Russian gunboats during a 2011 exercise on the Caspian Sea. (photo: mil.ru)
The foreign ministers of the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea met in Moscow on Tuesday, in preparation for a summit this fall. Diplomatic activity around the sea is not new, and the major dispute -- how to divide up the sea between the five countries -- remains unresolved. But as with everything else in the post-Soviet space, the crisis in Ukraine has changed the calculations in the Caspian, making for an unusual amount of turbulence in the normally stagnant diplomatic waters.
The most interesting potential storyline of the meeting was that Russia had convinced the other four countries -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- to agree to forbid the military presence of any other country on the sea. This was based on a report in Russian newspaper Kommersant, which quoted a "diplomatic source from one of the Caspian countries" saying that "Moscow managed to convince its partners that no outside power should influence decisions about the Caspian. In particular, the issue is about limiting the deployment of military forces of third countries, especially the U.S., to the Caspian."
It's not clear to what extent the issue came up at the meeting. At a press conference afterwards, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked about "the intention of some non-Caspian countries to gain a presence, including military, without taking into account the interests of the countries in the region?" Lavrov answered: "Responsibility for the state of affairs in the Caspian region rests with the Caspian countries... We are open to cooperation with outside countries, if they are ready to do so on the basis of the rules and principles that the five Caspian countries agree on among themselves."
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev meets his Iranian counterpart, Hasan Rouhani, in Tehran. (photo: president.az)
Tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran have been tense over the past few months, with border skirmishes, Tehran accusing Baku of being in cahoots with Israel and Baku claiming to break up Tehran-linked terror plots. In spite of this rocky patch, top Azerbaijani officials have visited Tehran, with President Ilham Aliyev meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Azerbaijan's Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov meeting with top Iranian military officials.
Aliyev's visit "created an opportunity for rapid development of relations between the two countries in various spheres," said General Hassan Firuzabadi, chief of staff of Iran's armed forces. Firuzabadi also reportedly said that "We have today discussed the issues on organization of military trainings, friendly meetings, provision of techniques and weapons for the Azerbaijani Army."
Hasanov, for his part, reiterated Baku's promise that it would not allow any other country (read: Israel) to attack Iran from its territory.
Iran's president is apparently planning a trip to Baku in the next month. The visits are part of a general pivot toward Central Asia, said the Iranian Fars News Agency. "Iran has recently enhanced efforts to boost political, economic and cultural ties and cooperation with the regional and neighboring countries, specially the Central Asian states."
For the second time in two months, a company behind a foreign-operated hydropower dam in Tajikistan has said the state-controlled electricity distributor is not paying its bills. And despite the annual winter electricity shortage, this time the company – in this case Iranian rather than Russian – has shut operations until it gets its money, Radio Ozodi reports.
A source at the Iranian Embassy in Dushanbe told Radio Ozodi that the company behind Sangtuda-2, Sangob, has stopped the dam’s output until Barqi Tojik, the chronically broke state-run energy distributor, begins paying its $28 million debt (which is growing by $2 million a month). Ozodi says the company’s offices in Dushanbe are empty.
Barqi Tojik didn’t clearly answer Asia-Plus’s questions about what’s happening at the dam on the Vakhsh River. Yet whether or not it is operating, Barqi Tojik’s ongoing failure to pay its bills underscores systematic problems in Tajikistan’s troubled energy sector.
The conflict is eerily similar to an episode last month, when Tajikistan’s second-largest hydropower plant, Russian-controlled Sangtuda-1, threatened to shut down for similar reasons. That dispute was resolved when the two sides agreed on a payment installment plan.
A photo originally from Zanjani’s website (since removed) shows Zanjani with President Rahmon and Dushanbe Mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloyev admiring a model of his bus terminal.
One of Tajikistan's most prominent businessmen was reportedly arrested this week in his native Iran, suspected of embezzling $1.9 billion in illicit oil revenues.
