In the United States, our focus is on Iran’s activities to its west and east. Tehran supports Bashar Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, menaces oil exports in the Gulf and threatens Israel with annihilation. On its other flank, it seeks influence in Afghanistan as U.S. and NATO forces prepare to withdraw. However, we tend to ignore Iran’s actions to its north, even as this — the greater Caspian region — emerges as a particularly active theater for Iran’s ambitions of regional power.
We do so to our detriment. With Washington’s focus elsewhere during the past few months, Iran has steadily pushed the envelope with its northern neighbors, in the disputed Caspian Sea and along its land borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is considered more moderate than his predecessor, since his election, Iran seems to be continuing its northward pivot.
In late June, Iranian warships sailed across the Caspian Sea to the Russian port of Astrakhan. Their mission was to coordinate plans for a major joint naval exercise in the fall. This is noteworthy because not only is the Caspian a center of oil production that is exported to Western markets, but also a key transit hub for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces and equipment from Afghanistan. Vessels with U.S. military hardware routinely sail from Kazakhstan’s port of Aktau on the eastern shore to Azerbaijan’s capitol, Baku, in the west. Joint Iranian-Russian naval exercises could disrupt both the energy and transit activities on the sea.
It would not be the first time. Iranian warships have in the past threatened to attack Azerbaijani oil fields that were at the time being explored by BP vessels. The issue of how the Caspian’s energy-rich waters are divided among the littoral states remains unresolved. While most of the countries on its shores have come to bilateral understandings, Iran refuses to cooperate with any of its neighbors — except when it teams with Russia to threaten the rest.
Iran is also injecting itself into the region’s most protracted conflict: the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Iran supported pro-Russian Armenia in the 1990s against secular, pro-Western Azerbaijan, Iranian clerics are now painting the conflict as a war against Islam. They recently met with ethnic Azeris seeking to liberate Karabakh.
On the other hand, Tehran has cultivated pro-Iranian groups and extremist clerics in Azerbaijan to undermine the government in Baku. It has mobilized hacker attacks under the banner of the Iranian Cyber Army. These activities are intensifying as the October presidential election in Azerbaijan approaches.
Earlier this year, Iranian lawmakers on the Security and Foreign Policy Committee in Parliament released a number of statements demanding the annexation of 17 of Azerbaijan’s cities, including the capitol Baku. They prepared a bill that would revise the 1828 treaty demarcating Iran’s northern border to pave the way for a greater Iran that could incorporate territory from across the Caspian region, from Turkey to Central Asia. It seems that Israel is not the only country that Tehran has considered wiping off the map.
These sorts of actions have actually pushed Azerbaijan and Israel closer together. The two have a joint venture on the production of drone aircraft, as well as a wider defense technology relationship wherein Azerbaijan has sought anti-aircraft systems from Israel to guard against potential Iranian attack. Such threats are all too specific for Azerbaijan, as Iran’s leadership has consistently mentioned Azerbaijan’s major oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Mediterranean as a primary target in the event of conflict with the West.
Were such a clash to occur, it would behoove U.S. policymakers to be more cognizant of the northern angle in Iran’s aggressive regional policy. Even without the prospect of a major conflict, U.S. Iran policy should reflect Tehran’s threats to our interests in the Caspian and to regional partners such as Azerbaijan. For all Iran watchers, its activities to its north will serve as a key test of Mr. Rouhani’s supposed moderation.
Alexandros Petersen is the author of “The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West” (Praeger, 2011).