RUSSIA AND IRAN JOIN HANDS IN THE CASPIAN
By Stephen Blank

Eurasia Daily Monitor, DC
The Jamestown Foundation
June 1 2005

Wednesday, June 1, 2005


While Central Asia and the Caucasus have been the recent focus of
world attention due to the popular revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the
massacre in Andijan, Uzbekistan, potentially significant strategic
developments there have been unduly neglected. In late April Russia
evidently proposed the creation of a new defense formation,
specifically a rapid-reaction force in the Caspian. Iran welcomed the
proposal (IRNA, May 3; RIA-Novosti, May 4).

Although not much is known about this proposed force, it appears to
be intended not just to repulse terrorist threats but also to oppose
a foreign, i.e. Western, military presence in the Caspian. While this
new Russo-Iranian gambit is clearly intended to counter Washington
and NATO, it also represents a significant modification of Iran's
stated policy of opposing the militarization of the Caspian, although
Tehran naturally is trying to obscure this contradiction in its
policy (IRNA, May 3).

Azerbaijan appears to be at the center of this issue. Immediately
after U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld left Baku on April
12-13, there was a noticeable spike in local stories claiming that
Washington was seeking major bases and extensive radar, air, and
air-defense facilities in Azerbaijan from which to attack Iran or
from which sophisticated radars and a tripartite military bloc
including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan could be built.
Azeri-American plans to further develop Operation Caspian Watch,
whose purpose is to help the Azerbaijani navy defend its coastal and
offshore oil platforms that Iran has previously threatened and to
enhance Azerbaijan's participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace.
apparently triggered this overwrought reaction (Nezavisimaya gazeta,
April 15, 25; RIA-Novosti, May 4; Trend News Agency [Baku], April
14).

But Moscow's proposal also occurs in a grander strategic context, not
just of the Ukrainian and Kyrgyz revolutions, and now the Andijan
uprising, but also of NATO's and America's enhanced interest in the
Caucasus and Central Asia and Russia's retreat from Georgian bases.
It is now clear that Moscow will leave those bases, whose strategic
utility is questionable at best, by 2008. Russian President Vladimir
Putin, albeit with considerable bitterness, has acknowledged publicly
that in a situation where the host country insists on withdrawal,
Russia has no option but to bring its troops home. Even so, Putin
publicly voiced his fears that the Russian withdrawal would soon be
followed by American bases in Georgia, notwithstanding Georgian
officials' long-held position that there would be no foreign bases on
their soil (Komsomolskaya pravda, May 24; Itar-Tass, May 14; Moscow
Times, May 24). Even Sergei Ivanov, Russia's minister of defense, had
to acknowledge in April that the "temporary deployment of U.S. and
NATO bases on CIS territory in support of the anti-terrorist
operation in Afghanistan is in Russia's national interests."

Obviously, in order to counter that unwelcome combination of Western
bases in the CIS and retreating Russian power, Putin and Ivanov
thought they had to come up with a new gambit. Evidently they are
pushing for a second Russian base in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, in the Fergana
valley, the epicenter of unrest in Central Asia, and may relocate
their Georgian forces in Armenia, a prospect that disturbs Baku
(RIA-Novosti, May 26; see EDM, May 24).

Iran also feared that these alleged new bases, which have yet to be
announced, would be used to attack it. Certainly there were reports
to that effect from Baku (Trend News Agency, Baku, April 14). Tehran
has much to be anxious about, because it appeared that Russia was
leaning toward the Europeans in the negotiations over Iran's nuclear
program and it obviously faces tremendous pressure from the EU and
the United States over that program. Tehran cannot afford to alienate
Russia under any circumstances and, as in the past, it has had to
accept the relative primacy of Russian forces in the Caspian. It
certainly does not wish to see that primacy supplanted by NATO or the
United States.

There is also reason to believe that Iran was also animated by its
unhappiness over the prospect of a formal Afghan-American strategic
partnership complete with long-term, albeit not permanent, U.S.
basing capabilities at Bagram in Afghanistan and the retention of the
U.S. and NATO forces there. Reports from Afghanistan indicate a
considerable Iranian influence among those who stirred up the recent
anti-American demonstrations in Afghanistan. They also indicate that
this issue, not reports of desecration of the Koran, was probably the
driving force behind the Iranian and Pakistani agitation that stirred
up the demonstrators (New York Times, May 26).

Pentagon officials queried by Jamestown profess no knowledge of any
such Russo-Iranian security bloc or forthcoming huge base structure
in Azerbaijan and pointedly emphasize that such reports contradict
the global basing plan that was briefed to Moscow in 2004 and found
not to be a threat to it. Thus, while there may be more heat than
light behind the Russo-Iranian proposal, that scheme suggests not
only that the great game in the CIS is heating up, but also that its
military character and the trend towards strategic bipolarity in
those regions are assuming a much sharper and therefore more
dangerous character.