The presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran have opened a long-anticipated railroad link connecting landlocked Central Asia to the Persian Gulf.
On the Turkmen-Iranian border, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan, Hassan Rouhani of Iran, and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan donned white gloves to bolt together a final section of track that was symbolically colored gold, the Associated Press reported, inaugurating the last stage of the freight link that they hope will herald a boom in trade between the three Caspian littoral states.
Highlighting those expectations, the first cargo to cross the border between Turkmenistan and Iran on December 3 was a wagonload of wheat from Kazakhstan.
The line – which carries only freight but may carry passengers later – has an initial capacity of 5 million tons per year, projected to rise to 12 million tons. Forecasts suggest the new line could triple trilateral trade in the short term from 3 million to 10 million tons, and double it again by 2020 to 20 million.
Russia's Grad Slavyansk corvette, to be used for the first time in joint exercises on the Caspian Sea next year. (photo: mil.ru)
The Caspian Sea will see its first -- and probably the world's first -- naval biathlon next summer, with all five littoral states taking part, the Russian Defense Ministry has announced.
The naval biathlon appears to be a spin-off of the tank biathlon that Russia inaugurated in 2013 and expanded into a blockbuster event this year. And the principle will be the same, with ships racing and shooting at targets. Missing a target will result in a penalty lap.
"Such a naval competition is unparalleled in the world," said Russian Caspian Flotilla Commander, Captain 1st Class Ildar Akhmerov, according to TASS.
Each country will compete with one ship and one reserve vessel. Armored personnel carriers will also be part of the competition (it's not clear how) and there will be an athletic portion of the contest, as well, with sailors competing in rowing, weightlifting, swimming, and tug-of-war. The competition will take place over several months, starting in March and ending in August.
Also not yet clear: which ships will be used and what they will shoot with. The naval capabilities of the five countries on the Caspian -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- vary widely. In the tank biathlon almost all participating countries used Russian-provided tanks, but that wouldn't seem to be a workable solution here; it's unlikely the Russian navy would just hand over the keys of one of its ships to Turkmenistan, for example.
Iran, it seems, was calling Turkmenistan’s bluff earlier this summer when Tehran said it no longer needs gas from its northern neighbor. Now a top official says Tehran will keep buying.
That is good news for Turkmenistan, which is so dependent on its main gas customer, China, that it is starting to look like a client state.
Iran is committed to increasing its own domestic gas production to up to a billion cubic meters per day by 2017, a target one industry analyst thinks is possible but unlikely within such a tight timeframe. But supplying Iran’s northern regions with domestic gas is complicated by its lack of infrastructure. So, since 1997, Iran has bought gas from Turkmenistan to service its north, and sold its own gas abroad.
Deputy Oil Minister Hamid Reza Araqi said this week that his boss and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov had met in Ashgabat this month to hammer out a new purchase agreement. According to regional news agency AKIpress, the meeting happened November 7.
“The deal makes it possible to raise the amount imported from Turkmenistan in cold months of the winter; starting in the beginning of the current year, Turkmenistan has exported 24-25 million cubic meters of natural gas to Iran [daily],” said Araqi, in comments carried in English by Iran’s Mehr news agency on November 19.
The agreement contains a provision to increase this to 30 million cubic meters daily, he added.
Russia and Iran, comrades-in-sanctions from the West, are connecting with each other . . . through a railway. And Azerbaijan intends to be the crucial middle link.
The Russian State Railroads Company earlier this week announced plans to build a railway link from Russia, across Azerbaijan, to Iran. An intergovernmental agreement on building the railway is expected to be signed in July next year and the Russian firm said it will foot the bill for the project.
Azerbaijan has its reasons to be suspicious of both countries, but, so far, has given no sign of skittishness about the deal.
How successful Azerbaijan will be in juxtaposing an Eastern train project with a Western one is unclear, however. The idea is not likely to earn warm support in the West, with which Baku already has a relatively schizophrenic relationship — chummy when it comes to energy and assistance for NATO in Afghanistan; far cooler when it comes to reported Azerbaijani abuses of civil rights.
Perhaps that last factor, at least to some degree, contributeAzerbaijan to think it's time to explore what it has in common with Russia and Iran, and express it through rail.
Russian Duma Speaker Sergei Narishkin, in Tehran from November 16-17, made no bones about the project being a slapback at the West.
The presidents of Azerbaijan and Iran, Ilham Aliyev and Hasan Rouhani, at an official dinner in Baku. (photo: president.az)
Iran President Hasan Rouhani completed a visit to Baku, and while the two sides didn't announce anything too newsworthy, the visit underlined how tension between the two countries has considerably diminished over the course of this year.
Rouhani visited Baku November 12-13, and his delegation also included senior presidential aides and ministers of oil, foreign affairs, roads, communications and information technology and economy, as well as the governor of the Central Bank of Iran. And it followed a visit by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev to Tehran in April. "Indeed, the fact that the two presidents met four times over a period of nine months was a milestone in the history of the two countries’ ties," wrote the Iranian website mehrnews.com in an analysis of Rouhani's trip.
That analysis dated the decline in the two countries' relations to what it called "the Eurovision 2012 misunderstandings," when Baku hosted the European song contest, there were rumors that a gay parade would be held in connection with that, and Iran withdrew its ambassador from Baku.
