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September 18, 2007

Chaos in the Great Game


by Sascha Matuszak

With increased U.S. pressure on Iran and Israel's small-scale invasion of Syria, the stage appears set for an ultimatum concerning Iran's nuclear aspirations that many analysts and even foreign dignitaries warn may result in war.

At the same time, both Russia and China have announced that long-delayed energy-development projects with Iran are finally on the move, while the "Peace Pipeline" from Iran through Pakistan to India is lurching into its final stages. Throw in the Bush administration's ever more aggressive stance toward Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and its more favorable approach to Tajikistan, and the picture becomes altogether unclear and surreal.

While hawks in the West clamor for war with Iran, the energy conglomerates of the world proceed as if the region is in perfect order. For Central Asia, perhaps this is as orderly as it gets: doomed to be fought over like a juicy bone.

M.K. Bhadrakumar takes the newly constructed bridge over the River Panj between Afghanistan and Tajikistan and creates a portrait of the Great Game (Modern Edition), with the U.S. acting strangely clever in an era of irrational U.S. policies. If we take wealth as the prime motivator for this and any other great game being played out in the world – with energy being the mother of wealth in Central Asia – then giving China access to the ports of South Asia would seem to be a strange move for the U.S. to make.

But if we take into account that U.S. government documents drafted in March 2001 point toward a war for oil in Iraq, then a bridge built today may not begin to serve its true purpose until several years into the future.

By then, NATO forces and private contractors might be escorting oil from fortified base to fortified port through a blasted land of sectarian wars stretching from Damascus to Islamabad.

China's military might will likely never challenge the United States', regardless of how many destroyers it buys, how many satellites it shoots down, or how many times it penetrates Pentagon computers. Chinese forces will be enough to defend the motherland in case of attack and to crush rebellion within. At most, Taiwan's President Chen Shui Bian may force Beijing's hand and cause the PLA to venture as far out from home as it has ever been.

Of course, the recent Peace Mission 2007, in which Chinese forces were transported to the Ural mountains from Urumqi, the capital of China's Xinjiang Autonomous Uighur Province, shows the extent to which the PLA can stretch its hand of forced to. But for China, expansion into the Great Game is purely wealth, procured through the mutual buildup of wealth between the national and semi-national energy bodies of the –stans, Iran and China. Chinese hope to sell DVD players and prostitution, build roads and docks, and gobble up energy – they definitely do not want to fight in the graveyards of past imperial nations.

Central Asia is another market for the Chinese businessman – fast becoming one of the most ubiquitous in the world – and another source of much needed fuel.

Iran recognizes that its energy reserves, second only to Russia, are the prime motivator in Central Asia and has been frenetically hopping from China to Russia to India seeking lucrative deals that will keep Ahmadinejad's government afloat and lock these large countries into an economy-based alliance that will help deter the US goal of a third round of sanctions and ultimately regime change in Iran.

Iran sent Minister of the Interior Mostafa Pur-Mohammadi to China last week to push through deals that can result in more than $20 billion in trade and to elicit a statement of support for diplomacy, not sanction or war, in the conflict over nuclear energy development in Iran. China's statement was not an unequivocal condemnation of U.S. policies toward Iran, but it stressed "pragmatism," nonproliferation, and diplomacy in an overall effort to maintain peace and wealth-generation in the region – above all in China.

Mohamed ElBaradei, under fire from the U.S. for being "lenient" with Iran, expressed admiration for China's role in the multi-party talks surrounding the North Korea's nuclear program and urged the West to adopt a similar policy toward Iran.

The bridge over the River Panj might be a point of cooperation between the major powers involved in the race for Central Asia's wealth, but the real flashpoint will be Tehran. The outcome of the struggle between Russia, China, and the IAEA on the side of talks and development and the U.S. and EU on the side of sanctions and war may overshadow China's great pageant in the summer of 2008.

And with Alan Greenspan coming out and speaking the unspeakable – that it's all about oil – there is another thing that we might as well say: Iran, given the opportunity, will create a nuclear weapon. It has been proven to be the ultimate insurance against regime change and invasion. If we hold this to be true, then there can be only two courses: either befriend Iran, as China and Russia have, and make money, or go to war.

The U.S. and Israel are choosing war.

China – mercantilist and free of moral or political constraints – hopes that it will continue doing what it loves best: making money. Although this approach may not appeal to American militarists, China's money-driven policy will do what this region needs most: facilitate energy and infrastructure growth and hopefully stabilize Central Asia.

The true wild cards here are the peoples of the nations being plundered. Beset by fanatic tribalism, corrupt leaders, messianic Arabs, warmongering Americans, unscrupulous Russians, shifty Chinese, and insidious Pakistani ISI agents, these people have come to hate or mistrust all outsiders and have managed to make life extremely hard for those who have come to feed on the wealth of the land. For some reason, Iraqis, Iranians, and Afghanis find it hard to accept foreign troops on their soil.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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