Most observers of the Middle East would agree that Iran has been making a successful run at establishing itself as a regional hegemon. So far, attention has been focused on its moves in Iraq, the Levant, and to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan. The elimination of Iraq as a threat on its western frontier has been the biggest boost to Iranian ambitions. Iran's successes in challenging the pro-Western government in Lebanon via its proxy Hizbullah and its ally Syria have further extended its westward reach all the way to the Mediterranean. Reports of Iranian activity in Afghanistan have also surfaced, especially recently. But Afghanistan offers little in the way of resources. A much more lucrative catch for Iran is the Caspian Sea basin to its north - an area with significant oil and natural gas reserves. Iran shares borders with the countries on both the Caucasian and Central Asian sides of the Caspian Sea - Azerbaijan in the west and Turkmenistan in the east.
Turkmenistan recently made the headlines when its eccentric post-Soviet dictator, Turkmenbashi Saparmurat Niyazov died. Like its other post-Soviet Central Asian neighbors, with the exception of Kazakhstan perhaps, Turkmenistan has little in the way of modern state institutions to ensure stability following the death of its revered leader. Peter Zeihan of Stratfor (you have to sign up to read it and pay, unless someone forwards it to you) is predicting that the Iranians will be hard-pressed not to make some sort of move on Turkmenistan - in order to control key oil and gas pipelines and to secure itself against an attack from the northeast. In so doing, however, Iran risks a showdown with Russia, which has been intent to monopolize Central Asian energy distribution networks through Gazprom. ADDENDUM: Josh and Nathan over at Registan are merciless in their criticism of Zeihan. The titles of their posts, "Piecing It Together, Sort Of" and "Dumb Things Written about Turkmenistan," respectively, give an indication of their critiques. I guess we'll see who's right 5 years from now.
Oil and gas fields in the southern Caspian (Perry Castaneda, 2003)Azerbaijan has been in the news mostly due to its increasingly aggressive posturing vis-a-vis Russia. While its enemy Armenia has been moving ever closer to Russia, Azerbaijan has been seen as a Western ally, together with Georgia. Both Georgia and Azerbaijan are aiming for greater energy independence from Russia. Together with Turkey, the two Caucasian states are also trying to build an energy supply network that will bypass Russia and Iran as it delivers oil and gas to Europe and other markets (see our earlier post, "Pipe Dreams"). Iran is wary of Azerbaijan's ties to the U.S., and perhaps even more nervous about the country's potential to incite the large Azeri minority in Iran, especially in its northern provinces. A recent New York Times article suggests that the Iranians may be playing a similar kind of game they have pursued with such success in Lebanon and Afghanistan. Azerbaijan is overwhelmingly Shi'a, and although it is often represented as quintessentially secular and frequently compared to Turkey, there is a large market for Iranian-style Shi'a Islamism. Especially in the poor rural areas, Iran is investing in social programs and religious centers. According to local observers, the Iranian investment is paying off. As evidence, they cite reactions to a recent article by two Baku secularists who criticized Islam's negative impact on Azerbaijani's economic development. Provincial imams denounced the pair and an Iranian ayatollah called for their execution. It doesn't help that the regime has made no moves toward democratization (contra U.S. President Bush's statement in May 2006 after a meeting with President Ilhalm Aliyev that Azerbaijan "understands that democracy is the wave of the future"). Sooner or later, the current Azerbaijani government will face opposition from both conservative Shi'a in the provinces cut out of the oil and gas spoils as well as the secular urban elite in Baku demanding liberalization. But Iran might not have to be subversive in its activities for much longer. Although Azerbaijan has traditionally been very careful not to antagonize its southern neighbor, Aliyev has recently come out against sanctions being placed on Iran and announced that he would look to replace Russia with Iran as the country's electricity supplier.
Needless to say, Turkey, Russia, and the U.S. will not look on passively at Iranian moves northward. But who will join whom?