Because U.S. firms are barred from investing and European companies face 
American economic penalties if they do so (under the congressionally mandated 
Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996), Chinese companies have had a relatively open 
playing field as they shop for promising energy deals like the $50 billion one 
signed in 2004 to develop the massive Yadavaran gas field and to buy 10 million 
tons of Iranian liquefied natural gas (LNG) annually for 25 years.

Russia, unlike energy-desperate China, is practically drowning in oil and 
natural gas, but has an abiding interest in not seeing energy-rich neighboring 
Iran fall under the sway of the U.S. and, as a major supplier of nuclear 
equipment and technology, also has a special interest in lending a profitable 
hand to Iran's energy establishment. The Russians are completing the 
construction of a civilian nuclear reactor at Bushehr in southwest Iran, a $1 
billion project, and are eager to sell more reactors and other nuclear energy 
systems to the Iranians. This, of course, is a source of considerable 
frustration to Washington, which seeks to isolate Tehran and prevent it from 
receiving any nuclear technology. (Although an entirely civilian project, 
Bushehr would no doubt be on the target list for any American air attack 
intended to cripple Iran's nuclear capacity.) Nevertheless, the head of the 
Russian nuclear energy agency, Sergei Kiriyenko, announced in February, "We 
don't see any political obstacles to completing Bushehr" and bringing it on line
"in the swiftest possible period."

Given what is at stake, it is easy to see why the United States, Russia, and 
China all have such an abiding interest in the outcome of the Iranian crisis. 
For Washington, the replacement of the clerical government in Tehran with a 
U.S.-friendly regime would represent a colossal, threefold accomplishment: It 
would eliminate a major threat to America's continued dominance of the Persian 
Gulf, open up the world's number two oil-and-gas supplier to American energy 
firms, and greatly diminish Chinese and Russian influence in the greater Gulf 

From a geopolitical perspective, there could be no greater win on the global 
chessboard today. Even if Washington failed to achieve regime change but, using 
its military might, crippled Iran's nuclear establishment without sustaining 
major damage itself in Iraq or elsewhere, this would still be a significant 
geopolitical win, exposing the inability of either Russia or China to counter 
American moves of this sort. (This would only work, of course, if the Bush 
administration was able to contain the inevitable fallout from such action, 
whether increased ethnic strife in Iraq or a sharp spike in oil prices.)

Not surprisingly, Moscow and Beijing are doing everything in their power to 
prevent any American geopolitical triumph in Iran or Central Asia from 
occurring, though without provoking an outright breach in relations with 
Washington -- and so endangering complex economic ties with the United States.

As this grand geopolitical "Great Game" unfolds, with the potential economic 
well-being of the planet at stake, all sides are trying to line up allies 
wherever possible, using whatever diplomatic levers are available. Since the 
invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. position in both the Persian Gulf and Central
Asia has noticeably deteriorated. At present, the Bush administration's greatest
weakness remains the schism in U.S.-European relations created by the unilateral
U.S. invasion itself. Because the Europeans felt betrayed by that action, they 
have largely refrained from helping out either in the counterinsurgency effort 
in Iraq or in funding the reconstruction of the country. This has imposed a 
ghastly and mounting cost on the United States. Fearing a repetition of this 
fiasco in Iran, the White House has clearly decided to let the diplomatic 
process play out on the Iranian crisis in a way they refused to do when it came 
to Saddam's Iraq. So, within limits, they are letting the Europeans set the 
diplomatic game plan for "resolving" the nuclear dispute.

This, in turn, has given Moscow and Beijing their one obvious option for 
averting what could be a geopolitical disaster for them in Iran: the potential 
use of a Security Council veto to block the imposition of U.S.-threatened 
sanctions on Iran under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which could legitimize not 
only such sanctions but also the use of force against any state deemed to pose a
threat to international peace. The Europeans want to prevent such a vote from 
occurring -- knowing that any "failure" at the UN might only strengthen the 
arguments of the hawks in Washington who want to move unilaterally and by force 
against Iran. As a result, they are listening to the Russians and Chinese who 
insist on relying on diplomacy -- and nothing else -- to resolve the crisis, 
however long that takes.

