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Caspian: Brzezinski Cautions Against Isolating Iran From Pipeline

Washington, 9 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Former U.S. White House national security adviser Zbignew Brzezinski says American efforts to isolate Iran and keep Caspian oil pipelines out of that country could push Tehran into a collaboration with Russia to exclude western presence from the region.

Brzezinski, who headed the national security council under President Jimmy Carter, told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee Wednesday that if the U.S. wants a stable Persian gulf and central Asian region, "some gradual accommodation is in the mutual interest of both countries."

Part of that growing accommodation, he said, should include a southern route through Iran among the multiple pipelines the U.S. is supporting to transport oil out of the Caspian Sea basin.

He said it is in America's interest to give Iran a stake in regional cooperation. "Short of such a stake, we're likely to increase the temptation both for Iran and Russia to try to play exclusionary politics in the region, to the disadvantage of the region's stability," said Brzezinski.

The potential for Russian involvement, said Brzezinski, stems from Moscow's policy being "torn" between two basic orientations -- the one that realizes Russia gains most from cooperating with the west, but the other the traditional view that Russia is better without the west, even if everyone is poorer as a consequence.

Brzezinski quickly adds that he believes the new generation of Russian leaders is much more oriented toward the cooperation view, but that the old ideas are not dead yet.

Brzezinski says the Clinton administration's efforts to gradually improve relations with Iran was the best approach -- "it's a careful, prudent movement away from dual containment, which is eminently sensible," he says.

However, he says, the current U.S. unilateral embargo against Iran is the "worst of all worlds" because it is being enforced against American companies but not against foreign businesses.

The U.S. recently waived penalties against three foreign firms, including Russia's Gazprom, for their investments in Iranian oil and gas exploration. The action was wise, says Brzezinski, but showed that the U.S. is "not able to impose an effective embargo but is sustaining it against our own corporate interests to the benefit of foreign corporate interests."

Senior State Department officials, however, defended the embargo and especially the U.S. stand against any of the Caspian pipelines going through Iran. "We continue to oppose trans-Iran pipelines for Caspian energy exports in the strongest terms," said Stephen Sestanovich, U.S. Ambassador at large and special advisor to the Secretary of State for the new independent states.

Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs, Marc Grossman, told the subcommittee that not only would a pipeline through Iran be "risky," but would also put control of the region's energy reserves in far fewer hands -- "and that is in no one's interest," he said.

Grossman and Sestanovich say the U.S. supports multiple pipelines to encourage independence among the nations of Central Asia and the Caucasus, develop their economies and stabilize energy supplies for Europe.

The hearing came just after Russia and Kazakhstan agreed on how they would divide the Caspian's seabed, and the same day Iran protested the agreement, but the subject wasn't discussed.

A private analyst, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Senior Associate Martha Olcott, challenged official U.S. assumptions about the extent of the Caspian sea's resources and American policy which she says has put "pipeline politics" above everything else.

"The greatest sources of instability seem certain to lie within these states themselves and seem certain to be further stimulated if the income from energy sales does not manage to trickle down from the elite to the masses," she told the subcommittee.

She says American policy toward the region has changed, from original concerns about democracy, human rights and broad economic development to focus only on the energy potential.

"Pipeline politics has come to eclipse concerns over sustaining macroeconomic reforms, and fear of political instability has begun to clearly overshadow our commitment to the cause of popular political empowerment," she says.

The U.S. no longer holds leaders in the region accountable when they backslide or make little headway in implementing democratic reforms, she says. The shift in U.S. policy has not made these men less democratic, it simply has made them less apologetic about their behavior," she says.

What happens, she asks, if the Caspian's resources turn out to be far smaller than now officially predicted? The concern, she says, is that if the investment climate sours, the west will fold its tents and depart, leaving the people of the Caspian states to cope on their own with the consequences of their leaders actions.

The Chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America, Van Krikorian, echoed Olcott's concerns that U.S. policy focuses too much on oil. "The primacy of the goals for which the Cold War was fought and won have dramatically been replaced by the primacy of the goals of the promoters' individual financial gains," he says.

Krikorian says the pipeline debate brings home the point that development of the Caspian's energy potential -- whatever its size -- is not going to lead to democratization, stability and regional integration. Those have to come first, he says, urging the U.S. to make them it's "primary interest to see that they take hold in this period of continuing transition from the Soviet era."