BACKGROUND: Despite Central Asia’s new prominence, few observers have reported about rising threats to and from naval forces in the Caspian. Russia’s Caspian Fleet is the only one of its fleets to have grown since 1991, but the more direct threat is posed by Iran. Iran’s open desire to expand its territorial sector in the Caspian, obstruct agreement on delimiting the Caspian and dividing it among the littoral states, and to use force to threaten its neighbors is well known and quite visible to those governments. Recently it was revealed that Iran had deployed some 38 ships in the Caspian. In Summer 2001, it threatened Azerbaijan’s exploration ships in the Caspian and Foreign Minister Kamil Kharazzi told Baku that it should heed Iran’s warnings “if it knows what is good for it”. Exploration in the area was subsequently suspended because of the uncertain security and the unclear political situation in those waters. Iran could make such threats, force Azerbaijan to recall its exploration ships, and compel the cessation of exploration precisely because Azerbaijan lacks the means to defend its coastline. Thus it is not surprising that Baku turned to Washington. Nor is it surprising that Washington responded and is assisting Azerbaijan, like Turkey has for years, with training and educating military officers, and training its forces for peacekeeping and drug control operations. Those activities are certainly connected not just with the war on terrorism as such, but with growing signs of Iran's cooptation of the Al-Qaeda network. Over time, it has also become clear to the United States that Iran continues to be the leading state sponsor of terrorism, deliberately supports terrorism throughout the Middle East, undermines U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan under Hamid Karzai’s government, and shelters Al-Qaeda terrorists. As some of those terrorists seem also to have fled to Georgia, the threats of terrorism and/or Iranian military activity in the Caucasus no longer appear to be remote contingencies. And since it is unlikely that the scheduled conference of April 24-25, 2002 to define the Caspian’s territorial delimitation will resolve the issue, the undefined situation there could stoke the fires of conflict in the area. Iran might also be able to contribute to the looming succession crisis in Azerbaijan since it harbors Mahir Javadov, who plotted against Azeri ruler, Heydar Aliyev.
IMPLICATIONS: Iran's mischief-making potential is enhanced by the fact that Azerbaijan's domestic situation is none too secure. Its 78-year old ruler, Heydar Aliyev, appears to be in failing health and his regime is under increasing pressure from popular disaffection at home. Public demonstrations protest against rigged elections, and the transparent effort to ensure that his son Ilham succeed him, as well as the unresolved war in Nagorno-Karabakh that owes much to elite and popular refusal accept the changes needed to make peace there all suggest the possibility of a major domestic crisis if and when Aliyev leaves the scene. This domestic crisis, the possibility of terrorists trying to exploit it either for themselves or for Iran’s benefit, or the alternative of an Iranian military operation against Baku, and the energy assets at risk should Azerbaijan fall into crisis, are all proximate causes for the spread of U.S. military influence to Azerbaijan. Nor is that presence solely a naval one. In November, press reports announced that the U.S. Air Force was considering obtaining an air base in Azerbaijan. And since Congress has repealed section 907 of the Freedom Supports Act (that prohibited government-to-government assistance to Azerbaijan) the United States can now openly render Azerbaijan military assistance and aid. On March 27-28, the first bilateral U.S.-Azerbaijan military consultations took place in Baku, which focused on naval defense in the Caspian and on standardization of air controls, as well as training programs. As the ban on U.S. arms exports to Azerbaijan and Armenia has been lifted, the road is now cleared for Washington to support Baku substantially.
CONCLUSIONS: We should not lose sight of the potential for a major crisis either in Azerbaijan's internal arrangements or in its external relations, or even more likely, coinciding crises. Just as in Georgia’s case, the structural weaknesses of Azerbaijan, combined with its enhanced strategic relevance makes the likelihood of crisis and conflict rather high. By inserting its presence into this lion’s den, the United States is not only asserting its power and influence throughout the Caucasus and the overall former Soviet Union, it is also putting its influence and perhaps its military assets at some risk. Whether or not the American military presence will be a long-lasting one cannot be definitively ascertained at present. But there is little doubt that American economic and political influence throughout the area is rising, and is intended to be there for the long run. Unfortunately, that presence is also accompanied by ever more numerous signs of domestic crises and interstate rivalries across the entire region. Only time will tell if those who wager on crisis and conflict or on the United States’ pacifying presence are correct. But in the meantime the Caucasus and Central Asia will undoubtedly live through what the Chinese call “interesting times.”AUTHOR BIO: Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.
Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved