The ending of international sanctions against Iran could soon send Iranian gas flowing across and through the South Caucasus, amping up the region’s strategic significance and possibly changing the dynamics of its energy trade.
For Azerbaijan, getting Iran on board with TANAP, the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Export Pipeline, could bolster Baku’s largest energy-export undertaking, the Southern Gas Corridor, a chain of three big pipelines, stretching across more than 3,400 kilometers and seven countries from the Caspian Sea into Europe. TANAP is the largest and costliest section of the Corridor.
As a transit country, Georgia would get a share of any Iranian gas flowing through the Southern Gas Corridor. But with more Iranian gas in the region, Tbilisi fears losing that share of gas it receives from another pipeline — run by Russian energy behemoth Gazprom for shipments to Armenia from Russia.
With international sanctions lifted, Iran is ready to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, senior Iranian officials said Monday.
Iran applied for full membership in the SCO in 2008, but has been blocked by rules in the organization's charter that forbid membership for any country under United Nations sanctions. Those sanctions were lifted on Saturday as a result of Tehran's compliance with its nuclear deal with world powers including the United States, China, and Russia.
The organization has been eager to get Iran on board. "The organization wishes success to Iran in the finalization of efforts related to the nuclear program so that the essential legal procedures leading up to the lifting of sanctions were implemented as soon as possible," said SCO Secretary General Dmitry Mezentsev last month. "I'd like to believe the SCO will take up Iran's request for the status of a full member immediately after that."
And with the sanctions lifted, Iranian officials said that among their priorities would be gaining full SCO membership.
"The lifting of sanctions opens for Iran the opportunity to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and eliminates other limitations, which the Islamic Republic has been facing in the regional foreign policy," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari told a press conference on Monday.
"For several years Iran has been an observer state in the SCO and is interested in strengthening that organization. The removal of sanctions creates new possibilities for acquiring full membership for Iran in the SCO," wrote Iran's ambassador to Moscow, Mehdi Sanai, on his blog.
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, in happier times (2013). (photo: president.tj)
Iran has shrugged off a rhetorical assault waged by Tajikistan's government and has ratified a security cooperation agreement signed by the two countries before their relations took a nosedive in recent weeks.
Iranian media and Iran's embassy in Dushanbe reported that Iran's parliament has ratified an agreement on defense and security cooperation. It's not clear from the reports exactly what the agreement entails; Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani signed a number of agreements during the latter's visit to Dushanbe in September 2014. Those agreements reportedly included provisions on information sharing in law enforcement and drug trafficking.
Whatever the content of the agreement, the ratification normally wouldn't be especially newsworthy. But it comes as Dushanbe has heaped criticism on Tehran for allowing the exiled opposition leader Muhiddin Kabiri to participate in a conference in Iran in December. Tajikistan's foreign ministry sent a diplomatic note to Iran objecting to the “head of a terrorist party suspected of mounting an attempted overthrow of the government” was invited to Tehran. In his sermon last Friday, Tajikistan's top mufti said that Iran was "abetting terrorism" by inviting Kabiri.
It's official. Georgia and Gazprom are going out. Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze, the former soccer star/pin-up staple, keeps getting spotted meeting Gazprom officials and he is running out of excuses for an entanglement that, some claim, threatens to upset the region's energy status quo, and possibly, its geopolitical layout.
Georgians mostly learn via foreign media about Kaladze’s trysts with the Russian gas monopolist in Milan, Brussels or Geneva. Each time the news breaks, the minister steps forth with claims that it was just some routine business meeting. Nothing to worry about.
But his line of reasoning has become sharply contradictory, stoking fears that Georgia is being seduced back into a dependency on Russian energy, which, in turn, critics say, could hamstring Georgia’s Western integration plans.
In his latest clarification, Kaladze said that his talks with Gazprom are about revising the terms for the transit of Russian gas through Georgia to Armenia. Instead of taking 10 percent of the gas (some 200 million cubic meters) as a transit fee, Tbilisi wants to get paid in cash, Kaladze said on January 11. The deal, if reached, will last for a year, the minister said, which, to his mind, means that the doomsday scenarios “painted by the so-called experts are nothing but delirious and wrong."
Citing police sources, the pro-government news site APA claimed that “more than 60” people had been detained, and 50 subsequently released. An exact tally was not immediately available. The government itself has not released an official statement.
Scores of arrests appear to have been made in Nardaran, located about 30 kilometers northeast of the capital, Baku, since a raid last November that left at least six dead. Among others, the head of the town’s council of elders, Natig Karimov, was detained last week on charges of treason and espionage. Local spiritual leader Taleh Bagirzade was arrested in November.
Authorities claim that the town’s residents harbored plans for an armed coup and colluded with an unnamed foreign power — believed to mean Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, Iran -- against Azerbaijani security interests. Claims long have run rampant in Azerbaijan, a predominantly Shi'a country, that Iran’s Shi’ite government tries to influence or stir up trouble in Nardaran.
As Iran expressed an interest in monitoring the actions taken in Nardaran, Baku started to pull back from recent expressions of chumminess over potential joint energy-export projects.
Authorities in Tajikistan are fuming at Iran about the potential negative fallout for relations caused by the latter’s decision to host wanted opposition leader Muhiddin Kabiri.
Kabiri attended a conference in Tehran entitled “Islamic Revival” on December 27-29, and to compound the perceived offense to Dushanbe, he was seated on the same row as the head of Tajikistan’s semi-official Council of Ulema.
