Uzbek-American military ties are once again warming up, which will inevitably strengthen the Uzbek dictatorship’s hand against its own people. Does anyone recall the term “blow-back?”
Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley is in social ferment for plenty of good domestic reasons not to mention the possibility of some international ones, raising the possibility that Uzbekistan will go the way of Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the U.S. has its hands full, and time can always be presumed to favor indigenous forces rather than foreign ones. One could postulate that Washington might want a deal with neighbors that would solve its Afghan problem by cutting the country into regions of strategic interest, with Pakistan running the south, Uzbekistan running the north, and India playing some sort of undercover role balancing the others off against each other. But first, this would work much better with Iran part of the deal, and second, this whole line of thinking risks pulling the U.S. so deep into Uzbekistan that it becomes the next front in the global war on Islam. Put simply, to the degree that we work with the Uzbek dictatorship, Washington becomes the enemy of reformist Islam Uzbek society and reformist Islam becomes that much more radicalized (radical = marginalized reformer).
A further consideration is the impact of American entrenchment in Uzbekistan on Moscow. Revenge may be way too emotional a word; shall we say that Moscow will want to “rebalance the strategic global relationship?” In a world of revenge politics, one could write a wild novel about Moscow funding Mexican drug lords, but in the actual world of today, there appears to be one obvious way in which Moscow can smoothly, logically, safely “rebalance” things after a rude U.S. push into the former Uzbek SSR and that is of course Iran.
Moscow could simply carry out its promises re civilian nuclear technological support; continue moving forward the lucrative, emerging Russian-Iranian gas cartel (which will be far more effective than the hydra-headed OPEC); and take the eminently reasonable step of providing those promised land-to-air defensive missiles to protect Iran’s nuclear establishment, perhaps supported by missile mechanics who would need support from Russian troops who would of course need Russian air cover and voila! it would be 1948 all over again. It could even announce the defensive move in the U.N., bragging about how providing Iran with a defensive shield will make nuclear war in the Mideast far less likely (A. Israel won’t be able to start one; B. Iran will no longer be tempted or scared into building nuclear bombs). True or not, such arguments would be hard to dismiss, and Moscow would look to any dispassionate observer like a peace-maker even as it cemented an alliance with Iran.
For one example of skilled chess playing by Tehran, take a look at international affairs not from the perspective of “big diplomacy” discussed in this post but from the perspective of what might be called “real-world diplomacy:” pipeline construction. Contemplate the meaning of Pakistan and India relying on Iranian gas for the next quarter century. Dare I enunciate a new theory of international affairs, namely, that countries linked by major hydrocarbon pipelines don’t go to war with each other?
And if…IF…Tehran were ruled by skilled chess-players, it might then announce that since it was now protected from the Israeli threat, that it was ready for total nuclear transparency and throw open its doors to the IAEA. Moscow would have neutralized Israel’s threat, leaving Iran striding the regional stage with a big grin on its face. Washington would have a hard time complaining since it would have gotten exactly what it has been demanding for a decade (albeit not in exactly the way it had dreamed). Tehran could go one better by then saying it hoped the way had now been cleared for full resumption of friendly U.S.-Iranian relations, cautioning its (small potatoes) Hezbollah & Hamas allies that the time for military action had passed, and offering “all possible support” to pacifying Afghanistan. That would just make the Moscow-Tehran victory all the harder for Washington to criticize without altering the fact that Moscow and Tehran would remain in the driver’s seat.
Lots of points might follow from this little scenario, but the one that is relevant here is simply this: throwing Iran into the hands of Moscow in return for embroiling the U.S. in a civil war in Uzbekistan (in which the U.S., with its usual foresight, gets to defend a vicious dictator against a popular protest movement) is not a good deal.
So if Washington wants to cut a deal on Afghanistan that risks stimulating Russian pride, it better cut one with Tehran first.