Where the World's Views of America Come into Focus
By RIA Novosti Commentator Pyotr Goncharov
May 5, 2005
MOSCOW: Iran has offered to support a Russian initiative in the Caspian Sea to establish a joint rapid reaction force in the region.
"The Caspian states should agree to establish of a rapid reaction force," said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi.
Russia's initiative initially envisaged more than combating international terrorist attacks and averting other common threats. It was also designed to prevent countries from outside the region, above all the U.S., from becoming involved in the affairs of the region, which the U.S. has included in its zone of interests. This fully meets Iran's interests. Will Russia and Iran be able to prevent an American presence in the Caspian region?
The idea of forming a coalition rapid reaction force in the Caspian region is not new. In August 2002, the Russian Caspian flotilla conducted naval exercises to prepare not only for terrorist attacks on oil pipelines but also to emergency situations in Caspian countries. A high-ranking Iranian Naval representative present at the exercises praised Russia's naval strength and recalled with delicate irony that both Moscow and Tehran were in favor of "preventing the militarization of the Caspian region." His irony was to the point, because Tehran's call for the other Caspian states to join Russia's initiative may have come too late.
These apprehensions come after a recent lightning visit to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The visit was conducted in great secrecy, immediately reminded one of a statement by General James Jones, Supreme NATO Allied Commander in Europe, in which he said that the U.S. planned to establish military bases in the Caspian area and was drawing up a Caspian Guard program for the coming decade. Under this project, the U.S. attaches particular importance to Azerbaijan, seeing it as a prime location for deploying mobile rapid reaction forces and for addressing its foreign policy problems in the region, mainly those concerning Iran.
Significantly, the U.S. program also includes setting up special task forces, whose mission will be similar to those Russia has proposed for its regional plans: "a rapid reaction not only to terrorist attacks at oil pipelines, but also to emergency situations in the Caspian countries."
A command center equipped with most up-to-date radar will be established in Baku, and the entire Caspian zone will become its responsibility. Some analysts say that Azerbaijani authorities have already agreed in principle to the proposal. The implementation of the Caspian Guard program will pose a threat primarily to the defense interests of Russia and Iran, as it includes observation systems for the air and sea, and will place a vast territory under U.S. control.
As they try to consolidate the naval forces of other Caspian states to serve their common interests, Moscow and Tehran are in favor of preventing the Caspian's militarization. Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, however, open seek to modernize their naval forces, and the U.S. is helping them, in contrast to Iran and Russia. Kazakhstan's navy will soon receive a ship with a displacement of more than 1,000 tons free of charge. The republic is to establish military infrastructure along its coastline using American money. The U.S. is offering the same to Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.
Furthermore, Washington is said to be considering a plan to form a tripartite union with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in the region. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and even Turkey may eventually join. Meanwhile, Russia's initiative is only being discussed in the media. All five Caspian states are unlikely to reach a mutually acceptable solution to the "demilitarization, non-militarization or limited militarization" of the Caspian area. The continuing wrangling over the Caspian Sea's legal status prove the unlikelihood of a solution, as Iran and Turkmenistan have chosen to reject the understandings reached by Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan on dividing the Caspian seabed.
But one thing is certain. The arrival of the U.S. in the Caspian region will upset the policies Moscow and Tehran pursue in a region that is of vital importance to both countries.