Babak Zanjani, whom the US Treasury Department and the European Union have blacklisted for helping Tehran launder oil money, was arrested on December 30, the BBC and local media reported. Zanjani, who denies the charges, has been under investigation since September, shortly after President Hassan Rouhani – who has called on authorities to fight "privileged figures" who have "taken advantage of economic sanctions” – assumed office.
Zanjani has admitted helping Iran earn $17.5 billion in hard currency by selling its oil through his network of companies in Dubai, Turkey and Malaysia, evading Western sanctions designed to pressure Tehran to give up its nuclear program.
But it seems Iran’s new leadership is now washing its hands of Zanjani.
In Tajikistan, Zanjani is best known for launching a sprawling business network with the blessing of President Imomali Rahmon. He estimates his net worth at $13.5 billion – roughly twice Tajikistan’s GDP. But his decision to invest in Tajikistan has raised eyebrows, since the country is so opaque and its market so small. As EurasiaNet.org reported last summer, his appearance in Tajikistan prompted concerns that the natural-resources-poor but narcotics-rich Central Asian country was becoming a mecca for money laundering.
Police in Azerbaijan have arrested an Iranian and accused him of planning an attack on the Israeli embassy in Baku. In many places this would be big news, but it's become somewhat dog-bites-man in Baku, the government claims evincing more skepticism than alarm.
In the latest incident, Baku police arrested 31-year-old Hassan Faraji after he was seen near the Israeli embassy exhibiting "suspicious behavior." Israeli media have reported that "Faraji is a part of the Iranian Quds Forces, a special unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that, among other roles, is tasked with planning and executing terrorist attacks against Israeli targets overseas." Iran has denied that, while accusing Azerbaijani authorities of torturing Faraji, which Baku denies.
Anyway, this is the latest of a long string of plots that Azerbaijan has accused Iran of fomenting in Baku. The Bug Pit asked Anar Valiyev, a Baku-based analyst who as far back as 2007 was writing that the regularity with which Baku accuses Tehran of plotting attacks. Valiyev noted that this recent accusation is especially hard to believe, given that Iran is finally managing to work its way out of international isolation:
The Iran-Azerbaijan border in Nakhcivan (photo: The Bug Pit)
A shooting on the Iran-Azerbaijan border has led to the border being closed for several days, the latest episode of tension between the two countries. The controversy began last week, when an unidentified gunman (in military uniforms, according to Azerbaijan) fired shots at a tractor working on the shore of the Araz River that forms the border between the two countries.
No one was injured, but in response, "The Azerbaijani side accused the Iranian military of the fire and demanded an explanation. Not having received them, the Azerbaijani authorities closed the nearest border crossing point Shahtakhti," near the site of the incident in Azerbaijan's Nakhcivan exclave. And then Iran retaliated by closing off the other two border crossings in Nakhvican, citing "Baku's refusal to negotiate over the issue." From Press TV:
[Iranian embassy in Baku press secretary Mohammad] Ayatollahi said Azerbaijan sealed the border crossing in an “unconventional move” on Wednesday after an unidentified assailant opened fire on a tractor in the border region without causing any casualties.
He stated that the border closure has created serious problems for Iranian passengers and drivers....
He stated that an Iranian border guard was killed by Azeri security forces in Bileh-Savar two years ago, but Iran did not close the border and pursued the issue through the relevant authorities.
The commander of Kazakhstan's navy last week paid a visit to the country's neighbor across the Caspian Sea, Iran. And if you believe Iran's media, at least, Rear Admiral Zhandarbek Zhanzakov's trip cemented the firm, brotherly relationship between the two countries and their navies. In the space of three days, Iran's Fars News Agency carried six stories on the visit, during which Admiral Zhnzakov visited Tehran as well as Iran's Caspian Sea naval base of Bandar Anzali, and expressed interest in widening naval cooperation in various ways:
“We hope that Kazakhstan's experts come to Iran to undergo training and this is feasible,” Admiral Zhanzakov said.
Admiral Zhanzakov pointed to his visits to the military training centers of many countries, and said, “Iran has the best military training centers among the world states.”