On December 29, Kabiri met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for talks whose focus has not been disclosed. Sources close to Kabiri have told EurasiaNet.org that Khamenei was specifically interested in hearing about the fate of the now-disbanded Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Photographic evidence of Khamenei warmly exchanging words with a man that Tajikistan has dubbed a terrorist for his alleged but unproven involvement in a purported coup d’etat in September has stuck unpleasantly in Dushanbe’s craw.
On December 28, the Foreign Ministry of Tajikistan fired off a testy diplomatic note to Iran noting its irritation that the “head of a terrorist party suspected of mounting an attempted overthrow of the government” had been been invited to the conference.
Dushanbe claimed in its note that Kabiri is subject to an Interpol wanted notice, although nobody of the IRPT leader’s description is in actual fact listed on the Interpol website. Such flights of fantasy have become routine for officials in Dushanbe.
Tajikistan has warned the episode could “have a negative influence on good relations between Tajikistan and Iran,” marking the first time Dushanbe has ever leveled such ominous diplomatic threats.
A representative for the committee for religious affairs, Abdugafor Yusupov, heatedly conveyed officialdom’s indignation.
In the space of a week, the leaders of both Armenia and Azerbaijan have visited Georgia amid talk of a far-reaching potential shift in the region’s energy-transit status quo. Hovering over the discussions in Tbilisi are bigger players like Russia and Iran, both looking to increase energy exports via the South Caucasus.
Emerging after a long, November 5 meeting in Tbilisi, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reaffirmed the exemplary friendship between their two countries, but, reportedly, did not mention the bear in the room — Russia’s Gazprom, which many Georgians perceive as undermining this friendship by trying to pump more Russian gas into Georgia. It currently mainly runs on Azerbaijani gas.
“Our relations will resist any test,” Margvelashvili said. Also full of praise, Aliyev on November 6 rejoiced that the pair does not have “a difference of opinions [on] any issues . . .” Azerbaijani-Georgian cooperation in energy- transit “boosts the significance of our countries in the world,” he stressed earlier.
Aliyev missed just by a few days his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, who came to Tbilisi on October 30. Sargsyan also spoke of friendship with Georgia, but the widespread perception is that he really came to talk about gas. Armenia depends almost entirely on Gazprom’s supplies.
Iran's Damavand frigate, which made its first visit to Russia, but skipped a planned trip to Baku without explanation. (photo: MoD Iran)
Iran's navy appears to have quietly scrapped plans to make its first-ever visit to Azerbaijan.
Iranian officials announced earlier this month that a three-ship contingent from their Caspian fleet would be visiting Baku after a stop in Astrakhan for joint exercises with Russia's Caspian Flotilla. The stop in Russia seems to have gone as planned, but on Friday Iranian military officials announced that the ships had returned home to Iran, with no mention of the previous Azerbaijani plans.
"The Iranian fleet of warships comprising Joshan (Shield) and Peykan (Arrow) warships and the hi-tech Damavand destroyer which embarked on a 12-day voyage in the Caspian Sea on October 18 and after conducting joint naval drills with the Russian Navy and berthing at Russia's Astrakhan port returned home today," Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari told the Fars news agency. (It's worth noting that the tour was originally said to be 14 days.)
So what happened to Baku? Although the planned visit was reported in the Azerbaijani media at the start of the trip, there seems to have been no mention since then about the visit or that it had been canceled.
Iran's Damavand frigate, which is making its first visit to Russia. (photo: MoD Iran)
Iranian warships are on a rare trip around the Caspian, calling on their neighbors in Russia and Azerbaijan in a period of new uncertainty for the sea.
Three Iranian vessels are scheduled to berth in Astrakhan, the home of Russia's Caspian Flotilla, on Wednesday. After three days in Astrakhan, the ships will head to Baku and then back to Iran. According to Iranian media it is only Iran's second naval visit to Russia and apparently its first to Azerbaijan.
Russia, the dominant power in the Caspian, makes these sorts of small, friendly naval visits around the sea somewhat regularly. In August, a small contingent of Russian ships visited the Iranian coast and conducted joint exercises.
But Iran's first such visit was in the summer of 2013, and then only to Russia. The visit to Baku isn't the only novelty; this time Iran is sending its new frigate, the Damavand, Iran's most powerful ship on the Caspian which was launched earlier this year.
Although the Caspian is the site of much greater attention these days as a result of Russia's surprise missile launch to Syria, this visit was no doubt planned well in advance. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu visited Tehran in January and on the agenda was more naval port calls.
In a setup indicative of the changing economic and, possibly, geopolitical dynamics in the South Caucasus, Armenia hopes China soon will agree to pay for a planned railway to Iran. At the same time, it also is lobbying for a free-trade agreement between Iran and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Economically and otherwise dependent on the big brother to the north, Russia, and sandwiched between hostile Azerbaijan and Turkey to the east and west, Armenia hopes that things can go south, to Iran. The planned railway could give Iran access to the Black Sea for large-scale shipments of exports and landlocked Armenia a significant role as a transit country.
The state of the railway link is not clear yet. Iranian officials said they are building their portion of it, while Armenia is looking for the means to construct its own. Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian hopes to scare up investment for the railroad from China during his upcoming September 23-25 visit. Yerevan and Beijing have already been in touch about the railway, according to Abrahamian.