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Analysis Share This Page
Russia Broad-bands Relations with Middle East
by K. Gajendra Singh Bookmark and Share
 

Energy is at the centre of Russia's strategic partnership with the European Union. Oil is the cause of its struggle with the US over the routes of pipelines from the Caspian and Central Asia �Le Monde.

Moscow's relations with the Middle East during the Cold War were mostly focused on socialist and nationalist regimes, ranged against Kingdoms and conservative Western allies, but USSR's collapse and its disintegration saw its influence shrink. Now a coherent Russian Federation around an Orthodox Slav core, minus the old ideological, ethnic and religious mixed baggage, under an astute President Vladimir Putin has assiduously re-built almost from a scratch its influence in the region, and taking advantage of the follies of the Bush administration, broad banding relationships from Rabat to Riyadh.

A confident Putin, chose the 43 annual security conference in Munich on 10 February, for a blistering attack on Washington's unilateral and destructive policies, stunning his Western audience, led by US Secretary of State Robert Gates and European leaders. He announced Moscow's plans for a more robust role ,now that the real world wants and is reverting to a multi-polar mode against US's assumptions of having become the New Rome. A fierce nationalist Sunni resistance in Iraq, once described by US Vice-President Dick Cheney as dead enders and in its last throes, has exposed limits of US military's might on the ground, while the US installed and unwillingly supported Shia ruling regime in Baghdad, mostly nurtured, trained, financed in and by Tehran is making Bush Administration go around the palm trees on the Tigris, Euphrates and Iraqi swamps. US has little idea of how to get out of the quagmire of its own making. The more it stays the course, faster would become the world truly multi-polar.

No wonder soon after his dressing down of the West at Munich, Putin was warmly welcomed in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, old and close US allies almost totally dependent on US for their protection. Moscow has already built up close strategic and economic relations with Iran, almost revived old ties with Syria and has good relations with Israel, Egypt and others, with warm relations with Turkey. Almost all countries in the region are suffering from the fall out of unilateralist US policies which have created havoc and instability. But Bush insists on 'staying the course', even promising a surge (in violence) in spite of fierce opposition at home. The region nay the world needs protection from Washington and Moscow has taken the lead and slowly emerging as a counterpoise.

Even the tail Israel which wags the dog is having doubts about US policies, more so after its defeat by Hezbollah in the Lebanese war last year. Policies responsible for US decline were cooked up by Neo-cons, mostly Jews, which were rejected by Israel but embraced by Neo-Cons and fundamentalist Christians embedded in the Bush Administration. The malevolent role of Israeli Lobby in US is now being discussed in USA, rousing the former's ire, even against venerable Jimmy Carter who questioned the apartheid like Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Americans do not like to be losers. The quagmire and its diminishing influence in the Middle East and the world would soon require some scapegoats.

A fast rising China with huge appetite for energy and other raw materials is spreading its tentacles in Africa, where US had a free run. Latin America, is finally emerging from the strangle hold of US multinationals and its coercive military and CIA operations, with a clutch of new populist leaders like Chavez, Morales and others, inspired by the epic struggle of Cuba's Fidel Castro and coming together to dismantle US hegemony. USA has been defeated in Iraq, defied by Iran and North Korea and getting bankrupt by the day.

After centuries of war fare between Persia on one side and the Romans and Byzantines on the other had exhausted them, a new power from the deserts of Arabia filled the vacuum. If Soviet Union collapsed because of unconscionable high military expenditure, the cold war legacy is alive and thriving in Washington in its all powerful military industry complex, eating into US creative and economic entrails. US is losing its manufacturing and technological superiority. The Cold War based capitalism's demise in 1998 was delayed perhaps by the injection of higher productivity by Info tech revolution and transfer of wealth from Russia, former socialist states, East and South East Asia and other economies. US political and economic system appears unable to correct itself. It just can not get itself out of the Iraqi quagmire and but still preparing for a war against Iran, which would be catastrophic to the region, the world and USA itself, hastening the rise of China and giving greater clout to Russia, India, Europe Union and others. US political system is far too degenerated.  Money rules the roost. The system does not respond to peoples votes or needs and its corporate owned media can not act as democracy's watch dog.

