Russia or Iran? Europe’s Gas Pipeline Dilemma

There are all sorts of sensible reasons as to why Obama decided not to put missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. Chief amongst these would be their unnecessary expense, allied with the fact that these anti-missile missiles don’t actually work. Ostensibly, the system was to protect Europe from Iranian threats, even though neither these two countries nor the rest of Europe had expressed fear of Iranian attack.

One reason I hadn’t considered for Obama’s decision was that the U.S. and Europe might be wanting to diplomatically (and as gently as possible) manoeuvre Iran back into the community of nations for their own strategic energy purposes. The energy I’m talking about here is not oil, but natural gas. According to The Nation, the U.S. is worried about the growing dependency that Europe has on Russian gas. What they need to do is find alternative supply routes so that Europe cannot be held to ransom by Russia (in the way that Georgia has been in the past couple of years).

The EU and the US are pinning their hopes on a prospective 3,300-kilometer-long, $10.7 billion pipeline dubbed Nabucco. Planning for it began way back in 2004 and construction is finally expected to start, if all goes well (and it may not), in 2010. So if you’re a NATO optimist, you hope that natural gas from the Caspian Sea, maybe even from Iran (barring the usual American blockade), will begin flowing through it by 2015.

Russia has already begun to counter this Nabucco pipeline by building what is called the South Stream pipeline, also planned to start delivering gas by 2015:

Put this all together and Russia, with its pipelines running in all directions and firmly embedded in Europe, spells trouble for Nabucco’s future and frustration for Washington’s New Great Game plans to contain the Russian energy juggernaut.

For those who think that the battles to control access to strategic energy resources relates only to oil, take a look at this natural gas pipeline map. As you can see, the beating heart of Europe is supplied by gas arteries coming from some pretty dodgy countries inside Africa, The Middle East and the Central Asian republics.


Russia already supplies 35% of Germany’s gas and this is expected to go higher. This is why Europe and the US can’t afford to get too offside with Iran as in the future its gas might be needed to deal with overreliance on the Russian monster.

Now, its all very well to build a pipeline, but you still have to find something to feed into it. Richard Galpin at the BBC reports that “Nabucco… is still struggling to find sufficient sources of gas to make it viable and ironically may end up transporting Russian gas.” This is why Pepe Ecobar has observed that

the Nabucco consortium itself would kill to have Iran as a gas supplier for the pipeline. They are also familiar with realpolitik: this could happen only with a Washington-blessed solution to the Iranian nuclear dossier.

Western countries and their media often portray Iran as a country of “Mad Mullahs” who behave in all sorts of insane ways. But when you look more closely at many of their international dealings, the Iranians are often better versed in statecraft then their Western counterparts. Look at this “threatening” deal that the Iranians have done with the Russians if Nabucco is not able to buy their gas:

Is Russia just watching all this gas go by? Of course not. In October 2007, Putin signed a key agreement with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: if Iran cannot sell its gas to Nabucco–a likelihood, given the turbulence of American domestic politics and its foreign policy–Russia will buy it.

Now that’s what I call putting the real into realpolitik. But it is also why journalist John Pilger posits that the latest rhetoric from Western governments over Iran’s nuclear program is, in fact, readying us for the next war. Pilger argues that: “Iran’s crime is its independence. Having thrown out America’s favourite tyrant, Shah Reza Pahlavi, Iran remains the only resource-rich Muslim state beyond US control.”

We’ll see, but I think that Pilger underestimates the aforementioned statecraft of the Iranians and how good they have become at avoiding war.

2 Responses

  1. It’s always seemed to me that the West forgets that the Middle East was where diplomacy and statecraft was born. Iran (and Persia before it) has been dealing with ambassadors and foreign potentates for centuries.
    Its nuclear ambitions, for example, are not the ravings of a self-destructive lunatic state hell bent on armageddon but, a carefully balanced power play. This is why they will probably end up being nuclear ambitions as opposed to nuclear realities, at least in the short term.
    The longer Western states hold Iran up as the “Great Satan” however, the more likely those gas resources will flow towards the Bear in the North. And, while the US may have its hawkish elements, the chances of another full blown conflict are extremely slim.
    One thing is for sure to my mind… Iran would prefer a more peaceful, more pro-West solution despite the rhetoric.

  2. Good points Dr. If you or others are interested, Juan Cole posted a couple of days ago on his Informed Comment blog “Top Things you Think You Know about Iran that are not True”:

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