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.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei speaks to military leaders in the Caspian city Nowshahr
While the U.S. leads countermine naval exercises in the Persian Gulf, Iran is practicing laying mines in the Caspian Sea, state media reports. Via Reuters:
[Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei visited the northern coastal city of Nowshahr on Tuesday to watch naval cadets practice planting mines, freeing hijacked ships, destroying enemy vessels and jumping from helicopters, his official website said.
“The armed forces must reach capabilities such that no one can attack the strong fence of the country and the dear people of Iran,” Khamenei told army commanders, according to the Iranian Students News Agency.
Iran has been building up its navy in the Caspian, but it's conducted a lot of training on the sea for a long time, even though almost all of its strategic interests are in the Persian Gulf. Since none of the countries around the Caspian want anything to do with an attack in Iran, the Caspian is unlikely to play much of a role in a potential war there -- except, perhaps, as a practice ground.
To paraphrase a line from Rudyard Kipling, Iran is no place for spies. In particular, for Azerbaijani poets accused of being spies. After spending about four months in an Iranian prison and causing more tension in the less-than-harmonious ties between the two Shi'a Muslim neighbors, a pair of Azerbaijani poets finally marched home yesterday.
Azerbaijani television carried footage of friends and relatives embracing Shakhriyar Hajizade and Farrid Huseyn at the Azerbaijani-Iranian border. The two were paroled before a court in Tabriz was scheduled to land a verdict in their case on September 10.
The Iranian side said that the poets have “Islamic mercy” to thank for their release, though the poets themselves said they were indebted to the Azerbaijani government.
The release came as an apparent peace-offering to Baku and was timed with Iranian Vice-President for Cultural Affairs Hasan Mousavi's visit to Azerbaijan. The enemies may plot all they want, but “friendly and fraternal relations between Azerbaijan and Iran have always been strong and will be so in the future,” Mousavi said in Baku.
But, no doubt, Tehran is looking to Azerbaijan to release alleged Iranian spies/terrorists of its own to make this sonnet to friendship and brotherhood complete.
Iran has announced that it will deploy "light" submarines to the Caspian Sea, yet another step in the ongoing militarization of the oil- and gas-rich sea.
The deputy commander of Iran's navy made the announcement (in late June, while The Bug Pit was on hiatus) but gave no details. Some Azerbaijani officials believed (or at least were telling reporters) that Iran already had submarines in the sea, and that a semi-famous photo of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad getting into a sub was taken on the Caspian. Given that Iran is a lot more likely to overstate its capabilities than understate them, that latter claim probably wasn't true, and we should take this new claim with a grain of salt, as well.
Nevertheless, if Iran's newest oil and gas discovery, in waters also claimed by Azerbaijan, turns out to be for real, it would be natural for Iran to beef up its defenses around the sea.