Caspian summit a triumph for Iran
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
Few regional summits have drawn closer attention, by both the media and world
governments, than this week's summit of leaders of Caspian littoral states in
The two day summit, coinciding with twin nuclear crises and escalating US-Iran
tensions relating to Iraq and the Middle East, is bound to be regarded as a
milestone in regional cooperation, with serious ramifications for a broad array
of issues transcending the Caspian Sea region.
Billed as a "great leap toward progress" by Mehdi Safari, Iran's
Deputy Foreign Minister in charge of Iran's Caspian affairs, the summit has
been a great success for Iran as well as Russia and the other participants
(Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan), and Tehran is likely to capitalize
on it as a stepping stone for full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization (SCO), considered a security counterweight to NATO and US
Indeed, it is as much shared interests as common worries and concerns, eg, the
US's unbounded interventionist policies, that have now brought Iran and Russia
closer together and to the verge of a new strategic relationship. After all,
both Iran and Russia are today objects of American coercion, their national
security interests and objectives imperiled by the US's post-9/11 militarism
and its feudalistic ossification of the international order.
The upshot of the Caspian summit is, in fact, a prominent message about the
need to democratize the international order by erecting effective barriers to
the American "leviathan", as shown by specific agreements reached at the
summit, including prohibiting other countries from using the littoral states
for attacks on one another "under any circumstances'', and disallowing any ship
not flying the national flag of a littoral state on Caspian waters.
How did this summit come about? The answer is, first and foremost, by astute
diplomatic efforts on Iran's part and, equally, by a strategic evolution of
Russia's foreign policy that is no longer self-handicapped by prioritizing
tactical or conjunctural interests above strategic ones.
Having reached this level, Moscow is now poised to enter into a new strategic
relationship with Iran that will serve the geostrategic, security, and other
shared interests of both nations.
"Iran is an important regional and global power," President Vladimir Putin said
after his initial meeting with Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who has
been much vilified in the West and yet is respected in the Third World and
beyond as an assertive leader of a developing nation standing up to
A major achievement for Iran's diplomacy and particularly for Amadinejad's
embattled foreign policy team, the "good news" summit will likely serve as the
hinge that opens new breathing space for Iran's diplomacy, and not just toward
the Caspian, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Iran's Persian Gulf policy is also
bound to benefit from the improved image of Iran in the Middle East, making
more attractive Iran's role as a corridor to Central Asia which the Arab world
in general and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in particular can take
advantage of in their external trade and energy policies.
Iran's summit diplomacy
The most salient feature of Iran's summit diplomacy has been its multifaceted
complexity, seeking to enhance regional cooperation among the five Caspian
littoral states by, for instance, initiating the idea of a Caspian regional
organization to promote inter-region trade, and, simultaneously, pushing
bilateral cooperation alongside multilateral cooperation. The net of bilateral
and multilateral agreements signed at this summit is quite extensive and a
detailed examination belongs elsewhere.
Suffice to say, however, that from Iran's vantage point the summit has been a
complete turnaround from the rather disastrous Caspian Sea summit of leaders in
Ashghabat, Turkmenistan, in 2002, when Putin prioritized the issue of Caspian
delimitation and division, a divisive issue. In comparison, at this summit, the
thorny subject of Caspian ownership and "legal regime" was relegated to the
background, with the attending leaders focusing on areas of shared interests,
transboundry issues, and trade, hoping that in subsequent meetings the goodwill
generated at this summit will carry over to those more divisive issues.
Various expert-level meetings of the Caspian states have so far failed to
resolve the ownership question and, from Iran's vantage point, given the
relatively minor energy interests at stake in Iran's sector of the Caspian Sea,
it made more sense to draw the right lesson from the Ashghabat failure and
adopt a long-term view of things.
That approach by Iran has paid off handsomely, resulting in a sudden shift in
the geostrategic climate in Iran's favor, in light of the joint communique of
the other Caspian states regarding their refusal to allow their territory to be
used for any militiary aggression against Iran, cemented by Putin's forceful
statement against any such gambit.
Putin's other comment, regarding Russia's commitment to complete Iran's Bushehr
nuclear power plant, represents yet another significant development for Iran,
which has defied the UN Security Council's resolutions calling for a suspension
of uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities. By stating on record that
there is no evidence to support the allegations of a nuclear weapon ambition on
Iran's part, Putin looks to have provoked Washington's fury, as seen in
Condoleezza Rice's instant counterpunch that Iran has been "lying" about its
nuclear program. Yet more importantly Putin has signalled the beginning of the
end of Rice-crafted "diplomatic consensus" vis-a-vis Iran.
As expected, the US government and mainstream media, unable to show any signs
of adjustment to Russia's, and even China's, new line of thought toward Iran,
have stepped up their Iran-bashing, with both the Washington Times and Wall
Street Journal dedicating more of their opinion pages to the ritual anti-Iran
Surely, the Tehran summit and its results represent a serious setback for
Washington's Iran diplomacy, but they also show the defects of its Russia
diplomacy and the fact that Moscow and Washington have reached a dead end.
Putin has held his ground against his Washington detractors, wooing various
European leaders such as Germany's Angela Merkel and snubbing the pro-US
Nicolas Sarkozy, while working on a new model of Russia-EU relations that is
not dominated by US prerogatives. There is undoubtedly an element of risk here
and Putin's new Iran policy may backfire, particularly if he does not generate
more Iranian cooperation on the nuclear issue.
Regarding the latter, Iran is apt to reciprocate Putin's gestures by
accommodating itself to more IAEA demands, and next week's meeting of Iran's
chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, with the EU's foreign policy chief,
Javier Solana, is an important occasion for Iran to appease Putin and his
foreign policy circle, some of whom are openly worried about a parallel
corrosion of US-Russia relations because of the new Iran-Russia developments.
Yet this is not a "zero-sum game" and US policy makers can draw the right
impression about Iran's good neighborly policies benefiting regional and global
peace, presently deepened in part thanks to Russia's singular influence on
Iran. That is highly unlikely, however, and the continuation of the
one-dimensional coercive policy toward Iran, so deeply entrenched in
Washington, is the more likely scenario, no matter how out of sync with the
rest of the world community.
The "lonely superpower" that Samuel Huntington once wrote about now appears
dangerously on the verge of losing its "coalition of the willing" against Iran,
both inside and outside the United Nations. The only choice is either stubborn
refusal to make the necessary policy adjustments toward Iran, along the lines
of a non-threatening civil diplomacy, or to face what is certain to be a
diplomatic defeat in the global arena.
Iran's soft-power diplomacy should be given much credit for both the summit's
success and the related frustration of the US's coercive diplomacy.