Putin visits to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan

Putin's visit to Riyadh, the first ever by a Russian President, since relations were established 80 years ago is a mile stone. His high-level delegation was warmly welcomed by King Abdullah himself, Crown Prince Sultan, Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal and top civilian and military officials. Saudi Arabia with its two holiest cities of Mecca and Medina is home of Islam and exercises great influence among Muslims and the world economy by manipulating oil prices under US pressure.

Riyadh and Moscow first established diplomatic relations in the 1920s. But in 1938 Josef Stalin closed his embassy in Saudi Arabia. Several attempts to reopen the embassy in the 1980s failed because of what Saudi Arabia described USSR's "belligerent attitude" toward its Muslim population. Even now Muslims make up around 20% of Russia's 145 million population. The diplomatic missions were re-opened in September 1990, at the height of the Gulf crisis after Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August.

In September 2003, Abdullah, then Crown Prince, went to Moscow; the last important official visit was in 1932 by Prince Faisal, who later became the King. During Abdullah's trip, Russian and Saudi energy ministers signed an agreement for cooperation in the oil and gas industry including joint ventures and scientific research. In 2004, Riyadh awarded Lukoil Holdings, Russia's biggest oil company, the rights to explore and produce natural gas in an area known as "Zone A," located near Ghawar, the world's largest oil field.

To a question from the Russian media on Saudi women driving cars as in other Gulf states, King Abdullah replied that a decision must come from Saudi society. It is the state's duty is to provide a conducive atmosphere for any decision society deems suitable but in conformity with the Shariah. But the King enumerated the progress by Saudi women in higher education and their role as engineers, doctors, teachers, and businesswomen in Saudi Arabia's development.

King Abdullah congratulated his security forces in confronting terrorism which is against the teachings of Islam and values of the Kingdom. He assured a fight against terrorism at the national and international levels until it was wiped out. The King also stressed the importance of respecting other cultures. All human civilizations emerged from one source and have benefited from each other. He called for the integration i.e. dialogue of civilizations and looked forward to Russian intellectuals participation at the Janadriya Heritage and Culture Festival soon. He also emphasized the desert values of humaneness, open-mindedness, sincerity, chivalry, courage, magnanimity, romantic spirit and closeness to God.. Abdullah said that a position of power entails a big responsibility; of fulfilling the hopes and aspirations of ordinary people.

"I see in ... Putin a statesman and a man of peace and fairness," Abdullah said, according to official Saudi Press Agency before the visit. "That's why the kingdom of Saudi Arabia extends a hand of friendship to Russia."

Putin's large delegation included apart from the head of the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom, Aleksei Miller; Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin, a number of other oligarchs, and some high-ranking Muslim officials like Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiyev and Vagit Alekperov, the head of the petrochemical giant LUKoil and the only Muslim among the Russian oil magnates. In keeping with local tradition, all female members of the delegation and journalists wore chadors (Indira Gandhi during her visit to Riyadh in early 1980s kept her head covered with Saree and wore full sleeve blouses).

On bilateral relations, recalling their great cultural heritage ,the King pointed out the huge economic potential with vast natural resources and investment opportunities. Both are very influential in world affairs. The visit would raise bilateral relations to new heights with strategic perspectives, he said.

The two sides signed three major agreements and two memorandums of understanding covering cooperation in the fields of oil, gas, science and technology, trade and sports. Agreements were also signed for the protection and promotion of investments, air transport and avoidance of double taxation. Riyadh is keen to expand cooperation in research, education and technology. The King wants greater cooperation and coordination with Russia to ensure adequate oil supply and oil market stability. The two sides discussed the serious situation in the region and global challenges and developments.

The Saudi King described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the longest in modern history and emphasized the need for finding a quick and lasting solution, which will resolve many other problems in the region releasing financial resources for the development. On Iraq the King proposed a three-pronged solution: reinforce security by eliminating all sources of violence i.e. all armed militias without discrimination; achieve national unity among all Iraqis, i.e. ensuring equal rights to all; and preserve Iraq's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.

Putin told a business forum in Riyadh that Russia wants to develop cooperation with Arab countries and begin a dialogue of civilizations. He said,  'We favor the creation of a more fair international order based on the principles of equality and respect for all people, regardless of their religious views,' 'Russia is a multinational country and home to Christians, Muslims and representatives of other religions, who have coexisted as good neighbors in accord for many centuries,' he said.

