The urge to control that reality lies at the heart of Washington's policy in the region, not an Iranian "threat" that pales as soon as the defense spending of the two countries is compared. After all, the U.S. spends nearly a $1 trillion on "defense" annually; Iran, a maximum of $12 billion -- less, that is, than the United Arab Emirates, and only 20% of the total defense expenditures of the six Persian Gulf monarchies grouped in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Moreover, the Iranian nuclear "threat" would disappear for good if Obama 2.0 ever decided to push for making the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. Iran and the GCC have endorsed the idea in the past. Israel -- a de facto (if never officially acknowledged) nuclear power with an arsenal of up to 300 warheads -- has rejected it.
Yet the big picture goes way beyond the strategic gaming of the U.S. and Israel about Iran's possible future arsenal. Its position at the ultimate Southwest Asian strategic crossroads will determine much about the future New Great Game in Eurasia -- especially whose version of a modern Silk Road will prevail on the great energy chessboard I call Pipelineistan.
I've argued for years that all these intertwined developments must be analyzed together, including Washington's announced Asian military "pivot" (aka "rebalancing"). That strategy, unveiled in early 2012 by President Obama, was supposed to refocus Washington's attention away from its two disastrous wars in the Greater Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region with a special focus on containing China. Once again, Iran happens to lie right at the heart of that new policy, given how much of its oil and natural gas heads east to China over waters patrolled by the U.S. Navy.
In other words, it hardly matters that Iran is a rickety regional power run by aging theocrats with an only modestly impressive military. The relationship between Obama 2.0 and Iran is guaranteed to involve the nuclear question, but also (whether acknowledged or not) the global flow of energy across Pipelineistan, and Washington's future relations with China and the rest of Asia. It will also involve Beijing's concerted movements to prop up the yuan in relation to the dollar and, at the same time, accelerate the death of the petrodollar. Finally, behind all of the above lies the question of who will dominate Eurasia's twenty-first century energy version of the old Silk Road.
At the 2012 Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) meeting in Tehran, India, Iran, and Afghanistan pushed for the creation of what might be called a new southern Silk Road -- really a network of roads, railways, and major ports that would connect Iran and its energy wealth ever more closely to Central and South Asia. For Delhi (as for Beijing), getting closer to both Afghanistan and especially Iran is considered crucial to its Eurasian strategy, no matter how much Washington may disapprove.
India is betting on the port of Chabahar in Iran, China on the port of Gwadar in Pakistan (and of course a gas pipeline from there to Iran) as key transshipment hubs linking Central Asia and the Gulf. Both ports will be key pawns in Pipelineistan's New Great Game, which is quickly slipping from Washington's control. In both cases, despite its drive to isolate Iran, there is little the Obama administration can do to prevent these and other instances of closer Eurasian integration.