Iran's Most Powerful Weapon Is Energy

The words "Iranian Defense Strategy" bring to mind associations such as Shahab missiles, nuclear weapons development, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, and the support of groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. But as for the Iran of 2008, these elements make up only part of its defense mechanism. Over the last decade, Iran has been pursuing a much more comprehensive strategy in order to strengthen its position in the region and around the world.

The central linchpin of this strategy is energy, and the concept goes far beyond Iran's capability to sink Western oil tankers in the strait of Hormuz.

Ahmadinejad's current visit to Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka has the clear goal of solidifying Iran's energy security policy -- a way of thinking that evolved as part of the lessons learned in Iranian military circles, following the end of the country's eight-year war against Iraq. During that war, Iran watched its neighbors side with Iraq, because they did not rely on Iran for anything. After the war, Tehran decided to prevent this from happening again, by making regional economies as reliant on Iran as possible.

Therefore, Iran's energy security concept does not solely rely on Iran's capability to sink Western oil tankers

That policy rests on getting key countries hooked on Iranian gas; in some cases it is sold at below market prices. By doing so, Tehran aims to deter energy-hungry neighbors, many of whom are going through an economic boom, from backing strong economic sanctions against Tehran. It also aims to prevent them from allowing their territory to be used by the U.S., if Washington decides to pursue a military attack against their country.

So far, Iran has Kuwait, Oman, and Turkey on its client list. It is also in negotiations with the United Arab Emirates. The pipeline has already been built; the only outstanding issue is the price, which is being negotiated. These countries are important U.S. allies, whose support will be absolutely crucial if the UN hopes to impose any meaningful economic sanctions against the administration in Tehran.

Ahmadinejad arrived in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad on the morning of April 28, in order to bring another important U.S. and Israeli ally onto Iran's client list. That country is India. Ahmadinejad is visiting Pakistan because the pipeline to India needs to run through Pakistani territory, for which Islamabad will be charging a transit fee.

To Iran's concern, Washington has been doing everything in its power to scupper the deal. In addition to applying political pressure both on India and Pakistan, the U.S. has also encouraged the Asian Development Bank to finance an alternative supplier.

This one entailed selling gas from Turkmenistan in a pipeline which runs through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India (TAPI). India happily accepted the gas, and the deal, which supply India with 30 million cubic metres a day at a total cost of $5.5 billion.

However, much to Tehran's delight, when Washington tried to convince India that its needs would be fully satisfied through the TAPI deal, its calls fell on deaf ears in New Delhi. The Indian administration snubbed the U.S., inviting Ahmadinejad so that outstanding issues can be resolved and the 2775km Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline, which, upon its completion by 2011 will initially supply 600 million cubic metres of gas to India each day, can be built.

This deal certainly makes economic sense for India. Its total cost of $7.8 billion is $2.3 billion more than the TAPI pipeline. Yet, India will be receiving six times more gas from the Iranian pipeline.

Thus far, it seems that Ahmadinejad's trip has helped resolve a number of key standing issues with Pakistan over the contract. Together with this economic victory, Islamabad handed the Iranian president another bonus by stating that it would not allow its territory to be used for an attack against Iran.

Along with Washington, Israel also has much to worry from Ahmadinejad's trip. India is one of the Israeli defense industry's biggest customers. Furthermore, India has been the launching pad for Israeli satellites and it is likely that Iran will use its new gas influence on India as leverage to dissuade New Delhi from deepening its ties with Jerusalem in any way.

In addition, the arrival of Ahmadinejad in Colombo, Sri Lanka, after his trip to Pakistan could not be lost on his security team. The skies of the very country he is visiting are defended by Israeli-made Kfir fighter jets, which were bought for the country's Air Force.

Energy is only one of the carrots being offered by Tehran to Sri Lanka. Offering $1.9 billion in soft loans and grants, Tehran will be financing hydroelectric and irrigation projects. Furthermore, Tehran will also finance purchase of Iranian oil for Sri Lanka.

Although Washington and Jerusalem have a right to be concerned, no party should be as angry over these developments as the people of Iran. While they languish in poverty, their government is giving away its income to other countries.

Already, Iran's economic assistance to Iraq, Gaza, and Lebanon have given it influence and popularity as part of its "Look West" policy.

The cementing of its relations with Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, show that the government's "Look East" policy is also making progress. Tehran's success in both areas, despite U.S. pressure, shows that the chances of imposing any meaningful economic sanctions against Iran are almost nil. The cold, hard truth is that these countries need Iranian gas far more than any support the U.S. has been able to offer them.

What does this mean for the West when it comes to dealing with Iran's nuclear program? There are only three options. One is direct negotiations, the other is a military option, and the third is to live with a nuclear Iran.

Negotiations are the least costly option for the West at the moment -- and one that all three candidates for president should seriously consider.

Meir Javedanfar is the co-author with Yossi Melman of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran. He runs Middle East Economic and Political Analysis (MEEPAS).