Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived -- though a bit late -- for a summit of Caspian Sea leaders in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 16. Though he was scheduled to arrive the day before, Putin delayed his trip, leaving many wondering whether he was going to show up at all. The delay led to much speculation regarding the alleged militant plot against Putin and the possibility of a last-minute U.S.-Russian agreement on isolating Iran. Though the reason for the delay is unknown, the media frenzy caused by it -- much to Tehran and Moscow's delight -- has focused all eyes on a summit that otherwise would have gotten little coverage.
The summit comes after failed talks between Russia and the United States over the weekend concerning Moscow's support for Tehran within the larger U.S.-Russian strategic dialogue. Russia had come to the table with a list of demands regarding what it considers U.S. encroachment on its turf through ballistic missile defense in Central Europe and Washington's refusal to agree to the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty. Relations between Russia and the United States appeared outright freezing as Russia left the meetings without having gotten any of its demands met.
Faced with deciding how much support to give Iran -- the thorn in the United States' side -- Moscow apparently has decided it is not going to hold back much. Military deals already have started to leak, making it known that this option is at least on the table. Russia reportedly will supply Iran with 50 RD-33 turbojet engines for the long-beleaguered Azarakhsh (Lightning) domestic fighter program. With Russia's help, Iran is hoping to produce the jets on an industrial scale. These agreements do not include large air defense items, such as the S-300 missile, that would substantially worry the United States, but the leaks show that deals are being discussed. Although Russia and Iran are no strangers to military deals, the timing of the leaks is key.
Putin also said Oct. 16 that none of the Caspian states -- including Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan (see below*)-- will allow the United States to launch an attack against Iran from its soil. Although all the Caspian countries have signed a nonaggression pact, the declaration was directed at Azerbaijan, which recently held talks with U.S. military officials and allowed them to inspect possible airfields for U.S. use. Azerbaijan has been considering a partnership with NATO on the use of the airfields -- much to Russia's dismay. But Russian military influence in Azerbaijan is strong because Moscow supplies the majority of Azerbaijan's military equipment, holds a large amount of its own military equipment in the country and has a ballistic missile radar base in Gabala.
Azerbaijan is one of the former Soviet states the United States has been pushing into, not only because of its location to the north of Iran but also because such a move could help break up Russia's influence in the region. Iran, but moreover Russia, has a strategic interest in making sure the small state does not continue its ties with the West. Though the summit has not ended and agreements are just starting to be announced, it already is clear that Moscow and Washington have failed to reach a deal over Iran -- and now Russia's support for Iran is beginning to flow.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been invited to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Itar Tass reported Oct. 16, quoting a statement from the two leaders that Ahmadinejad accepted "with gratitude." No date has been set. See also: Putin Warns US Against Attacking Iran.
*Azerbaijan is finding itself in a very vulnerable position at the front line of the Russian resurgence. It also finds itself in a pressure cooker as Russia and Iran attempt to redefine their neighborhoods.
With Russian power now rising, Azerbaijan is adopting a radically different tack than Georgia. Tbilisi sees the coming evolution as a zero-sum game, and as such, its public face has turned shrill in an attempt to keep the West engaged in order to avoid being crushed by Russian moves. By contrast, Baku is attempting to appease Russian strategic needs, while keeping its Western investment -- and thus its source of income -- intact. Azerbaijan's real problems, however, are just beginning. The Russian resurgence is not happening in a vacuum but in parallel with the resurgence of Iran to Azerbaijan's south. Iran and Russia are far from natural allies, something poorly understood outside the Caucasus. The two have come into conflict several times in the past. Iran's most recent foreign occupier was the Soviet Union. Historically, Persian and Russian power has clashed -- violently -- along their mutual border.
The two states' relative friendliness since the end of the Cold War was a product of their weakness. As Iran recovered from its revolution and Russia fell from Soviet-era highs, the two countries' spheres of influence shrank so precipitously that their interests no longer rubbed up against each other. With no interests in contact, there were no interests in conflict. The two countries found it useful to cooperate not only in ways rhetorical -- primarily lambasting the United States -- but also in terms of weapons sales and technology transfers.But the year is no longer 1998. Russia has had 10 years to climb up from its post-Soviet nadir and Russian power is pushing against all of its borders -- including to the south. Similarly, Iran has recovered from its loss of 1 million people during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Tehran is now more confident than it has been in decades, and its influence is seeping into not only Iraq and the Persian Gulf, but also into the Caucasus and Central Asia -- areas Moscow considers its exclusive playground.
And so warm rhetoric is giving way to cold calculations. Russia has stalled, and probably outright abandoned, efforts to finish the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran, in part due to the (accurate) concern that a resurging, nuclear-armed Iran would be more of a threat to Russia than to the United States (and even Israel). Russia also is laying the groundwork for a geopolitical twist by mooting the idea of allowing the United States sustained access to the Gabala radar base in Azerbaijan, a radar base designed to monitor Iranian airspace.And it should be no surprise that it will be in Azerbaijan that Iran and Russia will face off most directly. Azerbaijan, the buffer between the two, has a foot in each camp: Its population speaks Russian, but is historically Shiite in religion, making it a natural rope in the coming Russian-Iranian tug-of-war. An additional complication will be Armenia -- which both Russia and Iran unofficially have supported in its military efforts to take control of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan.
The most brutal, and unfortunately most likely, consequence in the midterm is that the two powers will fight a proxy war in the Caucasus using Armenia and Azerbaijan as their pawns. In large part, this is because such a war is inevitable. Azerbaijan's newly developed energy wealth -- it is now producing about 1 million barrels per day of crude and some 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas, and as a result is enjoying an annual gross domestic product growth rate in excess of 30 percent -- has empowered it to go on a military buildup of a sort the region has not seen since World War I as a step toward recovering its territory from Armenian forces.With a war coming, and Russian-Iranian competition building, the two larger powers will be motivated to shape to their own advantage the conflict between the two minor powers. The only thing that remains unclear is which side Russia and Iran will support more thoroughly.
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