Another grand design initiated by Barack Obama in his first 100 days at the White House would allow Iran to feed its natural gas into the 3,000-kilometer Nabucco pipeline project for carrying Caspian oil to Austria through Turkey. Iran would join Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as fuel exporters to Europe through this new route, an alternative to transit through Russia.
Washington believes this perk could entice Tehran to opt for dialogue and cooperation, contribute to a new US-led Iranian-Turkish political-economic grouping to counterbalance Russian influence in that part of the world and offer an alternative to Moscow's South Stream project for carrying gas from the Caspian to Europe via Russia.
Assuming Moscow is too economically straitened at this time to put up the tens of billions of dollars for its South Stream pipeline, the Americans would like to believe Russia might join the Nabucco project too – or at least come to terms with the coexistence of the two mega-pipelines, South Stream and Nabucco.
On the economic side, Washington and Moscow are vying for gas suppliers to boost their respective pipelines' feasibility. The Russians are gathering in Central Asian energy producers, such as Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan; the Americans would need Iran.
The first Obama official to publicly endorse the Nabucco project was Richard Morningstar, US envoy to Europe and Central Asia on energy matters. Speaking at a two-day energy summit in Sofia last weekend, he said frankly that Iran could be a possible supplier to Nabucco.
A major facelift for Iran's energy sector
He referred to Iran's big gas fields as a source for the projected pipeline, despite a caveat:
“Obviously right now gas from Iran creates some difficulties with the United States as well as with other countries,” he said.
In an interview with Bulgaria's Focus news agency during his stay in Sofia, Morningstar said:
“Nabucco is important, but it is not the only solution for European energy security. This is the problem of countries attendants in the project. We will help with the realization of the project as much as we can.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources interpret this as an implied offer of US funds and technology for Nabucco's construction.
“We [the U.S.] reached out to Iran, we want to engage with Iran, but it also takes two to go to the dance and we are hoping that there will be positive responses from Iran,” Morningstar said.
He added that Nabucco could succeed with or without Iranian gas, but suggested that Iran's energy sector would win a major windfall in the form of Western technology – provided only that Tehran responded positively to Washington's diplomatic overtures. He stressed that European energy security is a high priority for the White House.
Concurrently, another US official, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Krol, opened up another avenue for Tehran at an energy transit security conference on April 24 in Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan. Krol said the US was open to Central Asian gas being exported to Europe via Iran, Turkmenistan's northern neighbor. Russian and Chinese delegates were present as well as Iranian officials.
Our Washington sources note that the Obama administration is flying several kites in Tehran's direction. Not all are expected to hit the mark, but its new energy policy aims at five immediate goals.
Supplanting Egypt and Israel at Washington's center stage
1. The opening up of Europe to Iran's gas exports through the Western pipeline is planned to lure Tehran into fruitful dialogue with Washington and eventually a deal on its nuclear program.
2. The important US investment in funds and new technologies on offer may be no less attractive. For now, many Iranian oil and gas fields operate at semi capacity with outdated and worn-out equipment. They are facing total shutdown for lack of access to new equipment and funding. America has the resources to save Iran's energy sector from obsolescence.
The Obama administration is clearly forging ahead with its own incentives, without waiting for the Islamic Republic to respond to the offer of talks on its nuclear controversy from the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany.
3. Administration strategists view these energy perks as a vehicle for driving toward a pro-American Turkish-Syrian-Iranian bloc to rise as the Middle East's premier power and a magnet for more candidates like Iraq and the Palestinians.
4. Saudi Arabia would be drawn into the new bloc by its mediation of a US-Taliban deal for Afghanistan and Pakistan (see separate article on Washington's gamble on regime change in Islamabad). The oil emirates of the Gulf would be offered the chance to export their gas through subsidiary Nabucco branches running through Jordan and Syria to Turkey and onward.
5. Egypt and Israel would be supplanted as the reigning political-military powers at the center of Washington's Middle East stage for previous US administrations.
Six bridges to cross (at least)
To take off, Obama's Middle East-energy strategy must cross six major hurdles:
– Iran's fierce resistance to relinquishing its nuclear weapons program and insistence that the United States learn to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, just as it does with Pakistan, India, and Israel.
– Moscow's predictable opposition to Obama administration efforts to knock over Russian political, military and economic holdings in the Caspian and Central Asia regions. The Kremlin perceives Washington as seeking to undo Russia's gains from the Georgia war of summer 2008.
– Moscow will fight hard to keep the US out of the lead-position in a new Turkish-Iranian bloc, although No. 2. spot would be acceptable. The Medvedev-Putin duo will not let the US waltz in and snatch benefits after Moscow invested so heavily in building Iran's nuclear reactor in Bushehr, complete with fuel rods and weapons systems.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Moscow sources predict a surge in Russian nuclear technology and advanced weapons systems sales to Iran to offset American influence.
– The more the Obama administration mixes in diplomacy for settling the historic feud between Turkey and Armenia, the harder Moscow works for a “Russian” solution to pacify this volatile region.
The Obama administration's bid for a role in settling the conflict is hard to fathom when it is so heavily superseded by Russia's unchallenged influence over Armenia's ruling establishment.
Russia offers S-400 Triumf for Armenia coup
Success in bringing about the exit of Armenian forces from the disputed Nagorny Karabakh enclave would be a brilliant diplomatic coup for Moscow, the key to easing the longstanding, bubbling military tensions between Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
So eager is Moscow for this triumph, that our military sources report it is willing to sell Turkey S-400 Triumf intercept missile systems – “no ordinary air defense system”, said Anatoly Aksenov, a senior adviser to the Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport, Monday, April 27.
He described it as “an element of strategic missile defenses.” Placed in one country, the S-400 Triumf can shield the airspace of several of its neighbors.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources say the Russian official was clearly hard-selling the product, but it is certainly one of the most advanced air and missile defense systems on the market today. The Russian S-400 Triumf would give Ankara control of the airspace of Caspian Sea nations, including northwest and central Iran.
– Key European players such as Germany and Italy must be persuaded to loosen their close energy and economic ties with Moscow for the Obama strategy to work.
Washington has little hope of prying them away from those ties.
– Finally – and the most devastating hurdle of all six to Barack Obama's grand design – would be an Israeli military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.