Byline: ANDREW ALEXANDER
Why a new Great Game is being played in Iran
AND now some friendly words about Iran, unpopular as that may be. We really must understand what drives the Iranian government - an elected one, by the way - in its hostile behaviour in the Gulf and Iraq itself.
Iran feels seriously threatened by the Americans. This is understandable.
The two nations have been at daggers drawn for more than 50 years, since the CIA and British Intelligence plotted to overthrow the popular government in Tehran which was out to nationalise the vast assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP).
The Shah, a useful and unpopular American puppet, was ousted in the religious revolution of 1979, followed by the outrage of Islamic militants holding U.S. embassy staff hostage for over a year.
President Carter's attempt at a raid-and-rescue operation was a humiliating failure. Diplomacy eventually secured the hostages' release.
Ever since, Iran has been under the cosh of American sanctions against companies that do business in Iran, even when they are not U.S. companies.
Now Washington threatens dire consequences if Tehran's popularly elected government does not abandon its nuclear ambitions.
But consider Iran's perilous political geography. The country is bordered by Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan. The Americans have bases in the first three and it had bases in unstable Turkmenistan until 2005. In Azerbaijan it provides military aid.
Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that many Iranians believe that they are the next target of American military ambitions, not least because the humiliation of 1979 still rankles with the U.S.
Nor is it surprising, given this conviction, that Iran has been helpful to Shia terrorists in Iraq, assisting them - insofar as much aid is needed - to force an American withdrawal.
We may feel very angry that the deaths of some British servicemen have been due to Iran's help, but we should at least try to understand Tehran's mind.
Various additional factors complicate the Middle East region.
The Americans and the Russians are playing a new version of the 19th Century's 'Great Game', when British and Tsarist spies fumbled to attain power and influence in the parts of Central Asia seen as the gateway to India.
The game today is about gas, hugely abundant in Turkmenistan and currently flowing through Russia. Washington wants to see a pipeline which switches the supply farther to the south and through non-Russian countries where Moscow does not control the tap. …