Rouhani and his Kazakhstan counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev meet in Tehran for Rouhani's inauguration (photo: president.ir)
Iran's newly elected president Hassan Rouhani may or may not take his first trip abroad as president to Kyrgyzstan and the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Regardless, most analysts seem to believe that as compared to his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Rouhani is less likely to seriously pursue ties with the SCO and its member states more generally.
A number of news media, including Iranian state media, reported last week that Rouhani would travel to Bishkek for the SCO summit on September 13. But then Iran's foreign ministry clarified that no such decision has been made:
"The SCO summit is of high importance in Eurasian region and Iran, as an observer, has actively participated in its meetings," [Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas] Araqchi said at his weekly press briefing, adding that "For this (year's) summit, Iran has also been invited, but no final decision for participation in the summit has been made yet."
"The final decision in this regard will be made by the president (Rouhani)," said the spokesman.
Iran isn't a member of the SCO, but an observer. (Full members are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.) Under Ahmadinejad, Iran applied for full membership to the organization and he frequently praised the organization, for example calling it the foundation of a "new world order." But Rouhani is likely to step back from that emphasis, said Iranian expert Mehdi Mahdavi Azad in an interview with Radio Ozodi:
Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps is establishing a naval presence on the Caspian Sea, suggesting that Tehran is placing a greater emphasis on security in the Caspian region. An Iranian naval official announced on Saturday that the IGRC Navy is setting up a training center on the Caspian, "tasked with training the IRGC Navy vessel crews to enable them conduct the necessary maneuvers in the Caspian Sea waters," the official said, according to the Fars News Agency.
As Fars points out, security in the Caspian has previously been entrusted to the regular navy, while the IRGC Navy has had responsibility for the Persian Gulf. But that looks to be changing: "The IRGC Navy which is now responsible for defending the country's territorial waters in the Persian Gulf is also expanding its activities in the Caspian Sea, although security of Iran's Caspian waters has been entrusted on the Army's naval force."
This announcement comes soon after Iran and Russia announced their intention to conduct joint exercises on the Caspian, and as Iran is conducting its own drills on the sea "to display Iran's power of safeguarding the country's territorial waters."
Alex Vatanka, an Iran security expert at the Middle East Institute, told The Bug Pit that the move is likely targeted toward Azerbaijan, which has a quiet dispute with Iran over the two countries' boundaries in the sea -- in particular the hydrocarbon resources in the disputed region:
A Russian vessel takes part in 2011 exercises on the Caspian Sea. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia and Iran will conduct joint naval exercises on the Caspian Sea some time this year, Russian and Iranian military officials have announced. Iran sent a small naval flotilla last week to Astrakhan, the base of Russia's Caspian fleet, and on Saturday Nikolay Yabukovsky, deputy commander of Russia's Caspian Fleet, said that "Port calls and joint exercises with the forces of the Caspian Fleet are planned for the second half of this year."
Particularly interesting was the statement of Iran's military attache to Moscow, Colonel Soleiman Adeli, who told the Fars News Agency: "Iran and Russia want the Caspian Sea littoral states to protect the security of the Sea without the foreign powers' interference and they consider the presence of the aliens as a cause of tension and strife."
A small, Kyrgyzstan-based airline is helping Tehran “move suspected illicit cargo” to support Bashar al-Assad’s bloody crackdown in Syria, the US Treasury Department says.
Treasury has sanctioned Kyrgyz Trans Avia (KTA) for leasing and selling aircraft to Iran’s Mahan Air. Washington blacklisted Mahan Air in October 2011 “for providing financial, material and technological support to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and has transported personnel, weapons and goods on behalf of Lebanese Hizballah,” a May 31 Treasury statement says.
KTA was designated pursuant to E.O. 13224 for providing financial, material, or technological support for, or financial or other services to Mahan Air, by leasing aircraft to Mahan Air. KTA has been publicly identified as an umbrella company purposely established for importing aircraft to Iran. In this regard, between 2009 and 2010, KTA acted as an intermediary for Mahan Air's acquisition of eight aircraft, all of which are now identified by Treasury as blocked property operated by Mahan Air. Some of the aircraft supplied by KTA to Mahan Air are used, interchangeably, to move suspected illicit cargo to the Syrian regime and provide civilian passenger flights to Europe and Asia.
The designation prohibits US citizens, permanent residents, and American companies from dealing with KTA or its director, 58-year-old Lidia Kim, who Treasury designated “for acting for or on behalf of KTA by serving as the director of the company. Kim has received funds from a Mahan Air front company for equipment provided to the airline.” KTC is listed as headquartered at Erkindik 35 in Bishkek.
In the same announcement, Treasury sanctioned Ukraine’s Ukrainian-Mediterranean Airlines (Um Air) for similar activity.
International negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program broke down without result in Almaty on April 6.
“Over two days of talks, we had long and intensive discussions on the issues addressed in our confidence-building proposal put forward during the last round of talks with Iran in Almaty on 26-27 February,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chairs a six-nation group negotiating with Iran, said in an emailed statement.
It became “clear” that the positions of the six-nation P5+1 group (consisting of the five UN Security Council permanent members – the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France – plus Germany) and Iran “remain far apart on the substance,” the statement said.
The last round of talks, in February, left some participants cautiously optimistic a breakthrough might be in the works. Those talks, which were also held in Almaty, unfroze an eight-month deadlock and, when they concluded, the parties agreed to keep talking.
This time there was no agreement to meet again; it was “agreed that all sides will go back to capitals to evaluate where we stand in the process,” Ashton’s statement said.
