Regional Insecurity Draws Iranian, Kazakh Navies Closer Silk Road Reporters

Regional Insecurity Draws Iranian, Kazakh Navies Closer Silk Road Reporters...
silkroadreporters.com 05/03/2015 Military

Keywords:#Afghan, #Afghanistan, #Arab, #Arabia, #Armed, #Astrakhan, #Azerbaijan, #BP, #Bahrain, #Black_Sea, #Caspian, #Caspian_Sea, #Commercial, #Elmar_Mammadyarov, #Emirates, #Foreign_Affairs, #Habibollah_Sayyari, #Hormuz, #ISAF, #Iran, #Iranian, #Iranian_Navy, #Iraq, #Islamic, #Islamic_State, #Israeli, #Javad_Zarif, #Kazakh, #Kazakhstan, #Kuwait, #Ministry_of_Foreign_Affairs, #MoU, #Mohammad_Ali_Jafari, #Mohammad_Javad_Zarif, #Moscow, #Nursultan_Nazarbayev, #Persia, #Persian, #Persian_Gulf, #President, #Qatar, #Republic_of_Kazakhstan, #Russia, #Russian, #Saudi, #Saudi_Arabia, #Silk_Road, #Silkroadreporters.com, #Soviet, #Soviet_Union, #Stalin, #Strait_of_Hormuz, #Tehran, #Turkmen, #Turkmenistan, #USSR, #United_Arab_Emirates, #Volga, #Washington, #Western

