While Central Asia and the Caucasus have been the recent focus of world attention due to the popular revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the massacre in Andijan, Uzbekistan, potentially significant strategic developments there have been unduly neglected. In late April Russia evidently proposed the creation of a new defense formation, specifically a rapid-reaction force in the Caspian. Iran welcomed the proposal (IRNA, May 3; RIA-Novosti, May 4).
Although not much is known about this proposed force, it appears to be intended not just to repulse terrorist threats but also to oppose a foreign, i.e. Western, military presence in the Caspian. While this new Russo-Iranian gambit is clearly intended to counter Washington and NATO, it also represents a significant modification of Iran’s stated policy of opposing the militarization of the Caspian, although Tehran naturally is trying to obscure this contradiction in its policy (IRNA, May 3).
Azerbaijan appears to be at the center of this issue. Immediately after U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld left Baku on April 12-13, there was a noticeable spike in local stories claiming that Washington was seeking major bases and extensive radar, air, and air-defense facilities in Azerbaijan from which to attack Iran or from which sophisticated radars and a tripartite military bloc including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan could be built. Azeri-American plans to further develop Operation Caspian Watch, whose purpose is to help the Azerbaijani navy defend its coastal and offshore oil platforms that Iran has previously threatened and to enhance Azerbaijan’s participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace. apparently triggered this overwrought reaction (Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 15, 25; RIA-Novosti, May 4; Trend News Agency [Baku], April 14).
But Moscow’s proposal also occurs in a grander strategic context, not just of the Ukrainian and Kyrgyz revolutions, and now the Andijan uprising, but also of NATO’s and America’s enhanced interest in the Caucasus and Central Asia and Russia’s retreat from Georgian bases. It is now clear that Moscow will leave those bases, whose strategic utility is questionable at best, by 2008. Russian President Vladimir Putin, albeit with considerable bitterness, has acknowledged publicly that in a situation where the host country insists on withdrawal, Russia has no option but to bring its troops home. Even so, Putin publicly voiced his fears that the Russian withdrawal would soon be followed by American bases in Georgia, notwithstanding Georgian officials’ long-held position that there would be no foreign bases on their soil (Komsomolskaya pravda, May 24; Itar-Tass, May 14; Moscow Times, May 24). Even Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s minister of defense, had to acknowledge in April that the “temporary deployment of U.S. and NATO bases on CIS territory in support of the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan is in Russia’s national interests.”
Obviously, in order to counter that unwelcome combination of Western bases in the CIS and retreating Russian power, Putin and Ivanov thought they had to come up with a new gambit. Evidently they are pushing for a second Russian base in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, in the Fergana valley, the epicenter of unrest in Central Asia, and may relocate their Georgian forces in Armenia, a prospect that disturbs Baku (RIA-Novosti, May 26; see EDM, May 24).
Iran also feared that these alleged new bases, which have yet to be announced, would be used to attack it. Certainly there were reports to that effect from Baku (Trend News Agency, Baku, April 14). Tehran has much to be anxious about, because it appeared that Russia was leaning toward the Europeans in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and it obviously faces tremendous pressure from the EU and the United States over that program. Tehran cannot afford to alienate Russia under any circumstances and, as in the past, it has had to accept the relative primacy of Russian forces in the Caspian. It certainly does not wish to see that primacy supplanted by NATO or the United States.
There is also reason to believe that Iran was also animated by its unhappiness over the prospect of a formal Afghan-American strategic partnership complete with long-term, albeit not permanent, U.S. basing capabilities at Bagram in Afghanistan and the retention of the U.S. and NATO forces there. Reports from Afghanistan indicate a considerable Iranian influence among those who stirred up the recent anti-American demonstrations in Afghanistan. They also indicate that this issue, not reports of desecration of the Koran, was probably the driving force behind the Iranian and Pakistani agitation that stirred up the demonstrators (New York Times, May 26).
Pentagon officials queried by Jamestown profess no knowledge of any such Russo-Iranian security bloc or forthcoming huge base structure in Azerbaijan and pointedly emphasize that such reports contradict the global basing plan that was briefed to Moscow in 2004 and found not to be a threat to it. Thus, while there may be more heat than light behind the Russo-Iranian proposal, that scheme suggests not only that the great game in the CIS is heating up, but also that its military character and the trend towards strategic bipolarity in those regions are assuming a much sharper and therefore more dangerous character.