This is a 'unique experience' that should be preserved. Putin said many Muslim countries share Russian position on the dialogue of civilizations. He added that Russia would also develop cooperation as part of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and thanked the Saudi King for helping Moscow acquire the status of observer at the OIC. "Russia is keen to improve cooperation with the Islamic world," Putin told the businessmen.

Putin said Saudi Arabia could benefit from Russia's expertise in gas exploration. In 2000, Russia's LUKOIL and Saudi Aramco launched an 80-20 per cent joint venture called LUKSAR to explore and produce gas in an area of the Rub al-Khali desert. Trade exchanges between Saudi Arabia and Russia rose 230 per cent from 2000 to 1.5 billion riyals ($591 million) in 2005, with Saudi exports accounting for a small fraction of them.

Putin said that Saudi business leaders are collaborators, not competitors in developing world energy. He invited Saudi banks to open 100-per cent-owned branches in Russia and added that bilateral investments would grow, now that the Saudi Development Fund has signed an agreement during the visit with two Russian state banks.

Putin came with a big business delegation who exchanged views with hundreds of Saudi counterparts. Some Saudi businessmen criticized high Russian customs duties amounting to up to 200 per cent and cited the absence of direct transport links and long formalities at Russian banks. But many are keen to diversify because of difficulties in getting visas for USA following the Sept. 11 attacks. Out by 19 highjackers, 15 were Saudis. Said a Saudi businessman "When I go as a businessman to the USA, I have to prove first I am not a criminal," "While in a place like China I'm treated like a king."

A senior official from King Abdulaziz Science and Technology City, disclosed that five Saudi satellites for telecommunications and data transfer would be launched from a base in Kazakhstan ; the sixth will be for remote sensing.

Saudi purchase of Russian arms

Putin held a one-on-one meeting with Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz before leaving Riyadh for Qatar. Riyadh confirmed that it was negotiating for possible purchase of Russian weapons for the first time and welcomed Moscow's offer to help it develop nuclear energy.

"There are no obstacles to cooperation between the two countries in all fields pertaining to... armament and nuclear energy," said Foreign Minister al-Faisal after the visit . "On the armament front, there have been discussions between the two countries. They are taking place in accordance with the kingdom's requirements in terms of armament and with what Russia can provide of the kingdom's needs for such equipment," the Minister said. A diplomatic source had said earlier that the visit would to lead to a "verbal understanding" on the sale of about 150 Russian T-90 battle tanks. Tests were carried out in Saudi Arabia last year to ascertain their suitability for harsh desert conditions. Moscow also wants to sell Mi-17 helicopters.

Russian Gulf Nuclear Cooperation

Foreign Minister al-Faisal told the media that Russia offered to help Saudi Arabia develop nuclear energy. "We contacted the other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) during Putin's visit and put the Russian proposals to them," al-Faisal said. The Gulf states only want nuclear energy for civilian purposes "and distance themselves from the topic of atomic weapons."

The GCC comprising of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is keen to develop nuclear energy with Russian help . Two months ago GCC announced its desire to go for nuclear energy technology. But it raises concern of a regional arms race with analysts saying the bloc wanted to match Iran's nuclear program where Russia has helped set up a nuclear power plant.

Al-Faisal did not say whether the GCC's nuclear plans had anything to do with Iran's nuclear program, but he did mention a European Union plan that Iran could enrich uranium for its nuclear power plants in a "neutral country" without naming it. On Tehran's concerns over the Islamic world being divided ( by US policies ) into Sunnis and Shias, al-Faisal said. "We wish to avoid this (dividing the Islamic world)." He said, "We are neutral as to our stand towards Sunnis and Shiites."

GCC have close relations with Washington and buy their arms from US .Verily they depend on USA for their protection. US led coalition had expelled Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, which was invaded in 1990.

Qatar

From Riyadh, Putin made a five-hour stop over at Doha, Qatar on February 12 and held talks on military and trade cooperation with Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, "We seek to develop special relations between Qatar and Russia," said the Emir after Putin's arrival. "Relations at all levels have been developing vigorously over the past year and a half."

Speaking at a press conference in Doha, Putin reiterated his earlier statement that a cartel is "an interesting idea," but said that there would be many difficulties . "We do not reject the idea of creating a gas cartel," Putin told the media. "But this initiative requires more study." He would dispatch experts in April to a natural gas conference in Doha to discuss the creation of a cartel modeled like OPEC. "It's important to cooperate and to help each other," said Putin. "We also work together to defend the interests of gas exporters and coordinate our relations toward the consumers."

