Political Pipeline

Much has been written about the war between Russia and Georgia. Neoconservatives, as Justin Raimondo pointed out, have suddenly discovered the “democratic” republic of Georgia, which has been a historical "victim” of the Russian “empire.” Never mind that not only was Georgia not a democracy before it was devoured by the Soviet Union in 1921, but also that the war, started by Georgia’s forces, was a strategic blunder by Georgia’s president, the confrontational, demagogic, American-trained lawyer Mikheil Saakashvili, who dared foolishly to take on his giant neighbor, thinking naively that NATO would rush to help him.

William Kristol, the “little Lenin” of the neoconservatives, who now has another outlet in the op-ed page of the New York Times, opines that the U.S. must not only give aid to Georgia, but must also help it become a member of the “League of Democracies” that John McCain has proposed. Never mind that in the Georgian “democracy” Saakashvili used police brutality to stop huge demonstrations after hotly disputed elections and shut down opposition publications, and never mind that when democratic elections in Palestine and Lebanon yielded results deemed undesirable by the U.S. (and people like Kristol), they were not only dismissed, but the voters were also punished by U.S. sanctions.

And, as Robert Parry noted, the same neoconservatives who backed the illegal invasion of Iraq, and are now threatening to attack Iran over its nonexistent nuclear threat, are suddenly discovering respect for the rule of law and international agreements. Even Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, who supported the Iraq invasion, got into the act, writing in the Washington Post that “Whatever mistakes Tbilisi has made, they cannot justify Russia’s actions.”

Where was Holbrooke when the U.S. invaded Panama, helped the Contra thugs in Nicaragua, encouraged – and later supported – Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran, and was silent when the Saudi-Pakistani-created Taliban overthrew the internationally recognized government of Afghanistan?

In reality, the Russia-Georgia war involves three important elements:

  1. The desire to encircle Russia with pro-U.S. clients in the former Soviet republics, from Ukraine to Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, and by setting up missile “defense” systems in Poland and the Czech Republic that are intended for the Russians, but are justified by the bogus threats posed by Iran’s missiles and its nonexistent nuclear weapons program.
  2. Recognition, over strong and angry objection by Russia, of Kosovo as an independent state. I suppose so long as such unstable mini-states as Kosovo are clients of the U.S., their Islamic identity poses no problem to the neoconservatives. Most other Muslims, such as those in Iran, Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq are considered dangerous.
  3. But perhaps the most important element has to do with the control of the routes for transporting oil and gas from Central Asia and the Caucasus region to international markets and, in particular, to Western Europe. If the U.S., pressured by the Israel lobby, had not pushed for bypassing Iran, we would have perhaps been in a different situation than what we have now between Georgia and Russia, with all of its geopolitical implications.

While many have written about the causes and consequences of the war, little emphasis has been put on the role that the U.S. government’s failed policy toward Iran has played in this rapidly developing situation.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and the three independent countries that emerged on the shores of the Caspian Sea, namely, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, declared that they would respect all the old international and bilateral treaties that the Soviet Union had signed. Crucial among them were two friendship treaties that had been signed by Iran and the Soviet Union in 1921 and 1940. An article in both treaties stated, “No country can take unilateral action regarding the Caspian Sea.” Therefore, the five countries of the Caspian area, particularly Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, could not unilaterally decide what to do about the resources of the Caspian Sea without the consent of the other countries.

Even aside from the old Iran-Soviet treaties that Russia accepted legal responsibility for after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fact is that, according to all the international treaties, so long as a territory is in dispute, no country can take unilateral action regarding its resources and riches. A good example is the dispute between Iran and Kuwait over the Dorra gas fields in the northern Persian Gulf. Both countries have avoided any action toward developing the fields, waiting for their final status to be negotiated. But, supported by the U.S., Azerbaijan and later Kazakhstan took unilateral actions and contracted out disputed oil and gas fields. Compare this with a similar situation, the dispute between Iran and Qatar in the Persian Gulf over the giant South Pars gas field (the largest in the world). Iran, the “pariah” nation, did no work on the gas field until negotiations between the two countries resulted in a framework for the field’s development. Each country is now developing its own sector.

But that was not the end of the U.S. meddling in the affairs of that region, particularly its wrong-headed policy toward Iran. Equally important is how to transport the oil and gas from that region to the international markets. The issue has remained politically charged, contributing much to the war between Russia and Georgia.

There are several foreign-operated oil fields in the Caucasus region and Central Asia. The oil from the ChevronTexaco-operated field of Tengiz in Kazakhstan is transported through a pipeline north into Russia and by rail west to the Georgian Black Sea port of Batumi. A second line was built by the Caspian Pipeline Consortium to Novorossiisk in Russia on the Black Sea.

