NEW MILITARY TRENDS IN THE CASPIAN
BACKGROUND: On May 16, Iran signed a non-aggression pact with Azerbaijan stipulating that the two countries are not allowed to provide a third country with bases to attack either of them, clearly an effort to forestall American bases there from which Iran can be attacked. Iran’s role in these developments needs some clarification.
Several developments seem to have come together recently to move Iranian diplomacy to take a more active role in the defense agenda of the Caspian. Obviously America’s growing capabilities in the Caucasus and Central Asia are the primary long-term force behind Tehran’s reaction. But as the crisis over Iran’s nuclearization intensifies, and as Russia’s position weakens, Iran obviously has felt compelled to redouble its efforts here. As Iran’s missile and nuclear programs have gathered steam it has also embarked on a large-scale conventional rearmament program, clearly as a response to U.S. presence in Iraq.
In late 2003, large-scale maneuvers took place in Iranian Azerbaijan to send a clear signal to Baku. But since then the situation around Iran has degenerated further. Russia is now being forced out of its Georgian bases by 2008 and while it may relocate them to Armenia, whose relations with Tbilisi have noticeably improved, this leaves Azerbaijan apprehensive about renewed Russian support for Armenia. At the same time the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline has just opened, giving Baku and Tbilisi something enormous to defend and which may be at risk.
Therefore Baku has apparently turned to improve its ties to Washington as seen in Rumsfeld’s visit. From Tehran’s viewpoint, not only is the United States determined to see the war in Iraq through to a conclusion, America has established a long-term partnership with Afghanistan that is widely interpreted as providing for long-term U.S. bases there. Russian support for the Iranian nuclear program also look shakier than before.
Thus Iran embarked on a new line in 2003-04 which has culminated in new support for Baku in regard to the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, support for the Russian rapid reaction force concept and the non-aggression pact with Baku. For Tehran it evidently is critical that Azerbaijan not veer decisively toward Washington, for the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline could provide competition for Iranian energy supplies while America could establish what Tehran believes is a lasting military presence there. Undoubtedly both Tehran and Moscow view the recently announced program of $100 million for Azerbaijan and Kazakstan to build a comprehensive maritime surveillance, command and control and quick reaction capability in the Caspian as the beginning of an anti-Russian and anti-Iranian security bloc as well as possibly the groundwork for bases against Tehran. While these American-subsidized facilities are hardly a threat to anyone and provide monitoring of terrorists, drug and arms trafficking, proliferation, etc., Iran obviously views them as such. Therefore it approached Azerbaijan and may well secretly have offered it military assistance in return for the non-aggression pledge. Since it is unlikely that Baku would ever let Washington or anyone else use potential bases for purposes other than self-defense, it clearly stood to gain from enhanced ties to both Washington and Tehran as its Russian connection weakened and stake in the pipeline grew.
IMPLICATIONS: Meanwhile Iran is relying on a combination of military and political means to keep Washington out of the Caspian. Agreement with Russia on this rapid reaction force is one policy line and the agreement with Azerbaijan is a second line. A third line is Iran’s recent call for a convention of confidence-building and stability measures for all the littoral states of the Caspian.
That proposal is clearly intended to generate a consensus on excluding any non-littoral state, i.e. America from a regional or maritime presence in the Caspian. Militarily Iran is not only continuing its nuclear program and an expanded missile and conventional rearmament program, it is expressly putting its priorities into naval, air, and air defense capabilities to deter an expected American threat. Of particular significance here are the newly announce Ghaidr class midget submarines which will be used to defend both the Persian Gulf coast and Iran’s Caspian coast. These submarines possess the capability to transport troops from place to place and will also be equipped with capability for firing torpedoes and rockets of undisclosed caliber. We can also expect more deals with China and Russia for conventional weapons, if not also more clandestinely with North Korea. All this activity therefore points to a strategic decision to try and obtain a naval base on the Caspian coast and find lasting ways to keep Washington from the area.
The tumultuous events in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine have overshadowed the deepening strategic rivalries among the major players over the Caspian zone and given them an ideological cast. But this process of sharpened rivalry is leading to a stage of heightened militarization as rival security blocs come into being. On June 2, the Russian, Indian, and Chinese Foreign Ministers meet in Vladivostok and undoubtedly Moscow and Beijing seek to revive Evgeny Primakov’s 1998 proposal for a strategic triangle against American influence in Asia and globally, not least Central Asia. Similarly Russia proposes this rapid reaction force even as it is being compelled to leave its bases in Georgia and Iran has embraced that proposal while building up its own forces. America too, as we see is actively supporting the local states’ capability to defend themselves against all manner of threats.
CONCLUSIONS: Iran’s combined military-diplomatic reaction presents a dangerous potential in this game because it has previously used its regional conventional capabilities to threaten Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan over energy issues in the Caspian Sea. At the same time Iran’s capabilities to generate new terrorist threats cannot be dismissed. It possesses links with Al-Qaida and the most recent reports indicate that it is trying to strengthen Syrian resistance to the United States in Lebanon and incite Palestinian violence to disrupt the peace process with Israel. The incitement of subversive and even terrorist activities in the Caucasus and Central Asia is hardly beyond the imagination or capability of the government in Iran should it deem such activities necessary. And all these considerations do not even take into account the fact that within two years Iran is expected to have a usable nuclear weapon. Its stonewalling attitude at current negotiations with the EU and its systematic twenty-year deception of the IAEA and violation of the NPT can hardly inspire confidence about its intentions in Central Asia, the Caucasus, or the Middle East. As tension ratchets up between it and Washington, and possibly the EU, it is clear that the Caspian will be one of the political and diplomatic battlegrounds of this struggle. But now events are transpiring in such a way as to make the possibility of these areas becoming a military battleground as well.
AUTHOR’S BIO Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department or the U.S. Government.