Many experts believe that a gas cartel is an unlikely proposition. While oil is traded on stock exchange, Gas is usually sold on long-term contracts that eliminate price fluctuations.

Qatar has become a major natural gas producer and LNG exporter. In 2005 it exported about 28 bcm of LNG and will increase many fold. Trade with Qatar stands at $55mn, with deliveries of Kamaz trucks making up $50mn. Even after tripling in 2005 , it is only $140mn.

Gas cartel

If not a Gas cartel Russia and others specially Iran have been toying with the idea of informal or formal consultations for assured supplies of the gas at reasonable prices. Russia has been quite active. Putin discussed this proposal during his visit to Algeria last year, first such Presidential since USSR's collapse, another old friend from the days of the Algerian war of independence .The two sides discussed bilateral cooperation in supplying natural gas to the European market. Russia controls about 26 percent of that market, while Algeria, with about 10 % is the 3rd leading supplier after Russia and Norway.

According to the business daily "Vedomosti" of last March 9, Gazprom offered Algeria's Sonatrak a deal under which Sonatrak would supply gas to Russia's European customers if supplies from Russia were interrupted while Gazprom would deliver gas to Algeria's customers in other regions. Gazprom also offered Sonatrak a role in developing some gas deposits in Russia.

Apart from the question of supply, the battle is over pipeline routes which provides strategic control, like the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, built by Western companies. They want to station security forces for the pipeline and enter Russia's strategic near abroad.

The idea of a gas cartel was first floated by Putin in 2002, his second year as president. It was quickly trashed by Western energy multinationals. But he was supported by the leaders of Central Asian gas-producing nations, who remain very keen. Putin decided to wait for a more opportune time.

In May last year, Gazprom Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Medvedev when pressed by West Europe said that Moscow would create "an alliance of gas suppliers more influential than OPEC" -- In August, with the concept of an "alliance of gas suppliers" Russia and Algeria signed a memorandum of understanding calling for coordinated gas prices.

Putin has complained that consumer countries in the West focused only on their own energy interests while ignoring those of producers. They want suppliers to pledge continuity of shipments for the long term. But "consumers should not be able to turn around and say, 'We don't need it now.' Security works both ways. We need assurances, too."

Russia refused to ratify the European Energy Charter treaty signed under boozy Yeltsin regime that gave foreign investors from the West greater access to Moscow's deposits and pipelines. But US led West refuses to allow Russia and China investment in their own down stream business in return. US `led West is so used to running the Gulf Kingdoms like their fiefs and uses them manipulate oil prices, which hurt Russia in mid 1980s and Iraq in early 1990, which forced Saddam Hussein invade Kuwait.

Do only US and UK have a 'right' to invade oil producing country like Iraq against UN charter and world opinion. They force oil producers to trade oil in US dollars thus supporting it as a reserve currency. The Gulf states are also forced to purchase arms from the West, which like Kuwait in 1990 they are hardly able to use even when invaded. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, Japan and Germany were made to pay US led coalition hundreds of billions of dollars for the 1991 Iraq war, basically to protect US vested interests. This is too good a thing and has lasted too long.

Putin's visit at least provides some flexibility to the Gulf energy producers in pricing and supply .It will also provide some competition to the West in sale of arms.

In fact a little known quasi-gas cartel, without staff or headquarters and more like a talking shop, already exists in nebulous form i.e. The Gas Exporting Countries' Forum (GECF) which first met in Tehran in 2001, with Algeria, Iran, and Russia among its founding members. It has 15 gas-producing members who control 73 percent of the world's gas reserves and 41 percent of production. NATO is worried and in November 2006 warned members that Russia may be seeking to create a natural-gas cartel stretching from Algeria to Central Asia to use as a political weapon in its dealings with Europe.

Visit to Jordan

Putin's visit to Amman was more about their efforts to help revive long-stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Nearly 60% of Jordan's population are of Palestinian origin, which underlines the Hashemite King Abdullah II's deep concerns about the terrible conditions in occupied territories. To a population of 4 � million have been now added nearly a million refugees, mostly Sunnis, from US occupied Iraq, making it a potent cocktail. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel, but Israel's problems with other neighbors like Syria and Lebanon remain unresolved. So the question of Israeli-Arab disputes was the main subject in Amman.