Published by John C. K. Daly
For Washington the primary focus of its dealings with Iran remain the latter’s civilian nuclear program, which Tehran insists is solely for power generation but many Western nations, including the U.S., suspect may mask a covert nuclear weapons problem. Western sanctions and the threat of a possible Israeli airstrike to disable those facilities remains one of Iran’s highest defensive priorities. While Iran has made a display of its military capabilities, it is also shopping around for advanced aerial defense systems, including possible S-300s from Russia.
Iran is also touting its naval expertise. On February 25 the naval branch of the Revolutionary Guard Corps conducted its “Great Prophet 9” military exercise in the Persian Gulf near the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, where missiles fired from the coast and patrol boats struck a mock-up of a Nimitz-class U.S. aircraft carrier in a showcase of Iran’s anti-access/anti-denial (A2/AD) maritime capabilities. Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, said that the drills send a “message of might” to “foreign powers,” a clear reference to the U.S.
The Persian Gulf is not a peaceful maritime region for Shi’a Iran. While neighboring Iraq is now governed by Shi’as, farther West Kuwait, Bahrain (home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet), Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates remain deeply suspicious of Iran and its political motives in light of the fact that it not only has the most powerful regional navy, but the fact that 40 percent of the world’s oil exports pass through the 21 nautical-mile Strait of Hormuz. Iran not only controls the eastern shore of the Strait within the Persian Gulf, but coastline south of the Strait on the Arabian Sea.
But if the Persian Gulf remains Iran’ highest maritime priority and the possible actions of Western navies, Tehran’s secondary concern is its northern Caspian shore. In the Caspian region, concerns have been rising in the wake of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) withdrawal of the bulk of its troops from neighboring Afghanistan, heightening fears of a security vacuum there, where extremist Islamic State (IS) elements have recently been noted. The Caspian has also become a major transit route for Afghan narcotics, developments which have seen all the Caspian littoral states strengthening their naval and maritime security forces.
Iran has one immense advantage in the Caspian that it lacks in the Persian Gulf – no foreign warships are allowed on the inland sea, thanks to a Russian initiative.
The Caspian is the world’s largest inland body of water, containing more than 40 percent of the world’s inland waters with a surface area of 143,000 square miles. Its status was formerly regulated under the February 26, 1921, USSR-Persia Treaty and the March 25, 1940, USSR-Iran Treaty. After the December 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union, in place of Iran and the USSR, there were now four new Caspian littoral states—Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan—and wrangling began immediately over the Caspian’s waters and seabed division, as Western energy companies immediately began vying to unlock the Caspian’s hydrocarbon riches, estimated by the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration at 48 billion barrels of oil and 292 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas in proved and probable reserves.
Adding to the potential for regional maritime conflict, almost 75 percent of oil and 67 percent of natural gas reserves are located within 100 miles of the coast, heightening concerns about achieving a final and definitive division of offshore waters and seabed. Iran believes in an equitable, 20-percent division of offshore waters and seabed between the five Caspian states, while Russia has consistently promoted the concept that Caspian shoreline length determines offshore waters and seabed share, with the support of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
The Caspian is an endorheic sea with no egress to the open ocean. The Caspian’s sole entry and exit is the 37-mile-long Volga-Don Canal, built under Stalin and under Russia’s sole sovereign control. The canal exits in the Sea of Azov, which connects with the rest of the Black Sea via a narrow strait now controlled from both sides by Russia after the Crimean annexation. Since the Volga-Don Canal qualifies as Russian “internal waters,” Moscow controls the movement of any and all naval units from the “world ocean” that might attempt to enter the Caspian from the Black Sea. The Volga-Don Canal can only handle ships of up to 5,000 tons and in some places is less than 12 feet deep; it is the least known of the world’s strategic waterways.
If the five Caspian nations have been unable to achieve an equitable division of the Caspian waters and seabed, they are in accord that no foreign navies should sail its waters. On April 22, 2014 Azerbaijan’s foreign minister Elmar Mammadyarov, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Kazakhstan’s foreign minister Erlan Idrissov and Turkmenistan’s foreign minister Rashid Meredov arrived in Moscow to discuss the upcoming Fourth Caspian Summit to be held in Astrakhan in the fall to resolve Caspian division issues. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced: “Regular conferences of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Caspian Five are an effective mechanism of cooperation in the Caspian Sea region. The format of the conference relies heavily on the high level of trust and understanding in key issues of the Caspian policies.”
The meeting resulted in the “Convention on the Independence of the Caspian Sea,” barring foreign navies from plying the Caspian’s waters. Ironically, Iran has itself played the “gunboat diplomacy” card on the Caspian in the past. On July 23, 2001, an Iranian warship and two jets forced two Azerbaijani research vessels, the Geofyzik-3 and the Alif Hajiyev, surveying Azerbaijan’s Alov oilfield 60 miles north of Iranian waters on behalf of BP-Amoco, to leave. BP-Amoco immediately announced it would cease exploration activities and withdrew the research vessels.
But, as in the Persian Gulf, Iran’s navy in the Caspian is bereft of allies. Accordingly, on March 1 Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari at the head of a high-level delegation made an official visit to Kazakhstan for discussions on boosting defense cooperation between the two Caspian neighbors, meeting with Kazakh Navy Commander General Zhandarbek Zhanzakov and other senior Kazakh officials, including Kazakh Defense Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov. Earlier, in October 2013 Zhanzakov visited Iran, where he signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on defense cooperation with Sayyari in Tehran.
The question of the increasing Kazakh-Iranian naval cooperation is who it might be directed against, as Russian’s Caspian Flotilla is the de facto regional naval superpower. Kazakhstan’s Navy is the youngest branch of Kazakhstan’s Armed Forces, being established by President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s May 7, 2003 decree, “About the further improvement of the structure of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” Because of the Caspian states arguing over the status of the Caspian, Russia did not initially support the formation of the Kazakh Navy, and those divisions remain. In such an instance, the primary benefit of the increased cooperation is primarily political – Iran gains an ally, and Kazakhstan asserts its political independence from Moscow, even as its “multi-vector” foreign policy emphasizes friendly relations with its neighbors.
As for common maritime interests, since late 1991 Kazakhstan has used Caspian tankers for oil swaps with Iran, which for the period March 2013-March 2014 reached 210,000 tons of oil products, and Iran has become a significant customer for Kazakh wheat as well.
But relations have not always been so cordial. According to a May 17, 2002 Kazakh Commercial TV broadcast, Iranian navy commander Rear-Admiral Abbas Mohtaj asserted that in the absence of a definitive agreement on the division of the Caspian, under the 1921 and 1940 treaties Iran still considered the southern half of the Caspian Sea to be Iranian internal waters and the deployment of Kazakh naval cutters there would be viewed as an attack on Iran. Perhaps not surprisingly, Kazakhstan established its navy the following year.
Despite the Convention on the Independence of the Caspian Sea, tensions remain; last December Turkmen naval vessels fired on an Iranian trawler, killing one of the fishermen and sinking the boat, with the Iranian media reporting that Turkmenistan’s navy “shot a number of fishermen in the Caspian Sea without prior warning.” Given the rising value of the Caspian’s aquatic and hydrocarbon resources, it is likely that there will more such incidents in the future, however many MoUs are signed and official visits made.
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