The Kazakh navy commander reiterated that Iran’s military training centers are more capable than other countries.
On Tuesday, Admiral Zhanzakov asked Tehran to provide his country with its experiences in building warships.
Speaking to reporters after meeting his Iranian counterpart Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, Admiral Zhanzakov said Kazakhstan’s Navy is a rather new force, “and Iran’s experiences in the field of military industries and building warships are very important to us”.
One of the biggest businessmen operating in Tajikistan’s capital has admitted he’s been laundering Iranian oil money for years.
In August, EurasiaNet.org highlighted the Tajik wing of Iranian businessman Babak Zanjani’s transcontinental financial empire. The US Treasury had frozen Zanjani’s accounts earlier this year for allegedly helping Iran sell its oil, despite international sanctions. The EU has blacklisted him for the same. Now, under pressure at home, he says that’s exactly what he’s been doing all along, the New York Times reports, referencing an interview with the weekly Aseman magazine.
Beginning in 2010, Mr. Zanjani, who declined to be interviewed for this article, told the magazine and, in a separate meeting, the semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency that he used a spider web of 64 companies in Dubai, Turkey and Malaysia to sell millions of barrels of oil, earning $17.5 billion in desperately needed foreign exchange for Iran’s Oil Ministry, Revolutionary Guards and central bank.
“The central bank was running out of money,” he said in the Aseman interview, published last week. In 2010, “they asked me to bring their oil money into Iran so the system could use it,” Mr. Zanjani said of Iran’s political establishment. “So that is what I did.” […]
“This is what I do — antisanctions operations,” Mr. Zanjani said. “I am a businessman who has done his job well. Since I was placed under sanctions they haven’t managed to sell even three million barrels of oil.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov in New York on September 29, the Times of Israel reported, in an apparent bid to strengthen relations with arch-foe Iran's northeastern neighbor.
The Jerusalem Post said the meeting comes just three months after Ashgabat finally accredited a new Israeli ambassador. Ashgabat had rejected two candidates for "allegedly being spies interested not in furthering bilateral relations, but in collecting intelligence information on Iran." The ambassador saga dragged on for years.
Turkmenistan is strategically important to Israel because "[f]rom a hotel in Turkmenistan’s capital of Ashgabat, according to a saying in Jerusalem, one can see into Iran," the Jerusalem Post asserted. "This explains the geostrategic importance of these ties for Israel. Other reasons are that Turkmenistan is a predominantly Muslim country and it is extremely rich in gas and natural resources."
Fearing Israel's influence on its neighbors, “Iran has been determined to limit Israeli involvement in the Caspian region," according to a report by the London-based Caspian Research Institute, which is cited by the Jerusalem Post. Israel also buys oil and sells weapons to another of Iran's post-Soviet neighbors, Azerbaijan.
An Israeli Gabriel anti-ship missile, of the type recently bought by Azerbaijan, being fired. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The commander of Iran's navy has warned neighboring Azerbaijan about its purchases of Israeli missiles, and said that Tehran "is monitoring the situation." From a report from the Fars News Agency:
Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari called the Caspian Sea as the Sea of peace and friendship, and said the recent Azeri missile procurements from Israel have harmful impacts on regional peace and stability.
"We have announced many times that the Caspian Sea is the Sea of peace and friendship and the littoral states should provide its security through cooperation with each other but certain sides adopt such measures (purchasing Israeli missiles) through coordination with others," Sayyari said in a press conference in Tehran on Sunday, commenting on Azerbaijan's recent purchase of Israeli Gabriel-5 missiles.
"Anyhow, Iran is not heedless of the issue and is monitoring the situation," he added.
Recall that the Gabriel-5 missiles were part of a $1.6 billion weapons purchase that Azerbaijan made from Israel last year. That news raised a splash back then because of the talk of a looming U.S. and/or Israeli attack on Iran (remember those days?). Azerbaijan was likely never going to get involved in that conflict, but it has its own security issues with Iran, especially on the Caspian.