Tales from the Shia Crescent

August 22, 2010 at 1:12 pm (tWP) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Halford McKinder seems to be quite popular in both Tehran and Damascus these days. Several reports have recently emerged about a new strategy developing in the shia governments which consists of an alliance with Russia and Turkey – which implies autonomy from and circumvention of the West – in order to secure a new geopolitical order.

This alliance would permit the ‘heartland’ powers not to rely on sea lanes and control the pipelines which flow through Eurasia. By supplying Europe and China through land, more dangerous and hostile routes through the sea could thus be avoided and allow the four allies unfettered influence in Central Asia and the Middle East.

Allegedly, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been active in the promotion of what he designates as the ‘Four Seas Strategy’, a plan to unite the energetic future of the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean and their respective pipeline networks under the quadrilateral leadership of Moscow, Ankara, Tehran and of course Damascus.

In the Mediterranean, the natural gas to be found off the Levantine coast as well as the oil tankers coming out of the Suez would thus be diverted to the Syrian and Turkish coastal pipeline hubs and carried expediently to the Balkans and central Europe using preferably the South Stream network. In the Black Sea, Turkey and Russia would control the oil flowing through the Baku-Tbilisi pipeline and the trans-Caucasian infrastructure and secure the supply of Central Asian oil and gas to Europe. The Caspian Sea would be protected by the Russo-Iranian tandem which would ensure the eastwards flow of Iranian, Caspian and Central Asian fossil fuels to China and India. Finally the Persian Gulf would form the final source of oil reserves to be expediently supplied through Iran to Turkish and Russian pipelines as well as to the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline.

Turkey is the naval hegemon of the eastern Mediterranean and with Russia considerably reinforcing its Black Sea fleet with Mistral class vessels and the refurbishing of the Tartus naval installations in Syria for use of the Russian Fleet’s 5th squadron, any potential rivals of Moscow or Ankara would feel dissuaded from intervention.

If ever this vision came into being, such an alliance would top all geopolitical arrangements on the planet: bearing more military might than OPEC, more energetically autonomous than NATO. Extending throughout the Russian steppes, the Anatolian valleys and the Iranian mountains hardly could any external entity threaten the use of force.

The basic idea is to replicate the past forte of the Muslim world: intermediacy. By controlling the trade routes, this ‘heartland bloc’ would rival, and keep at bay, any and all external superpowers: America by containment, China and India by co-option.

But the very fact that such a pact would wield insurmountable strength should hint at the unlikelihood of its inception; like many such concepts, if it sounds too good be true, it usually is.

An alliance should always be based on objective interests but the most enduring alliances are the ones that include normative bonds. While NATO was formed against the Soviet threat, the Atlantic philosophical links helped its maintenance throughout and even after the Cold War. The same can be said of the Treaty of Windsor or the Saudi-Pakistani alliance.

This is the safe rule – to stand up to one’s equals,

to behave with deference towards one’s superiors,

and to treat one’s inferiors with moderation‘.

– History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides

This proposition however ignores any such links beyond a desire for autonomy from the Washington Consensus. Iran, Turkey and Russia are roughly equivalent in power and historical rivals competing for the same areas of influence. Only an extremely powerful threat would bring such rivals together; the USSR, a universalist superpower and successor state to the old Russian Empire was such a threat and caused Tehran and Ankara to join efforts in its containment. The US however are not. American influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia is not unilateral and in many cases relies on regional interlocutors such as Turkey and Russia – lest we forget their bases’ availability to the USAF. While the American navy keeps naval supremacy in all oceans and seas, Washington’s power is waning and Secretary Gates is conducting massive expenditure cuts which will on the medium term imply compromises in the global naval hegemony of the US Navy. Given this state of affairs Russia and Turkey have no need to affront the remaining superpower for they possess enough leverage as it is. Not to even mention that Russia would hardly consent to dependency on Islam.

The al-Assad plan seems ultimately to be wishful thinking. If for no other reason the notion has been advertised by Damascus and Tehran but has had little resonance in more ambiguous Ankara and Moscow.

The shias’ fundamental errors? Anti-Americanism – the nature of Iran’s regime is not a major hindrance for cooperation with the US, blind hostility towards America is – and ignorance of the dynamics of multipolarism.


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  2. dptrombly said,

    Good post – often critics of American unilateralism forget that the real danger (so far) is not from hard balancing. And you’re right to point out that so long as Russia sees its primary enemies on the “southern front” with the Caucasus and Central Asia, serious cooperation with Iran and Turkey is unlikely. Despite the mutterings of so many “Eurasianist” thinkers in Russia, Russia still seems to prefer bolstering its influence in Europe to carving out a separate Eurasian space.

    I think I am also more skeptical that a Mackinderite “heartland bloc” could succeed without better accommodating China. After all, China wields a lot of influence in Iran and could potentially pose a huge threat to the heartland’s eastern flanks.

    • M. Silva said,

      Thank you.

      Indeed, Russia is much more fearful of its Asian multi-ethnic rivals than of Europe where its former bloc has been shredded to pieces and where GUAM represents at best a feeble threat. In fact Russia has reached with Germany a very advantageous modus vivendi and the war with Georgia proves that NATO no longer functions – at least as an anti Russia mechanism.
      Not to even mention the energetic interdependence between Russia and Mitteleuropa.

      The ‘heartland bloc’ could exist in spite of China but that would require China’s might to be so big as to threaten Russian, Turkish and Iranian interests simultaneously and that is simply far-fetched.
      Then there is also the traditional Turkish alignment with China and Pakistan against India and Russia, which would make it unlikely for the bloc to endure.

      As I have written before, I am not sure where Turkey’s realignment is going to end up but as I criticised the US for radically doing away with traditional efficient foreign policy parameters during Bush 43, so too must I censure Turkey for abandoning the traditional balance of power which has served it so well.
      I only hope the ‘heartland bloc’ is not what they have in mind – for their sake…

  3. dptrombly said,

    The German-Russian alignment you mention of course recalls another form of ‘heartland bloc’ (and perhaps the original one that Mackinder most feared and the German theorists of Geopolitik most desired) – but this has not translated into a meaningful security cooperation or a German rejection of the West.

    And I would imagine Turkey’s recent turn is less a ploy for ordering the world-island and more a desire to become the ‘hub’ of a Middle Eastern wheel. Turkish efforts to broker Israeli-Syrian negotiations, the Iran nuclear crisis, and its increased engagement with the Palestinian issue speak more strongly to a regionally limited vision – at least I hope.

    • M. Silva said,

      That rejection of the west may be gradual. France is becoming uneasy with Germany and indeed Berlin’s problems with the west may not necessarily be of its own initiative.
      The question now is whether Germany’s economic primacy alone will be threatening enough to other countries – eastern Europe, France, Britain – or whether Germany’s entrenched pacifism – and under-investment in hard power – will allow its neighbours to put away their fears for another generation.

      As for Turkey, I too hope you’re right. Nevertheless, I am not convinced that Ankara’s solo will be more beneficial than its previous alignment.

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