In January, Reuters reported that Iran’s navy chief, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, announced that Iran and Russia were planning to hold joint naval drills in the Caspian Sea. He said the two countries’ naval forces had already widened cooperation in the Caspian region in recent years. The latest announcement of upcoming joint military drills shows that Russia and Iran are now looking at the Caspian region as a new area where they can strengthen their mutual interests.
The two states were competing for influence in the Caspian for many years. The emergence of four Caspian coastal states – Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan – in place of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a dispute among all five states over division of the sea. Despite, or perhaps because of, having the smallest coastline Iran wanted the sea to be divided into five equal parts between the five littoral states. This is now lakes are divided up under international law, so the Iranian government claimed that the inland Caspian is a lake not a sea. International conventions, however, recognize it as a sea.
The dispute was partially resolved in August 2018 when the five coastal states signed the Aktau Convention on the legal status of the sea. While the Aktau Convention does not define the Caspian as either a sea or a lake or tackle the division of the seabed, hotly disputed because of oil and gas reserves, it has a legally binding clause important to both Iran and Russia: non-Caspian countries are not allowed to deploy their military forces in the Caspian. This meets the interests of both countries as it rules out any American military presence on the sea.
The recent sanctions on Iran’s oil industry and the regime as whole are pushing Tehran to deepen its strategic partnership with Moscow at all costs. This axis has already achieved its objective in the Middle East by sustaining the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. When Russia joined the Syrian conflict officially in September 2015, naval ships from its Caspian Flotilla launched several cruise missiles against Syria as a show of muscle. Since then both Russia and Iran have increased joint naval drills on the Caspian. The Aktau Convention is a win-win situation for both Putin and the Iranian regime. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s main goal here is to re-establish Russia as the dominant force in the Caspian militarily. While for Tehran, in the midst of global isolation, it helps the regime to cooperate with the Caspian coastal countries economically and politically.
The Caspian Sea is rich in oil and gas resources, as well as sturgeon and caviar. According to various estimates, the Caspian seabed holds 50 billion barrels of oil and around 300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Russia and Iran’s opposition to Western economic as well as strategic interests started in the mid-1990s, when the Clinton administration supported American energy interests by backing pipeline projects in the region. It was during this time that American oil companies were keen to get access to Azerbaijani oilfields. US oil companies had the largest share (30 per cent) in an international consortium, the AIOC, set up in 1994 to develop Azerbaijan’s major oilfields, Azeri, Chiraq and Gunashli. In 1995 and 1996, US National Security Council analysts took the lead in proposing the construction of pipelines to export Azerbaijani oil to global markets, thereby breaking Iran and Russia’s monopoly over energy transportation in the Caspian. As a result, a pipeline was built from the Azerbaijani capital Baku via Tbilisi to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline exports mainly Azerbaijani oil to Western markets, including Israel. These projects angered Moscow and Tehran at the same time, as they saw them as a political strategy to contain their influence in the region.
Following 9/11, when the US-led coalition started its Afghanistan campaign, the Caspian Sea basin acquired significance for US security interests. American forces in Afghanistan were supported logistically via the airspace of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and other regional countries. There was speculation at that time that the US would establish an airbase in Azerbaijan, which of course, was anxiously observed by Iran and Russia.
REGIONAL IMPLICATIONS OF RUSSIAN-IRANIAN MILITARY COOPERATION
The Russian and Iranian desire to bolster their military positions in the Caspian will have a huge impact on the other independent coastal states – Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. First and foremost, Russia’s naval domination in the region is unquestionable and the Aktau Convention gives its warships the right to operate freely in the Caspian Sea. Russia has already started reinforcing its Caspian Flotilla with new aircraft, ships, missile boats and air cushioned landing craft, according to the Russian press.
In re-establishing its Caspian dominance Russia has decided to build a new headquarters for its naval base closer to the Azerbaijani border in Kaspiysk. The relocation of its Caspian Flotilla headquarters from Astrakhan to Kaspiysk will enable Moscow to expand its range of ships and personnel.
Recently, Russia declined to sign an agreement with Azerbaijan on selling Bal-E coastal missile systems to Baku. According to Russian security analysts, it is because this kind of coastal missile system would put Russia’s naval forces in danger. In fact, it is evident the Kremlin’s main reason for not selling the missile systems is to ensure its naval dominance in the Caspian Sea.
It is very concerning that Russia is reinforcing its navy and has the capability to execute landing operations in the Caspian coastal states. By establishing military dominance over the region, Moscow will be better able to flex its economic muscle too. Cooperation between Moscow and Tehran will have a serious negative impact on democratization and economic development in the region, and will quash future energy projects among Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan which bypass Russia and Iran.