Joining Defensive Alliances

by Joshua Foust on 4/1/2008 · 1 comment

There is some movement in the composition of alliances stretching across Central Asia and the Caucasus. If Iran’s application to the SCO is accepted, Beijing will have formed a defensive alliance across 25% of the world’s land mass, covering an array of countries with varying levels of hostility to the U.S., and containing a fair share of the world’s remaining non-Arab energy sources. If Georgia and Ukraine’s applications to join NATO are accepted, the North Atlantic alliance will have succeeded in almost fully surrounding Russia with an adversary originally designed to defeat it in a cataclysmic war. Both reinforce, yet again, the strategic significance of the area, and indirectly highlight the dangers of America’s popular neglect of regional issues.

Tehran Makes Its Move

Iran has applied for membership to the SCO. This is a big deal:

With the SCO, which comprises 25% of the world’s land mass and is the world’s largest energy producer, Iran would be a privileged partner of Russia and China (which are in turn very interested in the country’s oil and natural gas), and as a “military” organisation, it could assure Iran protection against an attack by the United States and Israel.

Experts observe that Moscow and Beijing are interested in creating a zone of privileged collaboration in central Asia, partly as a counterweight against NATO. At the summit in Astana in 2005, the group “urged” the United States to agree to troop removals from member countries, and shortly after this Uzbekistan asked the U.S. to leave its air base in Khanabad. But the experts also note that Iran’s position is highly “compromised”, and that its admission to the group would be more helpful for Tehran than for Russia and China, which do not intend to create immediate conflicts with the Unites States and the European Union, which are leading the accusations against the Iranian nuclear programme. It is thus likely that Tehran’s request will not be accepted until it resolves its nuclear questions.

It isn’t a surprise Iran would want to join this group—as the article clearly states, there are obvious advantages for Tehran. What intrigues me is how this might be used as yet another lever—much like the possibility of Georgia’s and Ukraine’s membership in NATO was used to push through liberal reforms—in terms of Iran’s nuclear program.

Of course, a larger issue would be the leverage this gives China over yet another American adversary. China has skillfully placed itself at the center of the showdown in the Korean peninsula, and it has faced increasingly embarrassing PR failures over its relationship to the Sudanese regime and its treatment of the Tibetan protests. With the expansion of the SCO, it is becoming one of the world’s great geopolitical pivot points, which brings both power and responsibility. (For more on the rise of both Iran and China as players in Central Asia, see here).

Georgia Makes Its Move

In a reversal of several previous policies, Georgia has offered Abkhazia independence in all but name:

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has proposed a reunification of Abkhazia with the rest of Georgia on terms of far-reaching autonomy and with the assistance of international guarantors (Civil Georgia, Rustavi 2 TV, March 28). All elements of a political settlement are to be placed on the negotiating table, except a “disintegration of Georgia,” he announced. “There are no issues that we and the Abkhazians cannot solve through negotiations.”

Saakashvili is offering Abkhazia everything but official independence from Georgia. Naturally, Sergei Bagapsh rejected the offer, apparently still in the hope that Kosovo and Russia can create a country from nothing. This is happening in the context of President Bush explicitly pushing for Georgian and Ukrainian membership in NATO, even though neither is in the North Atlantic region.

Engaging in a tug-of-war with Russia is an iffy proposition, however: while Georgia’s role as a key Uranium smuggling conduit and a support system for energy pipelines gives it strategic importance, it’s unclear what benefits will be gained by antagonizing Russia and disrupting the status quo.

Indeed, there is every reason to believe that a Russia completely surrounded by NATO would react aggressively in response, the same way the U.S. would if it were encircled on three sides by a defensive alliance designed fifty years ago to destroy it should a war break out.

Ukraine is much more divided on the issue than Georgia seemingly is, I would guess because Ukraine doesn’t have any territorial disputes like Abkhazia or South Ossetia that essentially require western intervention to resolve. So Georgia’s move might be seen as a desperate stab to reach west and get support for Saakashvili’s still-fledgling government (hopefully this time without any more martial crackdowns) against what he seems to see as Russian meddling.

The U.S. Stands By

While President Bush has been vocal in his support for Georgia’s and Ukraine’s membership in NATO, his entire administration has been remarkably silent about the new movements and shifting cultural perceptions forming in the rest of Central Asia. How he will react to this latest news is anyone’s guess… perhaps, if we’re lucky, it might reverse the neglect that has so rankled us all these past few years.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

Susanin April 1, 2008 at 4:18 pm

We Don’t Need NATO!
NATO was made for kill slavic peoples!
For example – Cosovo!
Bush go home and take your’s agent – mr. Yushchenko!

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