With the Bush administration preoccupied with the war on terror and Iraq, Iran has quietly opened up a new front against the United States in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Its aim is to win hearts and minds in the fledgling post-Soviet republics. And, through a mixture of savvy diplomacy and military muscle, Tehran is now doing just that.
Iran's involvement in the Russian near abroad is hardly new. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, it has been keen to influence the political direction of the fragile post-Soviet states. But an unspoken power-sharing arrangement with Moscow prevented Tehran from interfering too deeply in regional politics throughout much of the past decade.
All of that appears to have changed, however. Policy makers in Moscow, worried over the entrenchment of a lasting American military presence in their backyard as part of the war on terrorism, have relaxed their opposition to Iran's maneuvers. And in response, Tehran has launched an unprecedented diplomatic and strategic offensive in the post-Soviet space.
Iran's motivations are clear. The growing U.S. military footprint in places like Khanabad, Uzbekistan and Manas, Kyrgyzstan -- not to mention Washington's expanding ties to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan -- have sparked fears in Tehran of strategic rollback on its northern front. When coupled with American advances in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iranian regime now faces the very real threat of encirclement by the United States and its "Coalition of the Willing." Substantial progress on pro-Western energy routes -- such as the long-awaited pipeline to carry Caspian crude from Baku, Azerbaijan to Ceyhan, Turkey -- have meanwhile presented Iran's rulers with the possibility of a dramatic decline in regional energy clout.
In response, Iran has upped the diplomatic ante with energy-rich Kazakhstan, pushing for deeper energy integration between Astana and Tehran. Kazakhstan currently exports oil to Iran as part of an "oil swap" agreement hammered out with the Islamic Republic in the year 2000, under which Kazakh oil is shipped to Iranian Caspian ports for Iranian consumption while oil from southern Iran is sold on the world market. But the Islamic Republic is now working actively to expand this arrangement, and has upgraded and increased the capacity of its Caspian ports in hopes of "doubling" the volume of Kazakh oil swaps.
Iran's oil companies, meanwhile, have themselves become a growing player in Kazakhstan's energy calculus, participating in tenders to develop its sector of the Caspian. Iranian officials have even begun quietly lobbying for a southern pipeline route to carry Kazakh crude to the Persian Gulf via the Islamic Republic. In late May, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbeyev publicly endorsed Tehran's plans when he announced his government's desire to build a pipeline across Kazakhstan and Iran.
By contrast, Iran has taken a harsher tone with neighboring Azerbaijan. In mid-October, the Islamic Republic commenced large-scale military maneuvers in its northwest district, near Azerbaijan. The exercises, reportedly the largest conducted by Iran in recent memory, massed troops along the Iran-Azerbaijan border in a show of force intended to persuade Baku to tone down its growing strategic cooperation with Washington.
Subsequent reports suggest Tehran is now employing a more subtle tack, and has begun to foment separatist sentiment among the non-Azeri, non-Turkic population on the country's Caspian coast in an effort to arrest Azerbaijan's pro-Western tilt. In response, Azeri officials have apparently acquiesced to a religious accord with the Islamic Republic. The deal, due to be signed in the near future, would give Tehran vastly increased input into the Caucasus state's religious affairs, and correspondingly greater influence over overwhelmingly-Muslim Azerbaijan's political orientation.
Simultaneously, Iran has ratcheted up contacts with its traditional Caucasus ally, Armenia. In recent weeks, the two nations have divulged plans to construct a pipeline linking natural gas fields in Iran and Turkmenistan to Ukraine and from there to Europe by way of Armenia. Such a move would of course be a strategic coup for Tehran, providing it with an energy conduit that undercuts both Russia and United States while simultaneously squeezing Azerbaijan.
Iran has even expanded its military muscle in the Caspian Basin. In an effort to counter growing U.S. and European strategic ties with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, Iran has commenced a major upgrade to its Caspian presence, including the creation of a special naval police within the country's existing naval flotilla. Such moves, Iranian officials make clear, are intended as response to "a foreign irritant."
So far, Iran's maneuvers in Central Asia and the Caucasus have gone largely unnoticed by Washington and its allies in Europe. But for the U.S. and EU, deeply invested in the political independence and pro-Western orientation of both regions, Tehran's inroads -- and its growing activism -- should certainly be cause for considerable concern.