THE BLOG
31/12/2013 17:03 GMT | Updated 02/03/2014 05:59 GMT

Iran Nuclear Talks: The Battle for Eurasian Influence

This time two years ago, New Year celebrations in Western embassies across the Middle East were dampened somewhat.

In early 2012, Western leaders were readying themselves for close to all out war with Iran, following Tehran's threats to close the Strait of Hormuz (through which around a fifth of the world's petroleum is transported) in response to continued economic sanctions over its nuclear programme. Flash forward two years, add to the mix a new Iranian administration and a new moderate, diplomatic negotiating stance on Iranian domestic and foreign policy, and the mood between Tehran and its historic Western foes, seemingly, couldn't be more amicable.

This radical shift in Iran's position in international affairs, if sustained in 2014, will have massive implications for the way that the world's powers engage with the country. And the outcome of the final elements of negotiations over Tehran's long disputed nuclear energy programme will be particularly revealing - likely demonstrating that Iran will move from aggravator to strategic moderator in the politics of global energy security.

The rise of Tehran's digital diplomat

As talks resumed this week between Iran and the P5+1 (formed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - the US, China, Russia, France and the UK - plus Germany), the media spotlight inevitably focuses on whether the final tranche of negotiations can put a halt to Iran's reported desire to cultivate weapons grade uranium through its nuclear research programme.

Meanwhile for most foreign policy analysts, the success of the negotiations will in the main be determined by the ability of the US to shore up relations with Tehran whilst keeping Israel and Saudi Arabia satisfied that the West has not curbed to what Iran's staunchest critics see as its newfound 'wolf in sheep's clothing' diplomacy - embodied by a new digital celebrity at the forefront of Iranian politics.

Hassan Rouhahi, Iran's recently elected president and self-styled consensus-builder-in-chief, whose election campaign was filled with calls for moderation as an "effective and constructive interaction with the world", and whose inauguration speech implored the Iranian people to ditch its intransigeant perspective on relations with the West and neighbours, and "let conciliation replace estrangement and let friendship take the place of animosity", has been at the centre of Iran's recent rise in the global soft diplomacy rankings.

Rouhani's philosophical, non-combative style of leadership, combined with his office's commitment to the tools of digital diplomacy and a furtively active Twitter presence - which has included tweets celebrating Passover and the historic live-tweeting of his first phone call with Obama - has unnerved Iran's traditional foes. Rouhani's ascent has also radically (perhaps irrevocably) altered the way that Western leaders and politicians currently view prospects for engagement with Tehran in 2014.

An about-turn in the US-Iranian relationship in particular has been a particular cause for concern and consternation amongst hawkish Israeli and Gulf commentators. Rouhani actively campaigned on a pro-US platform; and his Ambassador to the UN, Mohammed Zarif, is said to be good friends with Joe Biden.

The recent surge in Tehran's consensual, moderate and constructive relationship building with the US, however, could not take place were it not for a palpable desire on Washington's behalf to entertain an increasingly hospitable Tehran.

And the rationale for that hospitality has less to do with the irrational fear of an Iranian nuclear weapon flattening Tel-Aviv, more with Iran's growing strategic regional influence and a need for Washington to shore up its own interests in the face of a growing threat to its global energy footprint - a threat compounded by parties that the US finds situated on its own side of the negotiating table during the nuclear talks.

From aggressor to mediator in global energy security

It is important to acknowledge that the apocalyptic narrative that has to date surrounded the Iran nuclear negotiations - whereby a nuclear capable Iran will prove a critical global security threat and the precondition to a mutually assured destruction scenario in the Middle East - has to a large extent been neutralised with the signing of the Geneva Interim Agreement in November 2013, which temporarily froze the Iranian nuclear programme and decreased economic sanctions on Tehran.

Now, the story that will determine the geopolitical significance of the discussions relates to the various negotiating parties' ability to use the talks to secure deeper, strategic relations with Iran so as to underpin a range of energy interests in the Caucuses and Central Asia - or Eurasia - region, with whom Tehran enjoys longstanding ethnic and cultural links, and plays a key strategic role in the financing and transportation of the oil and gas projects and reserves that sustain the economies of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Viewed in this way, the key battles around the negotiating table will ultimately become the battle for a controlling stake in the politics of Eurasian energy security, and a bid to ensure partnership with a key influencer and mediator in the region, Iran.

The issue highlights the growing importance of Iran as a mediating, rather than aggressive, force in international affairs.

The battle for Eurasia: hearts, minds, oil and gas

Significantly, global energy security is a febrile area in which US, Chinese and Russian interests come into major conflict. The fight for control of the huge supplies of untapped oil and gas in Eurasia amongst world powers is now driving numerous state-backed trade and investment efforts in the region. Indeed, the geopolitics surrounding Kazakhstan's energy resources are a demonstration of the potency of the issue. Recent months have seen huge Chinese investments in Kazakhstan's large Kashagan oil field; Russian state-backed vehicles have poured money into pipelines and strategic joint ventures with KazMunaiGas, the Kazakh-government owned oil and gas major, so as to ensure the lights stay on in Moscow. Meanwhile, the EU's INOGATE programme seeks to ensure compatibility between Tehran and member states on a range of energy security issues, paving the way for investment from the likes of Germany and the UK.

In holding the key to Eurasia, Iran has very suddenly become a potential facilitator of the economic sustainability of the world's largest economies. The importance to both Russia and China in particular of a deep and strategic partnership with Iran on energy security is a key component of both countries' ability to support their growth trajectories. The US is keenly aware of this; and some insiders suggest that Washington greatly fears that an independent, bullish Iran could grant its influence in Eurasia and its own vast supply of oil and gas to China or Russia alone, further limiting the US' access to all important resources. Analysts have in turn hinted the US may attempt to use its rapprochement with Iran to push Tehran into snubbing Russian and Chinese-backed energy-related joint ventures over US interests. Chinese energy security in particular would be threatened if Iran agreed to collaborate with the US in any strategy against Chinese interests in the Eurasia region, where Beijing has already invested billions of renminbi in infrastructure and exploration. Meanwhile it has been suggested by some that Iran's influence in Eurasia could dictate Russia's ability to access resources in the Caspian Sea - particularly important given the huge spending required to modernise its own domestic extractive and transportation infrastructure.

Iran and the changing structure of global power

Speculation aside, the coming months' diplomatic showdown over the future of Iran's nuclear programme will be soon overshadowed by deeper strategic power play that could unite and divide the world's major powers in a potentially far more important battle for political and economic influence in the Middle East and Central Asia. The US' ability in particular to sustain its own leadership in the Middle East will come under increased pressure as it attempts to maintain a multipolar approach to diplomacy, whilst appeasing Tel-Aviv and Riyadh's concerns.

Meanwhile, with its influence expanding into Eurasia, the possibility of a power-broking Iran, playing a strategic and mediating role in Middle East geopolitics - and beyond - is no longer out of the question. Things are changing in Iran. For an increasing number of the emerging class of elites in Tehran, the potential of regional leadership necessarily requires partnership with the US - traditionally referred to by hardliners as the 'great Satan'.

So if negotiators are able to emerge from talks with a satisfactory deal that both assuages Israeli concerns and removes some if not all of the biting sanctions that are restraining Iranian economic growth, Tehran's position of international isolation could well be over; and that would have significant implications for the prospects of stability in the Middle East.

The battle for Eurasian influence has turned a corner - and this time the country the West traditionally loves to hate holds the key to success.

Iran as the diplomatic mediator between the US, China and Russia? It's no longer as crazy as you'd think.