The big story of 2014 will be Iran. Of course, the big story of the early 21st century will never stop being US-China, but it's in 2014 that we will know whether a comprehensive accord transcending the Iranian nuclear program is attainable; and in this case the myriad ramifications will affect all that's in play in the New Great Game in Eurasia, including US-China.
As it stands, we have an interim deal of the P5+1 (the UN Security Council's five permanent members plus Germany) with Iran, and no deal between the US and Afghanistan. So, once again, we have Afghanistan configured as a battleground between Iran and the House of Saud, part of a geopolitical game played out in overdrive since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 along the northern rim of the Middle East all the way to Khorasan and South Asia.
Then there's the element of Saudi paranoia, extrapolating from the future of Afghanistan to the prospect of a fully "rehabilitated" Iran becoming accepted by Western political/financial elites. This, by the way, has nothing to do with that fiction, the "international community"; after all, Iran was never banished by the BRICS, (i.e., Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the Non-Aligned Movement and the bulk of the developing world.
Those damned jihadis
Every major player in the Barack Obama administration has warned Afghan President Hamid Karzai that either he signs a bilateral "security agreement" authorizing some ersatz of the US occupation or Washington will withdraw all of its troops by the end of 2014.
Wily puppet Karzai will milk this for all it's worth -- as in extracting hardcore concessions. Yet, whatever happens, Iran will maintain if not enlarge its sphere of influence in Afghanistan. This intersection of Central and South Asia is geopolitically crucial for Iran to project power, second only to Southwest Asia (what we call the "Middle East").
We should certainly expect the House of Saud to keep using every nasty trick available to the imagination of Saudi Arabia's Bandar bin Sultan, aka Bandar Bush, to manipulate Sunnis all across AfPak with a target of, essentially, preventing Iran from projecting power.
But Iran can count on a key ally, India. As Delhi accelerates its security cooperation with Kabul, we reach the icing on the Hindu Kush; India, Iran and Afghanistan developing their southern branch of the New Silk Road, with a special niche for the highway connecting Afghanistan to the Iranian port of Chabahar (Afghanistan meets the Indian Ocean).
So watch out for all sorts of interpolations of an Iran-India alliance pitted against a Saudi-Pakistani axis. This axis has been supporting assorted Islamists in Syria -- with nefarious results; but because Pakistan has also been engulfed in appalling violence against Shi'ites, Islamabad won't be too keen to be too closely aligned with the House of Saud in AfPak.
Washington and Tehran for their part happen to be once more aligned (remember 2001?) in Afghanistan; neither one wants hardcore jihadis roaming around. Even Islamabad -- which for all practical purposes has lost all its leverage with the Taliban in AfPak -- would like jihadis to go up in smoke.
All these players know that any number of remaining US forces and swarms of contractors will not fill the power vacuum in Kabul. The whole thing is bound to remain murky, but essentially the scenario points to the Central-South Asia crossroads as the second-largest geopolitical -- and sectarian -- battleground in Eurasia after the Levantine-Mesopotamian combo.
Zero energy from our neighbor?
As much as India, Iraq is also in favor of a comprehensive deal with Iran. And to think that Iran and Iraq might have been engaged in a silent nuclear arms race with one another at the end of the last century, just for Baghdad now to fiercely defend Tehran's right to enrich uranium. Not to mention that Baghdad depends on Iran for trade, electricity and material help in that no-holds-barred war against Islamists/Salafi-jihadis.
Turkey also welcomes a comprehensive agreement with Iran. Turkey's trade with Iran has nowhere to go but up. The target is US$30 billion by 2015. More than 2,500 Iranian companies have invested in Turkey. Ankara cannot possibly support Western sanctions; it makes no business sense. Sanctions go against its policy of expanding trade. Moreover, Turkey depends on inexpensive natural gas imported from Iran.
After deviating wildly from its previous policy of "zero problems with our neighbors," Ankara is now waking up to the business prospect of Syrian reconstruction. Iraq may help, drawing from its oil wealth. Energy-deprived Turkey can't afford to be marginalized. A re-stabilized Syria will mean the go-ahead for the $10 billion Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline. If Ankara plays the game, an extension could be in the cards -- fitting its self-proclaimed positioning as a privileged Pipelineistan crossroads from East to West.
The bottom line is that the Turkish-Iranian conflict over the future of Syria pales when compared with the energy game and booming trade. This points to Ankara and Tehran increasingly converging into finding a peaceful solution in Syria.
But there's a huge problem. The Geneva II conference on January 22 may represent the nail in the coffin of the House of Saud's push to inflict regime change on Bashar al-Assad. Once again, this implies that Bandar Bush is ready to go absolutely medieval -- plowing the whole spectrum of summary executions, beheadings, suicide and car bombings and all-out sectarianism all along the Iraqi-Syrian-Lebanese front.
At least there will be a serious counterpunch; as Sharmine Narwani outlines here, the former "Shi'ite crescent" -- or "axis of resistance" -- is now reconstituting itself as a "security arc" against Salafi-jihadis. Pentagon conceptualizers of the "arc of instability" kind never thought about that.
Missile nonsense, anyone?
Adults in Washington -- not exactly a majority -- may have already visualized the fabulous derivatives of a Western deal with Iran by examining China's approval and the possibility of future Iranian help to stabilize Afghanistan.