The United States embassy in Baku has categorically denied a report in The Times which claimed that Washington and Tehran will conduct “secret talks” in Baku this week about restoring some form of ties between the United States and Iran after an almost 35-year break.
Citing an anonymous Iranian government advisor, The Times’ Hugh Tomlinson reported on November 10 that the supposed talks would cover setting up in Tehran “an umbrella office for US trade” or, possibly, “a cultural office, purely for academic exchanges.”
The Times wrote that Mohammad Reza Sabzalipour, head of Iran’s World Trade Center, would lead the alleged talks with the US side in Baku. Azerbaijani officials so far have not made any comments.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is set to visit the Azerbaijani capital on November 12 for a state visit, but no public indication has been made that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev intends to play intermediary for the US.
In a statement to the pro-government Azerbaijani news agency Trend, however, the US embassy to Baku rejected The Times story as “completely untrue.”
“[W]e have had no conversations, and have no plans to engage in conversations, in trade talks or any talks similar to those described in this misleading news story,” read the statement, published on November 11.
Sabzalipour, however, had his own take. On November 11, he remarked that “reciprocal visits by the Iranian and the US economic delegations” are "on the agenda" of Tehran's World Trade Center. Details will be forthcoming "when the grounds are prepared," he added.
The biggest headline to come out of the weekend's Caspian Sea summit in Astrakhan, Russia, was that the five countries along the sea agreed to prevent any outside military presence from the sea. This has been a longstanding goal of the sea's two biggest powers, Russia and Iran, the result of worries that the U.S. and/or NATO would somehow gain a military foothold on the sea via security cooperation programs with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, or Turkmenistan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, summing up the summit's results and formal declaration, said:
The declaration sets out a fundamental principle for guaranteeing stability and security, namely, that only the Caspian littoral states have the right to have their armed forces present on the Caspian. This was the way the situation developed over history, and we do not seek to change it now. In general, only the five Caspian countries that have sovereign rights over the Caspian Sea and its resources will resolve all matters pertaining to the region.
An Azerbaijan coast guard vessel patrolling the Baku harbor, 2012. (photo: The Bug Pit)
The presidents of the five countries on the Caspian Sea are meeting in Astrakhan, Russia, on Sunday and will agree to "prevent" the military presence of non-littoral countries on the sea, a Russian official has said.
Russia and Iran, the two largest powers on the sea, have long been trying to exclude external powers -- read, the United States -- from establishing a military presence on the sea. The negotiations on this have gone on very much behind the scenes, but the newly independent Caspian countries -- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- have relied to varying degrees on the U.S. to get their new navies up and running. And Azerbaijan, in particular, seemed to be resisting this push to exclude external forces.
"Yes, there are some [American] programs, according to which rearmament of the naval and coast guard forces are being carried out, but this is no cause for alarm that some Caspian country could be a corridor for the military presence of other countries in the Caspian region," said pro-government Baku analyst and journalist, Tofik Abbsov, in an interview in April. He added that reports to the contrary were common in the Russian media and served to "escalate the atmosphere of non-existent trends of tension."
But now Russia and Iran seem to have worn down Baku's resistance. "A political statement was prepared for the summit containing a provision about preventing military presence of non-regional states in the Caspian Sea. There were difficult consultations on the issue, but the sides managed to agree on this principle," said Yuri Ushakov, a Russian presidential aide, on Friday.
Turkmenistan may have become a byword for slow-moving regional rail projects, but a long-planned link connecting the country and neighboring Uzbekistan to the Persian Gulf via Iran appears to have found momentum again.
At a “high level meeting” in Ashgabat on September 3, delegates from the three countries plus Oman and Qatar began ironing out details of a plan first agreed in April 2011, Trend.az reported. That meeting came just under a month after the Turkmen and Uzbek foreign ministers held talks on the project with their counterparts in Oman.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov first proposed the railroad in 2010. For his double-landlocked country, the project assumes a special significance. Some have noted that it could ease exports of Tashkent’s key cotton crop toward markets in the Middle East and beyond. Tashkent is particularly keen to facilitate trade ties with manufacturers indifferent to widespread evidence it uses forced labor to harvest its lucrative cash crop. Last year according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Uzbekistan produced 904,000 metric tons of cotton. Turkmenistan, which produced 327,000 metric tons over the same period, could also benefit from the line.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev inspects an Israeli-built coast guard vessel built in Baku. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijan is acquiring 12 new coast guard vessels from Israel and is discussing the possibility of buying naval corvettes, as well.
The news emerged after Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev formally opened a new shipyard for the coast guard. No mention was made publicly of the Israeli provenance of the ships, but online weapons enthusiasts and the experts at Jane's examined the photos that were released on the president's official site and came to the conclusion that these were warships -- six Shaldag Mk V patrol boats and six Saar 62 offshore patrol vessels -- that Israel had announced it was building for an anonymous customer.
In addition, posters exhibited at the event suggested that Azerbaijan was looking at a more heavily armed Israeli ship, the Saar 72 corvette.
Azerbaijan has already made other naval purchases from Israel, notably some Gabriel-5 anti-ship missiles, which became a source of tension between Azerbaijan and Iran: Tehran, fixated on Israel, mistrusts Baku's close military ties with its enemy.