America Folds Its Tents in the Caucasian and Black Sea Republics Making Way for Moscow’s Return
The carving up of the old Soviet Union goes on in line with fresh interests, new pressures and changing alliances. After maintaining a massive presence in the former Soviet republics of the oil-rich Caucasian and Black Sea regions – and sinking $20 billion in projects to remodel their regimes and nurture cooperation – the United States has begun pulling up stakes in Kazakhstan, Kyrgistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. This vital strategic decision is dictated by the Clinton administration’s policy redeployment in preparation for the changing of the guard in the White House. A critical factor in this redeployment is the beginning of a rapprochement between the United States and the ayatollahs in Tehran. The outgoing policy-makers in Washington believe that whoever takes over as president next January, be he Democrat or Republican, he will continue this healing process. Significantly. the Iranian delegation to the UN Millennium Summit this week, headed by President Khatami, won an extra-cordial welcome from its hosts. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright cancelled other appointments to attend the Iranian guest’s lecture at the Metropolitan Museum.
America’s traditional view of Iran as the leading regional power was never fundamentally altered by the passing “accident” of Khomeini’s rise to power in 1979. Even in the years that the Iranian regime displayed extreme anti-American animus, efforts to correct the relationship never abated. But more for now, the US administration is guided by four major considerations: 1. Notwithstanding domestic frictions in the country between reformists and religious conservatives, the regime in Tehran is substantially stable and the army is not called in to take a hand in the feuding. 2. By contrast, domestic and Islamic fundamentalist unrest, including terrorist violence, is spreading fast in the neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Caucasian. Iran as the dominant Shiite Moslem power keeps aloof from this largely Sunni Moslem thrust. The Iranians are in fact implacably opposed to the extremist Taleban regime Kabul and were poised more than once in the last two years to send troops across the frontier to topple it. 3. The US has long despaired of OPEC as a world price stabilizer (Thursday, Sept 7, crude oil shot up past $35 a barrel ) and sought ballast elsewhere. Originally, the Caucasian seemed to fit the bill, but not since the upsurge of Islamic terrorism there. Now the Americans have come to believe that Iran, a major world producer, can be persuaded to quietly agree to expanding production in return for US economic and technological aid. 4. The advisory teams of presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore both favor reconciliation with Iran. Gore is an enthusiast, while Dick Cheney, Bush’s running mate, has long urged lifting the US embargo against Iran as out of date and a boomerang against US interests.
America’s withdrawal from the Caucasian and Black Sea regions will rebound in a number of ways: A. America will no longer invest in laying giant Caucasian-Europe pipelines to avoid transversing either Russia and Iran. Now the oil can run to Europe through Russia. B. The Balkans losetheir importance. A major consideration behind the 1990 and 1998 Balkan wars was the need to provide a western bulwark for the Caucasian oilfields and secure American control of the oil routes to Europe. This consideration has receded. In other words, America’s military presence in Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania is no longer critical to its interests. In the next two or three years, therefore, we shall almost certainly see US military strength exiting the Balkans. C. The Americans will be leaving behind them a power vacuum in the Caucasian and the Balkans and the field clear for Russia’s return. They are more at ease with this scenario since the advent of Vladimir Putin who appears relatively stable, controlled and amenable to doing business with Washington, understanding that if he wants to stay in power, he will have to play ball with the Americans. D. A steady US-Russian-Iranian relationship ought to create a solid fence penning in the restive Caucasian, Afghanistan and Pakistan where the Americans expect more Islamic terrorist trouble and from which they prefer to distance themselves.
These developments provided some of the background for the meeting on August 20 between the Presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and their sharp joint statement: “We shall crush terrorist actions with the most decisive measures.”
The meeting was called by the Nursultan Nazerbayev of Uzbeksitan, who complained that while Islamic rebels were free to maraud in all their territories, their armies were restricted to their own and thus prevented from doing battle. Uzbek Islamic fighters based in Tajikistan have in recent weeks repeatedly penetrated the remote mountain regions between Kyrgistan and Uzbekistan. Unofficial sources said they suffered dozens of dead while government troops lost 30 men. Their goal is to take over the broad fertile Feranga Valley lying between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. If they gain this prize, the Moslems guerrillas could carry out their plan to establish a fundamentalist Islamic republic at the heart of the Caucasian and threaten all the countries in the region.
Western diplomats report that the Moslem insurgents are better trained and armed than every before, with anti-air weapons, night-vision equipment and new sniper rifles, as well new communications equipment. They do not appear to be short of money. All this indicates that they are receiving training and arms in Afghanistan, whether from the Taleban rulers or from Osama Bin Laden, the millionaire master terrorist, their guest.
There is another possible explanation for the recent upsurge in Islamic militant activity in this multi-frontiered crossroads: keeping the frontiers open for the unimpeded traffic of heroin out of Afghanistan, deliveries of which have also mounted.
The Caucasian presidents ended their meeting with a decision to establish a multi-national military force free for cross-frontier operation. debkafile‘s military analysts doubt whether these former Soviet republics are capable of getting together sufficiently to operate a joint military command that will effectively combat the Moslem rebels. They will run to Moscow for help – and this will happen very soon after the loss of their American umbrella.