By James M. Dorsey
Iranian naval activity in the Gulf and Turkish maritime expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean have hogged the limelight, but Russian and Gulf policymakers are also watching with Argus eyes moves by the Islamic Republic in the Caspian Sea.
Iran’s navy is no match for its Russian counterpart and Iran’s naval presence in the Caspian is minuscule.
Yet, recent Iranian posturing and statements, coupled with visits by senior commanders to naval facilities and a shipyard on Iran’s Caspian coast where a destroyer is being repaired and modernized, and diplomatic efforts to tighten relations with former Soviet littoral states, have raised eyebrows in Moscow as well as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Senior military officials, including Iranian navy commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, his deputy, Admiral Habibullah Sayari, and Admiral Amir Rastegari, who oversees naval construction, stressed the importance to Iranian national security of the Caspian on tours of facilities on the coast.
They also suggested closer cooperation and joint naval exercises with countries like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.
“The Caspian Sea is the sea of peace and friendship and we can share our military tactics with our neighbours in this region. We are fully ready to expand ties with neighbouring and friendly countries,” Admiral Khanzadi said in April.
The Iranian moves are about more than only strengthening its military presence in a basin that it shares with Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.
A 2018 agreement among the littoral states, made necessary by the collapse of the Soviet Union, barred entry to the basin by military vessels of non-littoral states but failed to regulate the divvying up of the sea’s abundant resources.
Closer naval ties with Caspian Sea states would allow Iran to leverage its position at a time that Central Asians worry about greater Chinese security engagement in their part of the world that undermines a tacit understanding in which Russia shouldered responsibility for regional security while China focussed on economic development.
Increased Chinese engagement raises the spectre of the export of aspects of the People’s Republic’s 21st century, Orwellian surveillance state amid widespread anti-Chinese sentiment as a result of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.
Hard hit by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, Central Asians are torn between wanting to benefit from Chinese willingness to revive Belt and Road-related projects and their concerns that enhanced Chinese influence could impact their lives.
Popular sentiment forced Kyrgyzstan early on in the pandemic to cancel a US$275 million logistics project. The Kazakh foreign ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador to explain an article published on a Chinese website that asserted that the Central Asian country wanted to return to Chinese rule.
Kazakh media called for China and the US to leave Kazakhstan alone after the Chinese foreign ministry claimed that the coronavirus had originated in US-funded laboratories in the country.
Iranian efforts, boosted by the Indian-funded deep sea port of Chabahar that serves as a conduit for Indian exports to Central Asia, to benefit in the margin from big Asian power rivalry, has opened the region, including the Caspian basin, to greater competition with the Islamic Republic’s Gulf opponents, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Iran hopes that geography and Central Asian distrust of past Saudi promotion of its ultra-conservative strand of Islam will work to its advantage.
That hope may not be in vain. Tajik foreign minister Sirodjidin Muhriddin, despite past troubled relations with the Islamic Republic, opted a year ago to ignore a Saudi invitation to attend an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (ICO) conference in the kingdom and visit Iran instead.
Iran has since agreed to invest US$4 billion in the completion of a five kilometre-long tunnel that will link the Tajik capital of Dushanbe with the country’s second-largest city, Khujand.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have fared somewhat better in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.
Saudi utility developer ACWA Power, in which China’s state-owned Silk Road Fund has a 49 percent stake, and the UAE’s Masdar or Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company agreed to invest in Azerbaijani renewable energy projects.
ACWA Power also recently signed agreements in Uzbekistan worth US$ 2.5 billion for the construction of a power plant and a wind farm.
Perhaps Iran’s strongest trump card is that by linking the Caspian to the Arabian Sea it can provide what the Gulf states cannot: cheap and short access to the Indo-Pacific.
Already, Iran is written all over Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev’s transportation infrastructure plans. A decree issued in late 2017 identified various corridors as key to his plans, including the extension of a rail line that connects Uzbekistan’s Termez to Afghanistan’s Mazar-i-Sharif to the Afghan city of Herat from where it would branch out to Iran’s Bandar Abbas port, Chabahar; and Bazargan on the Iranian-Turkish border.
“As Tashkent seeks to diversify its economic relations, Iran continues to loom large in these calculations. For Uzbekistan, not only do Iranian ports offer the shortest and cheapest route to the sea, but several future rail projects cannot be accomplished without Tehran’s active participation,” said Central Asia analyst Umida Hashimova.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture in Germany