The Kashagan oil field in northeast Caspian is the largest of them all, but it is still being developed. In the southern Caspian, oil from the British Petroleum-operated field of Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli in the Caspian Sea has been producing several hundred thousand barrels of oil per day.

The most economical way of transporting all that oil is by pipelines through Iran. For example, the Kazakh government drafted a framework agreement for construction of an oil pipeline from the Tengiz field to Belek on the eastern coast of the Caspian and from there to the Iranian port of Khark, on the Persian Gulf. The pipeline was supposed to pass through Tehran, Qom, and Esfahan. The estimated cost for the 900-mile pipeline was only $1.2 billion. But, the U.S. strongly opposed this, and, as a result, the Tengiz oil is transported through routes that cost much more.

The French oil firm TotalFinaElf, with support from the National Iranian Oil Company, studied a pipeline that would take crude oil from Kashagan across the Caspian to the Iranian border. From there another pipeline was supposed to be built to transport the Kazakh oil across Iran to its Persian Gulf export terminals. The Russian pipeline operator, Transneft, and its Kazakh counterpart, KazTransOil, also carried out a feasibility study for developing a pipeline to Iran in order to link Omsk, in Siberia, with Iran’s port Neka on the Caspian Sea. That pipeline would have allowed Russian, Turkmen, and Kazakh crude oil to be swapped for Iranian oil in its terminals on the Persian Gulf. Although some oil-swapping does take place between Iran and the Central Asian countries, U.S. opposition and pressure have prevented the pipeline from becoming a reality.

But the most contentious issue was about transporting Azerbaijan’s oil to international market. All that had to be done was the construction of a pipeline from Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, to the Iranian border, a short distance away. From there, an Iranian pipeline, when upgraded, could have taken the oil to the Persian Gulf terminals. But the U.S., pressured by the Israel lobby, opposed this pipeline. Israel wanted to reward Turkey for having established close diplomatic and military relationships with it. Therefore, its lobby went to work in Washington to advocate an alternative route through Turkey.

The result is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline that connects the Sangachal Terminal in Baku to the Marine Terminal in the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea, a 1,100-mile pipeline, 155 miles of which passes through Georgia. It was built at a cost of $4 billion and was officially inaugurated on May 25, 2005.

The Baku-Tehran-Khark (BTK) pipeline could have been constructed at a fraction of the cost of the BTC pipeline. Another great advantage of the BTK pipeline would have been the fact that it would have passed through the politically stable Iran, whereas the BTC pipeline passes not only through Georgia, but also through the restive Kurdish areas of Turkey. The entire pipeline requires constant guarding in order to prevent sabotage. On Aug. 6, 2008, the pipeline was shut off by a major explosion and fire in the eastern Turkish province of Erzincan. The Kurdistan Workers Party took responsibility for the attack. The vulnerability of the Georgian portion of the BTC pipeline was also manifestly demonstrated when Russia bombed the areas around the pipeline’s route in Georgia, just to send the “proper” message to the West.

One bogus justification for the construction of the costly BTC pipeline was that it would transport oil from several large Azeri oil fields to international markets, totaling 1 million barrels/day, without involving Iran or Russia. That has not happened. The Kurdashi field did not live up to the Italian oil firm Agip’s expectations. TotalFinaElf failed to find any significant oil in the Lenkoran-Talysh field, and ExxonMobil could not find any oil in its Oguz and Zafar-Mashal concessions. Chevron’s work yielded only lackluster results in its Absheron field. These failures would have made the BTK pipeline even more economical.

But all such advantages of the BTK pipeline were set aside. Instead a political pipeline was built, just to satisfy the Israel lobby. Its construction was also accompanied by numerous violations of human rights by both the Azeri and Turkish governments, which have been documented in the Czech documentary film Zdroj ("Source") and by Kurdish human rights activists.

But the U.S., following Israel’s lead, was not yet done with its blind opposition to Iran’s participation in the oil and natural gas market of the Caucasus and Central Asian regions, which would have made negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program more susceptible to success. The U.S. even pressured Kazakhstan to build a trans-Caspian pipeline from the Kazakh port of Aktau to Baku, in order to connect the Kashagan’s oil to the BTC pipeline, which would have been a gigantic environmental disaster waiting to happen. But Russian and Iranian opposition killed that project.

Thus, had the U.S. not decided that, in order to isolate Iran to appease the Israel lobby, it would make a minor nation like Georgia the cornerstone of its policy in the Caucasus/Central Asia region; had the U.S. not demonized Iran, creating “threats” from its nonexistent nuclear weapon program to justify what it does in Europe against Russia; and had the U.S. agreed to economical oil pipelines through Iran, not a political one through unstable, war-torn regions in Georgia and Turkey, the Georgia-Russia war would not have seemed as significant, and the U.S. and NATO would not have looked so impotent. In fact, the war might not have happened at all.

But this is what happens when our foreign policy is held hostage by a foreign nation and its lobby.