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How Russia Plays the Great Game (Page 2 of 3)

As a result, Russian officials have sought to play up fears of a confrontation involving Iran by warning Central Asians that the United States could exploit any basing and other military privileges (such as overflight rights) to entangle them in a war. Russia’s state-controlled media has, for its part, supported Iranian claims that the Americans use military facilities in Central Asia not to defend local governments against the Taliban and al-Qaeda (their stated aim), but to wage a covert war against the Iranian government. For example, in 2010, Russia’s English-language RT television cited Kyrgyz political analyst Toktogul Kakchekeev as saying: “It's sad that the U.S. air base has now become a transit corridor for pro-American militants from Sunni insurgent groups which organize attacks in Iran.”

More recently, Russian officials have exploited current expectations of possible Israeli or U.S. military action against Iran to warn Central Asian states that providing access to military facilities or overflight rights could entangle them in a conflict with Iran. In February of this year, for example, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich cautioned that, “It can’t be excluded that this site [Manas] could be used in a potential conflict with Iran,” which he said would violate the Pentagon’s lease agreement with Bishkek.

“The worries are shared not just by Kyrgyzstan, where a debate has erupted about the risk of a retaliatory strike from Iran,” he added.

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The Russian Foreign Ministry has also claimed that Western powers have been exploiting the Iranian nuclear issue to “re-carve the geopolitical map of the large hydrocarbon-rich region that includes Central Asia.” Such remarks came in the context of Kyrgyz President AlmazbekAtambayev’s February 24 visit to Moscow. Throughout his election campaign, Atambayev insisted that he wouldn’t renew the Pentagon’s lease to the facility when it expires in July 2014. Although Kyrgyz authorities insist that the United States can’t use the base for military operations against Iran or for any other purpose except to support NATO operations in Afghanistan, Atambayev has also expressed alarm that Iran would retaliate for any U.S. military strike by retaliating against Manas.

This tactic of sowing fear among Central Asian states over being dragged into a war with Iran complements Moscow’s efforts at securing an agreement last December among the leaders of Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan under which all member governments of the Collective Security Treaty Organization have to consent to the establishment of a foreign military base in any member’s country. The intent of these measures is to constrain the U.S. military presence in Eurasia and also make it dependent on Moscow’s good will, further enhancing Russian leverage.

When he met Atambayev in Moscow last month, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev extended Lukashevich’s warning to encompass Western pressure on Syria. He claimed that developments related to “the Middle East (around Iran and Syria, and certain other countries) have direct influence on the situation in our region.” Medvedev called on these governments to cooperate closely with Russia to address this threat.

Are Central Asian governments’ worries about a U.S. attack on Iran justified? Probably not – it’s very unlikely that the United States would attack Iran, Syria, or any other Middle Eastern country from Central Asia given the superior and better-situated U.S. military facilities and platforms in the Persian Gulf, both on land and at sea. For example, U.S. Navy carrier-based aircraft could bomb Iranian nuclear targets without needing to fly through any other countries’ airspace.

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