Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Briefly: U.S., Israel vs. Iran; trans-Caspian and Georgia transit

First published in the August 25, 2007 Armenian Reporter.

From Washington, in brief
by Emil Sanamyan

* Report: U.S. to strike at Iran within six months?

U.S. officials have once again turned up the heat on Iran. The U.S. is accusing the elite branch of Iran's military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), of supporting attacks against American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of August 15, according to the Washington Post and other media, the U.S. will soon be classifying the IRGC as a terrorist organization.

"Reports that the Bush Administration will put IRGC on the terrorism list can be read in one of two ways: it's either more bluster or, ominously, a wind-up for a strike on Iran," wrote former U.S. intelligence operative Robert Baer in his August 18 Time magazine column.

Mr. Baer served with the Central Intelligence Agency in Lebanon during the 1980s Iran-backed Hezbollah attacks on U.S. forces and diplomats. He was also the CIA's Caucasus and Central Asia manager in the mid-1990s. He left the CIA in 1997. The 2006 film Syriana is based primarily on Mr. Baer's autobiographical books, written after leaving the CIA.

"Officials I talk to in Washington vote for a hit on the IRGC [and other Iranian targets], maybe within the next six months," Mr. Baer predicted, admitting that "frankly they're guessing; after Iraq the White House trusts no one, especially the bureaucracy."

U.S.-Iranian relations first deteriorated after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, but tensions have increased in recent years over Iran's advances in nuclear technology. A U.S. aerial attack on Iran has been repeatedly predicted before.

In addition to bilateral and international sanctions, last month the U.S. announced plans to pour billions of dollars worth of advanced weaponry to Iran's opponents and neighboring states. (See From Washington in Brief in the August 4 Armenian Reporter.)
In response, U.S. officials believe, Iran is reaching out to America's radical Sunni opponents in Afghanistan with whom Iran almost went to war with prior to 2001, and who loathe Iran's Shiite regime.

MSNBC analyst Rick Francona suggested on August 16 that Iran is simply following the adage that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" -- just as the U.S. did when it supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq against Iran in the 1980-88 war.

* Iranian president touts "brotherly" ties with Azerbaijan in regional diplomatic push

Iran is also reaching out to its other neighbors. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has kept a busy travel schedule this month, visiting U.S.-backed Afghanistan on August 14. He was hosted against Washington's wishes and denied claims that his government was backing Taliban forces, the Guardian reported the same day.

Also in August, while Tehran hosted the Iraqi Prime Minister, Turkey's re-elected prime minister confirmed plans for a multibillion dollar joint energy investment project with Iran.

From Kabul the Iranian president flew to Turkmenistan for bilateral talks, and then to Kyrgyzstan for the August 16 Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit, which included leaders of Russia and China.

On August 21-22, Mr. Ahmadinejad made a two-day visit to Azerbaijan, his third trip to that country in as many years. During his visit he was once again urged to endorse a more local concern: Baku's claims on Karabakh and efforts to undermine Armenia.

However, in a joint press conference with President Ilham Aliyev, Mr. Ahmadinejad said that he wanted to see progress in both neighboring countries and spoke of a need to resolve the Karabakh conflict peacefully through negotiations and, according to Azerbaijani media, "on the basis of justice and law."

Among the bilateral agreements signed were several transportation and hydro-energy projects in Azerbaijani-controlled Nakhichevan (in particular, a proposed dam near Ordubad on the Arax River that may potentially impact the river's downstream flow along Armenian territory).

In an indirect reference to U.S. efforts to recruit Azerbaijan against Iran, Mr. Ahmadinejad was quoted by his state news agency as saying: "There are some forces that do not want our friendship, and try to sour our relations. But they are wrong. Iranian and Azeri nations are brothers."

And BBC News reported on August 22: "Azerbaijan has repeatedly said it would not allow American troops to use its territory to attack neighboring countries."

