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.
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."