The sides are at odds over Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes but the international community is concerned is aimed at making an atomic bomb.
As a second round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program opens in Almaty on April 5 analysts are not expecting major breakthroughs, but international negotiators will be pushing a proposal advanced when they met in the same venue in February.
Although there was no breakthrough, those talks in Kazakhstan – regarded as a fitting host due to its own non-proliferation efforts – unlocked an eight-month negotiations deadlock.
The six-nation P5+1 group (the five UN Security Council permanent members – the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France – plus Germany) had been pressing Iran to end medium-level uranium enrichment, close its Fordow underground enrichment facility, and hand over stockpiles of medium-enriched uranium – production of which marks a critical stage in bomb making – for international safe-keeping.
Tehran insists it is not pursuing nuclear weapons and that its program is for peaceful purposes. It has pushed for crippling international sanctions to be lifted without preconditions.
Negotiators have been tight-lipped about the February proposal. Reuters reported on April 3, citing unidentified Western officials, that the six-nation group has offered to ease gold sanctions and relax a petrochemicals embargo in return for Iran suspending medium-level uranium enrichment.
The history of the Caucasus has long been dominated by three surrounding powers: Turkey,Russia, and Iran. And while Europe and the U.S. have become part of the equation in recent years, the region is still likely to be subject to the influences of its big neighbors to the west, north, and south. And so a big project by the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies on "The Turkey, Russia, Iran Nexus" is particularly interesting for observers of the Caucasus. CSIS has just released a report (pdf) examining how the various bilateral relationships (i.e. Turkey-Russia, Russia-Iran, Turkey-Iran) interact in political, economic and other ways. The report notes that Russia is not as worried about Iranian influence in the Caucasus as it is about Turkey:
Moscow is not enthusiastic about any state increasing its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, be it Turkey, Iran, China, the United States, or whomever. As then-President Dmitri Medvedev stated in September 2008 just after the five-day Georgia War, Russia regards the post-Soviet states as its “zone of privileged interests.” Having noted that, Iran’s presence and activities in Central Asia have been viewed as very much aligned with those of Moscow while Turkey’s as neither significant nor malign enough to draw too much attention.
Screenshots from Press TV report on Iran's March 17 launching of Jamaran-2 destroyer in Caspian Sea
Iran has launched a new destroyer in to the Caspian Sea, its largest ship yet in its Caspian fleet. The ship, the Jamaran 2, was launched at a March 17 ceremony in the port city of Bandar-e Anzali attended by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and top military officials. According to Press TV, Ahmadinejad said at the event:
"Without a doubt all neighboring countries are happy with Iranian Navy’s achievements because they consider these advancements as a step towards their own security in the region."
And Defense Minister Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi added:
"We have a great relationship with all countries bordering the Caspian. It was decided to have a unified force protecting the Caspian, we all agreed. The destroyer Jamaran-2 is to defend against terrorists and smuggling of weapons and drugs in that area."
That's definitely not the case. Azerbaijan, especially, has been worried about Iran's military superiority in the Caspian, and so Baku is likely not happy with this achievement. Russia and Kazakhstan also have shown some suspicion of Iran's intentions.
The Jamaran-2 is an updated of the Jamaran-1 that Iran launched three years ago in the Persian Gulf. By international standards it is more the size of a frigate, though Iran calls it a destroyer. It can carry surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles, as well as torpedoes, and has a helipad.
A top Iranian official has made waves in the Caucasus by claiming that Iran secretly helped Azerbaijan during the latter's war with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh in the 1990s. The official, Mohsen Rezaee, is in a position to know: he was the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards at the time. He told Sahar TV (translation by Oye Times):
“I personally issued an order … for the Republic of Azerbaijan army to be equipped appropriately and for it to receive the necessary training,” he said. “Many Iranians died in the Karabakh War. In addition to the wounded, who were transported to [Iran], many of the Iranian martyrs of the Karabakh War are buried in Baku.”
“Karabakh is a part of Islamic lands and the Republic of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity must be guaranteed through peaceful means.”
Chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili faces the press at the Iran P5+1 Iran talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan on February 27.
Kazakhstan seems to be the winner after the first round of renewed talks concerning Iran's nuclear ambitions.
There were fresh signs of life in the deadlocked process on February 27 as Iran and the P5+1 group – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France) plus Germany – agreed to meet again in Almaty, Kazakhstan's commercial hub.
Talks on technical issues will be held in Istanbul March 17-18 and the P5+1 will reconvene in Almaty on April 5 and 6, delegates announced at a closing press conference.
Negotiations broke down last June over seemingly irreconcilable differences: Iran demanded an immediate end to sanctions, without preconditions. Before any sanctions relief, the P5+1 wanted an immediate end to medium-level enrichment and the closure of the Fordow underground enrichment facility.
At the Almaty talks, delegates were tight-lipped about details of new proposals the P5+1 put on the table. Chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, avoided specifics at his closing press conference. He said that the P5+1 had moved closer to Iran's position on some issues but reiterated that there was still a long way to go before reaching any consensus.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chairs the P5+1, refused to go into detail on any new proposals relating to sanction-easing, saying only that “We are looking now for the Iranians to have the opportunity to study” the new proposals before April.
While not giving much away about proceedings, the negotiators were effusive in their praise for their Kazakh hosts. Ashton thanked Kazakhstan for creating a comfortable environment for the talks. An official Iranian statement praised Kazakhstan for its “warm hospitality.”