A joint statement issued by the royal court said that Jordan and Russia agreed to boost military cooperation, although it did not give details and signed deals to bolster trade and economic ties. Jordan has offered major projects to Russian businesses.

"President Putin and I agreed that negotiations toward the establishment of a viable, independent Palestinian state should be accelerated," King Abdullah II said after more than two hours of talks in Amman with Putin. "We are witnessing a unique opportunity to restart the effort to achieve a comprehensive Middle East peace," said the Hashemite King , who has visited Moscow 4 times.

Putin said that "support is growing" for a Russian proposal for a wide-scale Middle East peace conference that also would tackle ways to "conquer international terrorism." The two also "agreed that negotiations for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state should be accelerated." The Hashemite King called the Palestinian-Israeli conflict the "core conflict" in the Middle East.

Russia has "an important role to play" as a member of the Middle East Quartet, which also comprises the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union, the King added.

Putin paid tribute to "the good relations between Russia and Jordan" and noted "an increased interest in Russia on the part of our Arab partners" during his visits,  which have opened the way for "big possibilities for Russia."  He reaffirmed that . "For Russia the Middle East is strategically important.

"We understand that this possibility of action must be done in a delicate and balanced manner," he said in apparent reference to US policies.

Abdullah II also said that he and Putin discussed Iran's nuclear problem with the West and "continue to believe that a diplomatic solution to this crisis must be found."

Last month, Abdullah II said Amman wanted to develop nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes. Washington has indicated it had no objection to a peaceful Jordanian nuclear program. Many other Arab states from Morocco to Egypt also want to go in for nuclear power generation.

Western media claims it as a message to Iran but the Arabs have in mind hundreds of Nukes in Israel's arsenal, which Tel Aviv has successfully used for black mail and continuing brutal occupation of Palestine since 1967.

The King also praised the "personal courage and leadership" of Putin. [ whose visit to the region has been seen by Arabs Moscow's objective to reassert its international clout and the balance of power with Washington.]

"Arab populations are angry with American policies. They look forward to better ties with Moscow, a more effective Russian role in securing a peaceful solution to regional crises, and offsetting US strategy in the region," Jordan's independent (?) Al Arab Al Yawm said in an editorial.

Although there were no official comments, Jordanian dailies gave wide coverage to Putin's plain speak against US foreign policy in Munich. The Russian leader said that Washington had disastrously "overstepped" its borders, "imposed itself on other states," and that US dominance was "ruinous."

Western media sarcastically commented that Jordan is a close ally of Washington, which has poured close to $5 billion in financial aid since 1952. How much US led West has made out of its control and exploitation of Arab oil. It will run into trillions of US ~Dollars.

Palestine

Before leaving Amman Putin, later met with visiting Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas urging him to set up an "efficient" government that would be taken seriously by Israel to reach a final peace settlement. Abbas and his Fatah faction reached an agreement last week with the ruling militant Hamas to form a national unity government aimed at ending a crippling US led Western sanctions.

The Quartet is scheduled to meet on February 21 to try to revive the peace process, two days after Abbas is due to have talks with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Arab Media on the visits

On the results of President Putin's visits, Jordan's al-Arab al-Yawm commented that it might be too early to predict if it will establish a new historic era in Russian-Arab relations. However, it added, that progress in mutual Arab-Russian political, economic and strategic interests could help in confronting U.S. unilateralism. The daily said that Russia strong role in influencing policies in the Middle East it enjoyed during its Soviet days could be revived. It emphasized that this can happen if Moscow distances itself from U.S. policy and asserts its independent role in the Mid East Quartet and to provide Arab countries with the needed military, scientific and economic technologies, "just like it does with Iran and Israel." It added that for Russia to reinforce its ties with the Arabs, Putin administration should also put an end to its war on Chechnya, as this issue has a negative effect on Russia's image in Arab and Muslim world. The paper stated that Arab societies felt outraged by U.S. policies, and look for better relations with Moscow so that it can take strong measures towards peaceful solutions to the Middle East problems.

Bahrain's pro-government daily al-Awasat said that Riyadh has understood the changes since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the U.S. war on terror that largely targeted Muslims . Riyadh has taken a more pragmatic approach in dealing with powerful nations and opened doors of reconciliation. The visit constitutes a historic milestone in relations between the two countries, especially when it comes "at the start of a new era of a second Cold War." It argued the rules of the second Cold War are different than the previous one, since it's not ideological between Moscow and Washington, but it will be carried out based on "multilateral interests and pragmatism." This kind of multilateralism, it stressed, gives an opportunity for Arab and Muslim countries, especially Saudi Arabia, to take up their positions and play an effective role on the regional issues.

