No one is ready to take the reins as a global superpower right now. In the absence of a Pax Americana, Germany and Russia will find themselves, as they have before, jockeying for position and influence. China and India will be factors they were not in the past, but the basic dynamic will be the same as it was 100 or 200 years ago. The threat of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction raises the stakes today, but in the absence of a global hegemon, it does not change the game.
It’s a gas, gas, gas
One prism through which to view this emerging competition will be the impending decisions about the long-desired non-Russian pipeline to move natural gas from the Caspian region to Europe. The hoary “Nabucco” project, long considered all but defunct, got an infusion of life in late May when France’s GDF Suez acquired a 9% interest in it. With this acquisition, a major West European firm has jumped into Nabucco, which had been hanging on with only Austrian, East European, and Turkish backing. Nabucco’s non-Russian rival, TANAP (Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline), is making a run at Nabucco and counting on momentum, and on securing Azerbaijan’s backing, to ensure victory. According to Austria’s energy minister, the decision between the two aspiring pipelines to the Caspian gas will be made this month, June 2013.
But Turkey gets a pipeline run either way, and Turkey’s domestic situation is dicey right now. That alone might not postpone the pipeline decision. But now the prospect has emerged of Iran becoming eligible for trade in polite company again. Reality doesn’t matter nearly as much as perception here, if Iran can be relied on to keep order and honor her commitments. In the matter of the trade and hard currency for which she hankers, she assuredly can, at least in the short run.
An alternative to Russian pipelines is a Holy Grail for European security; an alternative to a pipeline through Turkey is something many Europeans, especially those in Southeastern Europe, would consider a very good idea.
Not that investors would give up on a pipeline through Turkey. Her geographic centrality makes it too obvious a solution to many problems. But decisions about it can be postponed a bit longer, if there is a prospect of having both a non-Russian pipeline through Turkey, and access to gas through Iran and other geographic waypoints in the region. It doesn’t take a European statesman of preternatural brilliance to see the advantage in that.
Bringing Iran in from the cold opens up a lot of options for European and Asian calculations. Wanting to do business with Iran, and to gain a regional position through engaging with her, is a no-brainer from the perspective of at least a dozen European and Asian nations. Americans may not see it; Westerners in Brussels may not see it; but everyone else does: the world is changing. The old post-World War II narrative of security needs and priorities is all but dead. The Obama administration in the United States now effectively asks the world to run in a harness that doesn’t fit anymore – and the world is looking for reasons to stop doing it.
Rohani an answer to the emerging question?
Much of the world has probably just found such a reason in Hassan Rohani. We should not underestimate how much change will be ushered in by a perceived opportunity here. This is an opportunity the nations of Europe and Asia are quickly realizing they wanted; they will not ignore it, nor will they relinquish it in favor of fealty to the sclerotic worldview animating Obama’s policies.
Rohani will not pursue nuclear weapons with any less zeal than his predecessor. As long as Khamenei is alive, there will be no test of how domestically reform-minded Rohani really is. He is not Iran’s Mikhail Gorbachev. (The Guardian Council is not the Politburo of the 1980s, which is the biggest determining factor.) He probably won’t be, either, even if Ayatollah Khamenei passes away on his watch. If anything, Rohani’s probably a Yuri Andropov: a regime loyalist who won’t change things, but who will put a different and seemingly more interesting face on an unchanged regime.