Iran's drive for nuclear weapons, and for long range missiles to put them on, is not just destabilizing the Middle East, it is beginning to change the strategic calculus in Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Russia's new war of words with the Teheran regime is a sign that Moscow is starting to recognize this. The threat that Russia faces from the aggressive and ambitious Islamic Republic and its allies, is one that it has not had to deal with seriously for more than four hundred years. They have long memories in the Kremlin, and no one there has forgotten the centuries of the "Tartar Yoke."
If Iran does go nuclear the question arises : How will it use its nuclear weapons? Even if we assume that they are not crazy enough to launch them against Israel or Saudi Arabia, they will give the leaders in Tehran a new set of military options that should make world and regional leaders very nervous. A clue to the new kind of warfare may been seen in the December 2008 attack on Mumbai. Evidence now indicates that this was launched by elements within the Pakistani intelligence service. Thanks to Pakistan's bomb, they were able to do so with relative impunity. North Korea's sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan fits into a similar pattern. Iran's ability to launch such attacks, combined with its angry ambition, would make the what happened to India and to South Korea seem like mosquito bites.
Iran is on course in the next decade for some sort of regional war, against Israel or against its neighbors. The catastrophically low birth rate ensures that in a few years Iran will not be able to fight a major land war, it may not even be able to now. Its missile force is meant to compensate for this weakness. Its possible alliance with Turkey may give Iran access to some modern weapons. The Iranian threat has already engendered a response in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia; over time, these states will find a way, with US help, to contain Iran. The window of opportunity for any large-scale Iranian action at this stage may therefore only be open for a limited time.
The violent politics of the region are going to get a lot more dangerous in the next few years. If things go badly for the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran's power and ambitions will grow. Even if Iran is contained for a few more years, the long term threat will remain. Only a new regime in Tehran will put an end to this menace. When and how the change is to be made is going to be one of the hardest and most significant decisions that the world's leaders are going to make over the next 12 to 24 months.
Russia and the US both have a lot to lose if things remain on their present course. Can the leadership in both countries come together to deal with this threat, or will all the bad old reflexes get in the way ? For America, the question is hard; for Russia and for other states in the region, it may be one of national survival. A major war would be a disaster, a nuclear war is a strong possibility. The only optimistic aspect of the situation is the sputtering, but still still active dissident movement inside Iran.
From a strictly geopolitical viewpoint, Russia and Iran have always been rivals of a sort. Iran's ambitious leaders have tended to aim their armies east or west --- toward Asia Minor and Europe on one side, and toward India on the other. Yet, when they find themselves blocked in those directions, they head north or south.
For example, in 1739 the Persia Emperor, Nadir Shah, quit India, leaving a weakened Mogul Empire behind; and attacked north into what is now Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. A few decades later, Russia and Persia began to confront one another in the Caucasus and in the regions East of the Caspian Sea. In 1781, Persia effectively blocked Russia's expansion into that region. Throughout this period, Russia's main enemy was the Ottoman Empire; Russia's role in freeing the Christian peoples of the Balkans has not been forgotten.
Geographically, the plain that runs from the Southern Ukraine past the Southern tip if the Ural mountains all the way to Mongolia and to the Pacific -- roughly parallel to the Trans Siberian railroad route -- has been one of Russia's greatest strategic assets. It was the building of the railroad in the late 19th century that inspired Halford Mackinder, a British geographer, to develop his theory of the "Geographic pivot of history," which lead to the set of concepts and ideas known as "Geopolitics." One of the most important elements of Makinder's thought was that this region was effectively "immune from the effects of seapower." This immunity is what gives Russia the strength that has so often in history compensated for the follies of its leaders.
If Iran can challenge Russia for control of this land-corridor, the effects on Russia would be, to put it mildly, Earth shattering. Tehran, and not Moscow, would control the major land route connecting China with Europe. It is logical, therefore, for the leadership in the Kremlin to do everything it can to prevent this from happening.
Russia has just announced a major military build-up that will take place between now and 2020, to replace the vast majority of the Soviet era weapons with which their forces are now equipped. Moscow must be reasoning, at least in part, that it may soon be facing a nuclear armed Turko-Persian alliance that may be looking North. The weak states of Central Asia would be easy prey for such a team. If the US were to be defeated in Afghanistan, then Russia might well have to try and fight them off alone. This may explain. in part, why Russia has been so helpful in allowing Afghan-bound NATO supplies to transit through its territory.
The greatest nightmare from Russia's point of view would be a revival, under Iran's leadership, of the old CENTO alliance (Also called the Baghdad Pact). Created in 1955, it was a military alliance that included Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey, as well as the UK and the US. It began to disintegrate in 1958 after a Coup overturned the Iraqi monarchy, but it did upset Soviet leaders no end. A new nuclear armed CENTO, with Pakistan and Iran, both having forces of nuclear tipped missiles would menace all of its neighbors.
Such an alliance is becoming more conceivable each day -- with the US under stress in Afghanistan, and with Turkey conducting a prolonged flirtation with the Iran-Syria axis, and with Iranian influence making itself felt in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, Pakistan is fighting a nasty medium-scale internal war against the Taliban. It may very well, in spite of its hostility towards the Shi'ite version of Islam, join the new CENTO under some sort of Islamist regime. This possibility was raised by the recent Congressionally-mandated Alternative Quadrennial Defense Review, carried out under the joint chairmanship of former Clinton Defense Secretary Bill Perry and Bush's former National Security Advisor, Stephan Hadley.