In the past three decades the Islamic Republic of Iran has developed a well-earned sense of paranoia. First, in September 1980 Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in what he thought would be a quick military victory, but which quickly turned into an eight-year bloody slugfest, leaving an estimated 500,000-1,000,000 dead before the guns fell silent.
More recently Iran has been subjected to increasingly militant rhetoric from both Tel Aviv and Washington over its civilian nuclear energy program, with thinly veiled threats of possible military action if Tehran does not abandon its efforts, even though they are completely complaint under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran has signed.
Now however, potential is brewing for Iran from an unexpected direction – the north.
> Caspian Region Map
Russia is sharply increasing its military presence in the Caspian. Russian Federation Navy Commander in Chief Admiral Vladimir Vysotskii has stated that Russia’s Caspian Sea Flotilla will receive up to 16 new ships over the next decade, while some aviation units will be transferred to the Navy from the Russian military’s southern operational-strategic command. What has really got to have the mullahs in Tehran fingering their worry beads however is Vysotskii’s promise to provide the Caspian Sea Flotilla with Bastion shore-based missile systems armed with Yakhont hypersonic missiles, which are designed to destroy surface targets at distances of up to 200 miles.
Russia’s Caspian Sea Flotilla flagship, the Tatarstan frigate, is already the most powerful vessel on the Caspian, armed with Uran missiles with a range of 100 miles. Later this year the Tatarstan will be joined by a sister ship, the Dagestan.
The Caspian Sea Flotilla is also taking delivery of the first in a series of new Project 21631 Buyan-M-class rocket-artillery ships, along with three amphibious assault ships.
The Iranian Navy has a total of approximately one hundred, mostly small combat and supports ships on the Caspian. They include three Iranian-made midget submarines (of a North Korean type that can transport a group of combat divers and have a range of 1,200 miles), an outdated Salman-class minesweeper (American-made), and patrol cutters.
Russian analysts believe that Iran however has the ability to increase its Caspian naval forces by 50 percent in short order by relocating craft from the Persian Gulf.
As for the other Caspian littoral states – Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, their naval forces are negligible, to be polite.
So, why is Russia beefing up its naval presence?
The most likely reason is the one that has bedeviled the region for the last two decades – a final treaty delineating the ownership of the Caspian’s offshore waters and seabed has yet to be signed. While Moscow and Tehran might agree about keeping the U.S. locked out of exploiting the Caspian’s energy resources, worth an eye-watering $3 trillion, they remain at loggerheads over the issue of dividing the Caspian, with Russia insisting that each nation receive offshore waters in proportion to its coastline, while Iran insists that all five nations receive an equitable twenty percent apiece. Under the Russian definition Iran’s share would be 11-13 percent.
Complicating the issue is that international law has yet to definitively designate whether the Caspian is an inland "sea" or a lake, an adjudication which has enormous implications for both the applicability of the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and negotiation of the boundary demarcation regime affecting the littoral states' rights to significant undersea oil deposits.
Ironically, Iran has itself played the “gunboat diplomacy” card in the past. On 23 July 2001, an Iranian warship and two jets forced two Azeri research vessels, the Geofyzik -3 and the Alif Hajiyev, operating in what Azerbaijan calls the Alov oilfield on behalf of BP-Amoco, to leave the field where they were conducting surveys, which lies 60 miles north of Iranian waters. BP-Amoco immediately announced it would cease exploration activities and withdrew the research vessels. Azerbaijan denounced the move as a violation of its sovereignty and on 31 July charged that an Iranian reconnaissance aircraft had violated Azeri airspace and come within 90 miles of Baku. Ramping up the pressure, Iranian former Pasdaran Commander Mohsen Reza'i pointedly reminded Azerbaijan that the whole country had once been Iranian territory and that Iran might decide to take it back, even as the Iranian press speculated that the whole thing was a provocation cooked up by Azerbaijan who was scheming to bring about American intervention in the Caspian.
In the unlikely event that hawks in Washington ever considered, then or now, to fly the Stars and Stripes on the Caspian while taking a few potshots at the evil Russkies or the even more perfidious Axis of Evil mullahs, then geography seems to have thrown a spanner in the works, as the Caspian’s sole exit point, the Volga-Don canal, is controlled by… Moscow.
What seems to be happening is that Russia has decided that gunboat diplomacy has its uses, and an upping of its naval presence in the Caspian might finally persuade Iran’s obstinate mullahcracy that it’s time to divvy up the Caspian pie according to Moscow’s formula.
And, after all, 11-13 percent of $3 trillion is no small chunk of change, even to an OPEC member.