As diplomacy has faltered, plenty of pundits and politicians now are talking about the potential effects of a nuclear Iran on the Persian Gulf, the Levant and U.S. interests there, but too little has been paid to the possible consequences for another theater: the Caspian Basin. This constitutes a serious oversight.
By virtue of both geography and geo-economics, the energy-rich area that straddles Central Asia and the Caucasus is bound to be deeply affected by any kind of confrontation with Iran. As such, officials in Washington, to say nothing of their European and Caspian counterparts, should prepare for various changes and crises.
So far, the Caspian states have largely remained on the sidelines of the deepening international crisis over Iran's nuclear program, but that is likely to change soon, as international diplomacy gives way to more serious measures. U.S. officials will begin to seek international partners for sanctions against Iran and bases for potential military action in the region. The countries of the region will be forced to choose between supporting Washington and backing Tehran.
It is prudent to assume that any conflict with Iran would take on an economic dimension, as senior Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have threatened to shut off the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf in the event of sanctions or military action against their country. This could certainly be a major boon to Caspian producers, exponentially increasing the importance of their energy output to Europe and the United States. Just as easily, however, the oil wealth of these nations could make them political targets (or worse) of an Islamic Republic interested in retaining the effectiveness of its energy blackmail.
The Caspian states might also face an influx of refugees if a military conflict broke out. During the 1991 Gulf War, instability in Iraq prompted nearly half a million refugees to flee across the that country's border with Turkey, fomenting a major humanitarian crisis in the process. A military conflict with Iran can be expected to create similar problems. Iran is home to 16.5 million ethnic Azeris — almost one-quarter of the country's population and more than double that of the entire Republic of Azerbaijan. A serious migration will wreak havoc on the economy, and perhaps even the political stability, of Iran's northern neighbor. Similar refugee flows, even on a smaller scale, could also challenge Iran's other neighbors.
The Caspian states might also see increased activity from radical groups. Iran's deep and enduring support for extremist movements worldwide, estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually, has earned it the dubious distinction of being the world's "central banker of terrorism." Until recently, however, Iran's ayatollahs had steered clear of such troublemaking in the post-Soviet space, thanks largely to their vibrant strategic partnership with Russia. But that is beginning to change. In recent years, Iran has become more active in both regions, spurred by concerns over America's growing strategic foothold in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Tehran supports an array of regional radicals, from the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to Chechen insurgents — terrorists who could easily be turned against local targets in the event of a conflict.
American and European policy-makers may be hoping for the best: a diplomatic solution to the current stalemate over Iran's atomic ambitions. But prudence dictates that they should also be planning for the worst. This includes crafting a strategy that protects the political stability and economic potential of America's allies in the Caspian from the coming conflict with Iran.
Without such a strategy, the United States could soon find that it has ceded a crucial front in the War on Terror to the world's leading sponsor of it.