Oman's pro-government al-Watan commented that Putin summarized the problems facing the world at the conference in Munich - that an American unipolar world was a disaster. "It's as if Putin wanted to say, 'Come, let's build a power in the face of the power and build a different approach to what is happening in our universe,'" the daily argued. It said that the Russian President appears to be seeking to re-establish Russia as a direct buffer against U.S. policies in the weaker parts of the world, stressing that it is essential to return to the Cold War so that the world will calm down. It said that Iraq, and Afghanistan earlier are examples of becoming victims after the Cold War, and " we don't know who is next so long as there is no power facing another and so long as the U.N. is totally consolidated to the United States and its hegemony," it stated.

The London-based al-Hayat said the Russian President did not say anything new at Munich by accusing the United States of having destructive policies. The reportedly Saudi-financed daily alerted in a commentary that Putin seems to have ignored the limited capabilities of his country as NATO is now "knocking on Russia's door." It opined that the Soviet ideology has completely collapsed and all that remains is the memory on which "some intellectuals spread across the Arab world live, having been disappointed from failing to save Moscow from its inevitable end." The Cold War is indeed over, the daily said, and it's not likely to return in the near future. "But the repercussions of this war remains," it concluded. [Another example of Saudis trying to have it both ways .]

Any patch up between the two divides in Islam is too farfetched as another London-based daily, al-asharq al-Awsat, blasted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for continuing his aggressive rhetoric instead of assuring the world and his neighbors on the occasion of the 28th anniversary of the Islamic revolution. Iran's rhetoric is copied from various regimes in history that had a tragic end, it stressed, adding it is "an ideological language that believes its mission is conquering the enemy and an insolent America ... It is a language in which humanity has paid a high price " in history. The Saudi-owned daily compared the Iranian rhetoric to Fascism, Nazism, Zionism, extremist Islam and Saddam Hussein's regime. It warned that "revolutionary Iran" will face a historic crisis if it does not shift from "revolution" to "state," saying this requires a new understanding of itself and for others in terms of the international and regional balance of power. "Iran needs bread more than nuclear arsenal; it needs the trust of its neighbors and region more than appeasing others," it opined. The paper declared that the language used 28 years ago at the time of the Islamic revolution is not necessarily valid today.

A pro Neo-Con US website Starfor explained the complex factors in the problem. It claimed that there is some evidence that recent declines in oil prices are linked to decisions in Riyadh that are aimed at increasing production, reducing prices and hurting the Iranians.

"This creates a problem for Russia. While Moscow has substantial room for maneuver, the fact is that lowered oil prices impact energy prices overall, and therefore hurt the Russians. The Saudis, moreover, need the Iranians blocked -- but without going so far as to permit foreign troops to be based in Saudi Arabia itself. In other words, they want to see the United States remain in Iraq, since the Americans serve as the perfect shield against the Iranians so long as they remain there. Putin's criticisms of the United States, as delivered in Munich, would have been applauded by Saudi Arabia prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But in 2007, the results of that invasion are exactly what the Saudis feared -- a collapsed Iraq and a relatively powerful Iran. The Saudis now need the Americans to stay put in the region."

"The interests of Russia and Iran align more closely, but there are points of divergence there as well. Both benefit from having the United States tied up, militarily and politically, in wars, but Tehran would be delighted to see a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that leaves a power vacuum for Iran to fill. The Russians would rather not see this outcome. First, they are quite happy to have the United States bogged down in Iraq and would prefer that to having the U.S. military freed for operations elsewhere. Second, they are interested in a relationship with Iran but are not eager to drive the United States and Saudi Arabia into closer relations. Third, the Russians do not want to see Iran become the dominant power in the region. They want to use Iran, but within certain manageable limits."

Trilateral meeting in New Delhi

East of Munich in the Middle East and even farther east in Asia, the compulsions of energy security are bringing India and China closer to Russia and Iran.