* Israel's "Minister for National Fears" also in Baku

Just days before meeting the Iranian President, senior Azerbaijani officials hosted Israel's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Strategic Threats (read Iran) Avigdor Lieberman, on August 16. Mr. Lieberman heads the right-wing "Israel, Our Home" party and is known for his tough anti-Arab rhetoric. In a May 2007 Atlantic Monthly profile, he was dubbed Israel's "Minister for National Fears" because of his support for preemptive action against countries and groups that he sees as threats to Israel's existence.

Israeli officials and Jewish organizations have long sought the establishment of an Azerbaijani embassy, something that Azerbaijani officials continue to refuse to do in apparent deference to Iran.

Mr. Lieberman, who lived in Soviet Azerbaijan before immigrating to Israel in 1978 at the age of 21, suggested that in the absence of an embassy, a commercial representation might suffice.

He also went a rhetorical step further than the typically neutral Israeli official position on the Karabakh conflict. He said in Russian that "the official position of the state of Israel is that we recognize the sovereignty of Azerbaijan in the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh." In the video carried by the Azerbaijani Trend News Agency, he said that the Jewish lobby backs Azerbaijan around the world.

But in an unusual concurrence with the views of Mr. Ahmadinejad, Mr. Lieberman added that "the [Karabakh] issue can only be resolved through a peace process, through negotiations."

* U.S. to fund a trans-Caspian pipeline feasibility study

As part of the U.S. strategy to facilitate non-Russian and non-Iranian energy deliveries to Turkey and Europe, the U.S. will grant Azerbaijan $1.7 million to study the feasibility of running oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia under the Caspian Sea, RFE/RL reported on August 16.

Assistant Secretary of State Dan Sullivan, who was the U.S. cosigner to the grant deal, said it was the largest amount the U.S. Trade Development Agency has ever spent on a feasibility study in the region. Mr. Sullivan said that the funding underscored the project's importance.

The U.S. previously secured the bulk of about $4 billion for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline that became operational last year and is also backing the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline. RFE/RL cited the Azerbaijani daily Ekho as estimating on August 17 that the undersea link-up to the two pipelines might cost $11.5 billion to build.

* Anonymous investors to manage Georgian railway

A group of unnamed investors have pledged to invest $1 billion over 10 years in Georgia's railway infrastructure, in exchange for 99-year management rights, civil.ge and other Georgian media reported on August 16. The mystery group has set up a British-registered "Parkfield Investment Ltd.," which already has the management rights from the Georgian government.

Neighboring Azerbaijan and especially Armenia rely heavily on the Georgian railway for cargo transportation to Europe. Georgia's 29-year-old Economics Minister, Giorgi Arveladze said that the investors promised to keep existing tariffs and fees through the next year, and "agree all further changes in tariffs with the government for five years after 2009."

Sarah Kendall, a London-based spokesperson for the group told civil.ge on August 20 that "when all the formalities are done we will be revealing the investors."
The arrangement was announced just days after Azerbaijan transferred to Georgia the first $40 million of a $220-million low-interest loan for the construction of a railway between Akhalkalaki and the Turkish border, which will bypass Armenia.
Earlier this year, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan bought the Kulevi oil terminal on Georgia's Black Sea coast.

But Georgian media speculation has so far focused on Russian money being behind the deal. Russia is known to have expressed interest in both the Armenian and Georgian railroads.

In another development, in findings released on August 22 European experts appeared to confirm Georgian charges that a Russian military aircraft violated Georgian airspace on August 6 and apparently jettisoned a missile that landed without exploding near the breakaway province of South Ossetia (see Washington in Brief in the August 11 Reporter.)

But as RFE/RL reported on August 22, Russia continues to deny its aircraft was involved and called the incident a "provocation organized ... in Georgia."
In the meantime, Georgia claimed that on August 21 another Russian aircraft entered Georgian airspace, this time near Abkhazia, the other breakaway province in Georgia. Officials in Tbilisi said this was the ninth "act of aggression" to take place in the last three months.

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