Yesterday the governments of the United States and Azerbaijan convened a two-day conference in Baku on “Black Sea and Caspian Sea Maritime Nonproliferation.” Running October 12-13, the workshop seeks to develop close cooperation among the coast guard and border agencies of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea littoral states in their effort to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and other illegal maritime trafficking.
Representatives from Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Romania, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and the United States participated in the military simulation, where “an imaginary country” obtained nuclear weapons and then was sanctioned by the United States. Although the participants claimed that the country in the exercise does not exist in the real world, many outside observers said that its characteristics very much resembled Iran.
During the first day of the conference, U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Reno Harnish stated that the United Stated would continue to deliver equipment for two new U.S.-sponsored radar stations in Azerbaijan. Harnish also announced that a military command center was recently established in Baku to monitor and intercept all “suspicious ships” in the Caspian Sea that carry weapons of mass destruction or illegal equipment related to nuclear technology.
Farhad Tagizade, an official from the Azerbaijani State Border Service, applauded the move, noting, “Transportation of weapons of mass destruction in the Caspian Sea is possible, since some of the coastal countries already have nuclear weapons, while others try to obtain them.”
“Our task is to intersect the vessels that have WMD-related materials on board and stop them from reaching their final destination. We already have specially trained mobile troops that will be used for this purpose,” declared Tagizade.
Under the U.S.-funded Caspian Guard Initiative, Washington has already spent some $30 million to upgrade Azerbaijan’s coast guard. The United States plans to spend an additional $100 million to improve both Azerbaijan’s and Kazakhstan’s naval troops to protect offshore oil fields and to combat terrorism.
Some local and foreign experts have begun questioning the reasons behind Washington’s military activities in the Caspian region in general — and in Azerbaijan in particular. Azerbaijani expert Rasim Agayev argued, “One of the main objectives of U.S. activities in the region is the ‘pacification’ of Iran and the encirclement of Russia with a belt of instability. The ambiguous policy of Azerbaijan in this respect is not left unnoticed in Tehran or Moscow.”
The two U.S.-sponsored radar stations are located in close proximity to Azerbaijan’s international borders with Iran and Russia (one is 20 kilometers off Azerbaijan’s southern border with Iran, while the other is just north of Baku), making both Tehran and Moscow anxious.
The radar stations are equipped with sophisticated military tools that can be used to screen the entire southern and northern parts of the Caspian Sea. Besides tracking nuclear material, ships, and flying objects, the radar stations are capable of monitoring ground activities in the northern and northeastern parts of Iran (with 400-450 kilometer range) and the southern regions of Russia, such as Chechnya and Dagestan. They can also intercept radio and cell phone conversations.
Iranian newspapers have already alleged that the U.S. radar stations in Azerbaijan will “complete the encirclement of Iran” and lead to an eventual invasion of this country. However, Rasim Musabekov, an Azerbaijani scholar, dismissed such fears, saying “there is no place in the world where radar stations are used to invade another country.”
Official Tehran has been cautious not to overdramatize the situation. At a press conference following another meeting of the five Caspian littoral states in Baku last month, the Iranian representative, Mohsun Baharvandi, stated, “Iran is not concerned with the construction of two U.S.-backed radar stations in Azerbaijan…[and] Iran has no problem with countries that are cooperating to fight terrorism and drug trafficking.”
Azerbaijani officials were also quick to downplay the importance of the stations. Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov insisted, “Azerbaijan’s cooperation with other countries in any sphere is not directed against its neighbors and does not infringe upon [their] interests in the region.”
On September 29, immediately after Ambassador Harnish confirmed reports about the U.S. radar stations, a local newspaper, Echo-Az, reported claims that Moscow would soon reciprocate Baku’s unilateral action by introducing economic sanctions and establishing a visa regime with Azerbaijan.
Such moves would hurt Baku. In addition to a significant border trade between Azerbaijan and Russia, there are some 2 million Azerbaijanis who live and work in Russia and regularly send remittances to their families back home. Moscow has occasionally used this leverage to gain concessions from Baku, and the Azerbaijani government has been cautious not to irritate Russia to the point where the latter will aggravate the conditions of Azerbaijanis living in Russia.
In his interview with Echo-Az, Musabekov confronted the anonymous report and remarked, “Those who intend to introduce sanctions against Azerbaijan should also consider that the operation of the Gabala Radar Station would become impossible in that case, despite already signed agreements.”
Musabekov was referring to the Gabala Radar Station, located in the northern part of Azerbaijan, which was leased to Russia for 10 years in 2002. Gabala is an early warning radar station that can trace ballistic missiles and other flying objects with high accuracy throughout the Southern hemisphere, from the Indiana Ocean to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea. The station plays a significant role in the Russian air defense system and it is the only Russian military institution in Azerbaijan.
Although the two U.S. radar stations are art of counter-terrorism and nonproliferation activities in the Caspian region, what worries Tehran and Moscow most is the possibility of growing U.S. influence in the region. Zerkalo (October 8) published a representative article that claimed that the construction of these stations is just the first step in the realization of the future plans of the Pentagon and NATO. It said that, in principle, Moscow does not oppose American military activities in Azerbaijan as long as these activities do not undermine Russia’s own interests in the region.
Nonetheless, it is fair to say that Washington will continue to monitor the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea. With several existing pipelines and potential trans-Caspian sub-sea projects and the ambitions Iranian nuclear program, many more U.S. radar stations could appear in Azerbaijan and Georgia in the near future. If so, the moves would inevitably step up the geopolitical competition between the assertive United States and a retreating Russia and further antagonize an already nervous regime in Iran.