After a trilateral meeting on 14 February in New Delhi between Pranab Mukherjee, Li Zhaoxing and Sergei Lavrov, Foreign Ministers of India, China and Russia respectively, fixed during Putin's January visit to New Delhi, in a joint statement they agreed to coordinate action against international terrorism, illegal drug trafficking, and trans-national organized crime besides promoting business cooperation among themselves. It said that the "key to building an increasingly multi-polar world order would be on the principle of equality of nations, big or small, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity." It stressed the importance of dialogue rather than confrontation, strengthening the UN to make it more effective and multi-lateral diplomacy rather than a unipolar world. This declaration was aimed at Washington though it was not mentioned.

Sources indicated that Pakistan's "deeply ambivalent" role on terrorism came in for sustained scrutiny during discussions on Afghanistan. But Delhi did not complain against Washington in view of emerging relationship. While the joint statement states that both Russia and China would actively facilitate India's membership to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the membership question is quite complex. Russia is not keen on either Iran or Pakistan joining the SCO, while China will agree to India only if Pakistan too is let in.

Lavrov said at the media conference that they had discussed the "most burning issues" of the moment ie Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

The next trilateral meeting would be held in China. The Ministers also urged their business federations to hold a trilateral business forum within a year. The trade volume is low: $30 billion between Russia and China in 2006, $20 billion between China and India, and $3 billion between Russia and India. But the potential remains high.

The Foreign Ministers have met four times in the past -- twice on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in 2002 and 2003 and then Almaty in 2004. Their last meeting was in Vladivostok in June 2005. Together they are home to two-fifths of the global population and all are nuclear powers.

It was the old strategic thinker on Asia and Middle East, Yevgeny Primakov, then Russian Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin, who first suggested a "strategic triangle" between Russia, India, and China back in 1998.  It was laughed off and dismissed as far-fetched, absurd. The Chinese were hesitant, the Indians were mystified but the Russians have persevered. At the G-8 summit in St Petersburg last year, President Putin, determined to send a signal to the West, held a separate meeting with the Indian Prime Minister and the Chinese President, politically giving the triumvirate high level political blessing.

Putin only articulated at Munich what the other emerging centers of power in 21st century like China, India and Brazil and others also oppose i.e. imposition of 'unipolar' world order by USA and blatant chaos and destruction brought to the Middle East region. In spite of undiplomatic interventions by the US ambassador in Delhi (and loutish threats by Sen. Lantos in the Senate) Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee was in Teheran on February 6-7 and made clear in his media comments that India opposed any use of force against Iran. He called for the Iran nuclear question to be referred back to the International Atomic Energy Agency , Vienna to handle the issue. After being bamboozled into voting against Iran on the nuclear question in 2005, India is now quietly asserting itself and proclaiming that strengthening of relations with Iran is vitally important for India. Mukherjee described Iran as a factor for stability in the region thus trashing Washington's propaganda that Iran is a terrorist state that is threatening regimes in neighboring countries.

Close relations with Tehran are crucial for India's energy security so that its economic march is not throttled. Because of India's negative vote and the Pakistan situation, the gas pipeline project from Iran to India via Pakistan and a 25-year deal on liquefied natural gas have slowed down. Along with Russia, India-Iran energy cooperation forms a crucial vector of emergent Asian security, which will include China as well. Finally Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accepted during Putin's visit that energy security as 'the most important of the emerging dimensions' of the Indo-Russian strategic partnership. "For receiving the gas coming through the $7 billion pipeline, infrastructure development within India alone will generate business close to $40 billion." And Russia has ample funds to invest and pipe laying expertise.

India is watching Europe's plans, which depends on Russia for 25% of its gas needs, to diversify its supply which will include Iran. Europe would face gas shortages by 2015. Thus competition for Iranian gas between Europe and Asia has begun. Thus results of the Russian-Iranian energy dialogue, with which the Gulf states could coordinate and even join becomes very interesting and important.

In spite of all the media bites on the Indo-US nuclear deal, which many in US want to roll back India's nuclear deterrent, Washington would like to use it to pressurize Delhi to obey its dictates. With a long gestation period, Nuclear energy will remain marginal to the Indian economy in the near future. USA itself has not built any nuclear plants in recent years and it changes the terms of contract whenever it so feels, making it a unreliable partner.

K Gajendra Singh, Indian ambassador (retired), served as ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan from August 1992 to April 1996. Prior to that, he served terms as ambassador to Jordan, Romania and Senegal. He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies. Copy right with the author. E-mail: Gajendrak@hotmail.com

27-Feb-2010
More by :  K. Gajendra Singh
 
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