By Paul Goble
In a move that reflects both the increasing ties between Moscow and Tehran and the difficulties both countries have in shipping via the Caucasus land bridge given instability and political changes there, the two governments have announced plans to open trade on the Caspian Sea between Astrakhan in Russia and Bender-Enzeli in Iran.
The two sides have further agreed that Russia will be allowed to transfer from ships to rail lines across Iran 12 million tons of cargo a year, equally approximately 3,000 trainloads in all. In this way, “the Caspian will become for Moscow a trade window to the world” (realtribune.ru/moskva-i-tegeran-dogovorilis-o-tranzite-gruzov-cherez-iranskuju-territoriju).
Earlier this year, Russia and Iran had agreed to trade via Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, but the sea route is preferable because fewer political and security issues are involved and because Iran is now a member of the Shanhai Cooperation Council and thus is tied more closely to Russia.
Moreover, Russian analysts say, this new Caspian route gives Russia an alternative to complete dependence on China and sends a message to Central Asian and South Caucasus countries that the North-South trade route Russia has long wanted can be more important for them too and that they should cooperate with it rather than seek east-west ones.
And what is especially important, these analysts say, is that this new Caspian sea route is “a natural counterweight” to Turkey’s presence and “Turkish ambitions” in the region as it challenges the networks Ankara and the West have set up to undermine or even exclude Russian influence there.