"Russia believes that the sole solution for this problem will be based on the 
work of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency],"said the Russian foreign 
minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, in March. Very similar statements have been issued 
by Chinese officials, who have expressly ruled out force as an acceptable 
solution to the crisis. In February, for instance, the Chinese Ambassador to the
IAEA, Wu Hailongon, called on "all relevant parties to exercise restraint and 
patience" and "refrain from any action that might further complicate or 
deteriorate the situation."

Checkmate for Whom?

That all key parties see this unfolding crisis as part of a larger geopolitical 
struggle is beyond doubt. For example, the Russians and Chinese have begun to 
create something of a counter-bloc to the United States in Central Asia, using 
the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a vehicle. Originally established
by Moscow and Beijing to combat ethnic separatism in Central Asia, the SCO -- 
now including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan -- has become 
more like a regional security organization, a sort of mini-NATO (but also an 
anti-NATO). Clearly, the Russians and the Chinese hope that it will help them 
turn back U.S. influence in the energy-rich former Islamic territories of the 
old Soviet Union, and in this it has shown -- in Uzbekistan, at least -- some 
signs of realpolitik success. At a recent meeting of the organization, the 
current members went so far as to invite Iran to join as an observer -- to the 
obvious displeasure of Washington. "It strikes me as passing strange," Secretary
Rumsfeld opined recently in Singapore, "that one would want to bring into an 
organization that says it's against terrorism... the leading terrorist nation in
the world: Iran."

At the same time, the United States has sought to line up its own allies -- 
including south Asian wildcard, India -- for a possible military confrontation 
with Iran. Even though Bush insists that he's prepared to rely on diplomacy to 
resolve the crisis, Pentagon officials have sought the assistance of NATO in 
planning air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. In March, for example, 
the head of NATO's Airborne Early Warning and Control Force, General Axel 
Tuttelmann, indicated that his force was ready to assist American forces at the 
very onset of a U.S. attack on Iran. The German press has also reported that 
former CIA director Peter Goss visited Turkey late last year to request that 
country's assistance in conducting air strikes against Iran.

Despite continuing calls for diplomacy to prevail, all sides in this wider 
struggle recognize that the current situation cannot last forever. For one 
thing, the shaky position of the Bush administration -- politically at home, in 
its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in its attempts to secure geopolitical 
advantage in Central Asia, and economically at a global level -- continues to 
develop fissures and to embolden those countries, Iran included, which might 
frustrate its desires. To top Bush officials, still dreaming of global energy 
hegemony, the situation may seem increasingly perilous, but the window to act 
may also appear in danger of closing. Their appetite for European, Chinese, or 
Russian stalling tactics, no less Iranian intransigence, may not be great; and, 
however much Moscow and Beijing try to persuade the Iranians to back down on 
nuclear matters, thereby averting American military action, their influence in 
Tehran may not prove strong enough.

If, in the coming few months, Iran rejects U.S. demands for the complete and 
permanent termination of its nuclear enrichment activities, the United States 
will certainly insist on the imposition of sanctions at the UN. If, in turn, the
Security Council (with the acquiescence of Russia and China) adopts purely 
symbolic gestures to no visible effect, Washington will then demand tougher 
sanctions under Chapter 7; and if either Russia or China vetoes such measures, 
the Bush administration will almost certainly choose to use military means 
against Iran, playing out Moscow's and Beijing's worst fears.

Russia and China can thus be expected to stretch out the diplomatic process for 
as long as possible, hoping thereby to make military action by the United States
appear illegitimate to the Europeans and others. By the same token, the hawks in
Washington will undoubtedly become increasingly impatient with the delays -- 
viewing them as rear-guard strategic moves by Russia and China -- and so will 
push for military action by the end of this year if nothing has been 
accomplished by then on the diplomatic front.

As the crisis over Iran unfolds, most of the news commentary will continue to 
focus on the war of words between Washington and Tehran. Political insiders 
understand, however, that the most significant struggle is the one that remains 
just out of sight, pitting Washington against Moscow and Beijing in the battle 
for global influence and energy domination. From this perspective, Iran is just 
one battlefield -- however significant -- in a far larger, more long-lasting, 
and momentous contest.

Michael T. Klare is the Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at 
Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of Blood and Oil: The Dangers 
and Consequences of America's Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum (Owl 
Books) as well as Resource Wars, The New Landscape of Global Conflict.

Copyright 2006 Michael T. Klare

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