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.”
The Persian Empire at its greatest extent, including -- yes -- territory of today's Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan.
A minor diplomatic kerfuffle has arisen over an Iranian presidential candidate's campaign promise to "return" Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan if he is elected. The candidate, Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammed Bokiri Kherrozi, promised that:
“If I am elected as president, I will return the lands of Tajikistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan, which were separated from Iran...
He said the return of the territories separated from Iran will be the major program of his pre-election campaign.
“I will get back these lands without any bloodshed.”
Naturally, this was not well received in Baku, Dushanbe or Yerevan.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan responded with a statement calling Kherrozi an "intriguer, an ignoramus and an unaware person" (according to BBC Monitoring's translation). Asked about Kherrozi's claim, Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry spokesman Elman Abdullayev said that he "doesn’t comment on absurd and groundless statements."
And Iran's ambassador to Yerevan had to clarify that Kherrozi's remarks did not reflect official policy:
Speaking about the mentioned remark, Ambassador Mohammad Raiesi said Kherrozi is not an official but religious figure, thus he cannot express the position of the state.
Iran has rejected claims that a new, potentially huge oil deposit in the Caspian Sea is in Azerbaijan's waters, while Baku remains conspicuously silent on the issue. BBC Monitoring reports, via the Iranian Students' News Agency:
The oil minister [of Iran] has rejected a claim by the Azerbaijani government to the ownership of the Sardar Jangal oil field [in the Caspian Sea].
As ISNA reported, asked about his opinion on the recent statement by the Azerbaijani government on the Sardar Jangal oil field and reasons behind such a claim, Rostam Qasemi said: This is a claim; we are drilling the Sardar Jangal oil field.
He added: Sardar Jangal is a completely separate oil field and is within Iran's territory. It belongs to our country.
To review: last year, Iran claimed that it had found a massive new oil reserve in the Caspian. But Iran's description of where the deposit was appears to place it in waters that Azerbaijan claims.
Also recently, Iran has said it is building a refinery on the Caspian to process crude from the field. (Though Tehran's projections of the size of the field appear to have decreased, from 10 billion barrels to 2 billion, of which 500 million are recoverable.)
Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi announced November 14 that Turkmenistan had halted gas exports to its southern neighbor over a price dispute. Shortly thereafter, a Turkmen official told Reuters there is no price dispute, but that pipeline repairs are to blame for the gas cut.
For now, the gas is back on, Reuters reports, citing a Turkmen official who said Iran requested repairs to the pipeline. But the episode – complete with contradicting reports from the two sides – looked familiar, and suggested a few possible scenarios.
First, Iran has been struggling with balance of payments problems as international sanctions designed to end its nuclear program have crushed its banking system and stifled foreign trade. It is not unlikely that Tehran is struggling to make hard currency payments for the gas, asked for a discount, and Ashgabat started playing hardball.
Second, Iran relies on imports of Turkmen gas to supply its northern regions, particularly in winter, which helps free up excess capacity for its downstream sales to Armenia and Turkey. If Iran can’t make these margins work, it is likely to want to halt purchases.
Third, Ashgabat may be trying to push up Iran’s purchase prices. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov seems to think each of his gas clients -- Russia, Iran, and China -- should pay as much as anyone else is willing to pay.
Ships from Russia's Caspian Flotilla may make a visit to Iran next year, and the two navies may cooperate in the future, the head of the flotilla said. Admiral Sergey Alekminsky, commander of the flotilla, gave a 40-minute interview to Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy over the weekend, discussing the state of the fleet and answering listeners' questions about it.
Most reports on interview highlighted the mention of a potential port call in Iran. From RIA Novosti:
"I hope that next year, by decision of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it will be possible to organize a visit of our ships to Iran... There is a wish to see [the Iranian navy], because they are also developing," the commander said.
In his words, mutual relations between the Russian and Iranian flotillas "unfortunately doesn't exist yet, but there is a possibility."
(Side note: none of the print reports on the interview used the word "unfortunately," even though that's probably the most interesting word in the passage. So I added it in that translation. But I'm not making it up: Check for yourself -- around 11:40.)
Admiral Alekminsky also gave an update on the development of the navy, and mentioned the possibility of drones and "mini-submarines."
Presidents Ilham Aliyev and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meet in October.
It's been sporadically little to gain by such an adventure. But Iran's leadership may believe otherwise, reports Michael Moran at Global Post:
According to intelligence officials, Iran’s security services have concluded that Azerbaijan, its Muslim neighbor to the north, has been enlisted by Israel in a campaign of cyber attacks, assassinations and detailed military planning aimed at destabilizing and ultimately destroying Tehran’s nuclear research program.
That Iranian perspective, described by a range of current and former US intelligence officials who asked that their names remain confidential, has led to a crackdown on Iran’s sizeable ethnic Azeri minority and the launch of an Iranian counter espionage offensive to destabilize the government of President Ilham Aliev...
“What I can say is that Iran believes the link is much more substantial — to the point where they fear Israeli aircraft or special ops guys could be based on Azeri territory,” the official said. “In many ways, what Iran perceives is as important as anything else.”
When Foreign Policy magazine reported this spring that Israel was in talks with Azerbaijan over the use of the latter's airfields in order to carry out an attack on Iran, the bombshell report was vociferously denied by officials in Baku and derided by regional analysts. Azerbaijan would seem to not have any interest in such cooperation, and the Foreign Policy report was correctly described as "Washington-centric."
But now Reuters has come out with the same story, but their sources are Azerbaijani and Russian:
[T]wo Azeri former military officers with links to serving personnel and two Russian intelligence sources all told Reuters that Azerbaijan and Israel have been looking at how Azeri bases and intelligence could serve in a possible strike on Iran.
"Where planes would fly from - from here, from there, to where? - that's what's being planned now," a security consultant with contacts at Azeri defense headquarters in Baku said. "The Israelis ... would like to gain access to bases in Azerbaijan."
Rasim Musabayov, an independent Azeri lawmaker and a member of parliament's foreign affairs committee, said that, while he had no definitive information, he understood that Azerbaijan would probably feature in any Israeli plans against Iran, at least as a contingency for refueling its attack force:
"Israel has a problem in that if it is going to bomb Iran, its nuclear sites, it lacks refueling," Musabayov told Reuters.
"I think their plan includes some use of Azerbaijan access.