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Iranian Submarine Warfare Is Not the Dumbest Thing in the Caspian Sea

The international disputes around the Caspian resemble a game of King of the Hill, played on a water slide covered in oil, in the dark.

by Ryan Faith
Jun 3 2014, 12:25pm

Photo via ?Wikimedia Commons

Iran is building its newest submarine in the Caspian Sea (several hundred miles from the nearest ocean) to face off against the navies of three landlocked countries, among other things.

Not only is this not an entirely insane move on Iran's part, it might be a really smart move.

Except if it's not.

Iran is building the second of its new Fateh-class submarines at the base at Bandar Anzali on Iran's north shore.

At 500 tons or so, it's not a big submarine by global standards, but will give Iran a big edge in the simmering Caspian arms race.

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Telling if this is a smart move or a baffling and incomprehensible decision on Iran's part depends on how you read the Caspian arms race, which is…

Well, it's a godawful confusing mess.

Let's start with the entire body of clear, concrete and unambiguous information about the whole situation: The Caspian Sea sits smack dab in the middle of Asia and is bordered by five nations (Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan), three of which are considered landlocked countries.

It's an enormous body of water — the size of the entire UK if you counted England twice for good measure (or one-and-a-half Great Lakes). Getting there by boat from the Mediterranean means a trip of at least a good 1,500 miles (at a guess) crossing the Black Sea, going up one river, across a canal, and down another river.

Beyond that, everything to do with or touching the Caspian — including whether it is technically a sea or a lake — is provisional, conditional, and subject to argument.

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For instance, there might be as much as $12 trillion of oil and gas beneath the Caspian. Unless there isn't. International relations are much more vexing — whether or not two countries are friendly or hostile depends on what day of the week, what's under discussion, and how gay you think Eurovision is. Really.

And Iran has decided that the best thing to do here is add a new submarine.

In the popular imagination, the top job of a submarine is to sink ships.

But over the last several decades, the sinking of ships has been sinking, as it were, in the list of submarine priorities. While still a big deal for submariners, it's not necessarily the biggest deal anymore. For example, in the Australian debate about their next generation submarine, SIGINT (eavesdropping) was rated the top priority, followed by infiltrating and exfiltrating people who don't want to draw attention with their travels, followed by sinking things with torpedoes.

Depending on the specific capabilities of the Iranian submarine, better intelligence may prove to be an exceptional investment for Iran, for the Caspian is stupefyingly complex and could stand to be a lot more intelligible.

The international disputes and foreign relations squabbles of the various nations around the Caspian resemble a game of King of the Hill, played on a water slide covered in vegetable oil. In the dark.

But as with anything that involves fumbling around in the dark covered with vegetable oil, the Caspian Sea situation can be interesting, so here's a super quick (mostly accurate) overview of some of the things going down in Caspian town.

Russia has good relations with Iran and helped build its nuclear reactor. Russia also has poor relations with Iran relating to oil and gas. Iran is paying Russia for its nuclear reactor, in part, with oil and gas. But pursuit of a nuclear program has restricted Iranian oil and gas exports.

Don't worry if it seems confusing, it's because it is.

The Center 2011 Scenario
In 2011, Russia and Kazakhstan held a major military exercise called Center 2011.

The hypothetical scenario here was that following a US or Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear program, Iran would retaliate by striking an oil and gas field in Kazakhstan which is being developed by the US company, ExxonMobil. In the Center 2011 scenario Russia and Kazakhstan play the role of defender. So yes, the idea behind the exercise is the Russian military defending US oil interests against Iranian retaliation following US attacks on the Iranian nuclear program built with Russian assistance.

A hypothetical attack on Iran brings in another neighbor, Azerbaijan. Predominately Shiite Azerbaijan has close ties with both Israel and Iran, who in turn hate each other. Azerbaijan has been working with Israel to get help in protecting its oil and gas claims in the Caspian, particularly from encroachment by Azerbaijan's Iranian friends. The ties with Israel go beyond simple military cooperation: according to a leaked State Department cable, the President of Azerbaijan said that the Azeribaijan's relations with Israel were "like an iceberg; nine-tenths of it is below the surface."

Two years ago, senior US officials leaked the idea that Israel might use an airfield near the capital of Azerbaijan, Baku, to launch a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Apparently, the US leaked those plans to ruin the element of surprise for Israel and reduce the chance of an Israeli airstrike. Azerbaijan vehemently denied these stories, chalking them up to malicious attempts to worsen relations between Iran and Azerbaijan.

Many of the Iranian nuclear facilities that would be hit in a prospective Israeli attack are in the city of Tabriz in northern Iran. Tabriz, like much of the border region is ethnically heavily Azeri. Iran and Azerbaijan have similar cultures and a long shared history and are great friends with close ties. Or at least when Azerbaijan isn't expelling Iranians for trying to blow up the Israeli embassy (or walk near it, depending on who you believe). Either way, Azerbaijan needs to both maintain good relations with Iran while developing the capability and the alliances to protect itself from Iran.

Normally, the role of protector for Azerbaijan might be filled by Russia. But right now Russia is closer with Armenia, with whom Azerbaijan is at war. Besides, Azerbaijan would be the connection point for a proposed pipeline running along the bottom of the Caspian from Turkmenistan which would make Russia unhappy. The proposed pipeline would ultimately allow the movement of oil or gas to the Turkish coast of the Mediterranean, or to Georgia's Black Sea coast.

Right now, Turkmenistan and Russia have a close relationship, and Turkmenistan sells a great deal of oil and gas to Russia, often below market rate. But Turkmenistan is looking to build a pipeline to sell oil and gas directly to European customers, so it can bypass its good friend Russia altogether. Russia isn't happy about this because it enjoys its large market share and leverage in the European energy market.

Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have close relations (especially on energy). Except where they're not close at all.

This is what happens when Iran uses construction equipment to kill people. Read more here.

Which brings us back to the Central 2011 military exercise. Some observers speculated suggested that the real purpose of the drill was to help Russia and Kazakhstan prepare for conflict against Turkmenistan.

Because of US plans to withdraw from Afghanistan. According to the Moskovsky Kosmolets article linked above about Central 2011: "Experts agree that this may lead to rapid Islamization and radicalization of the Central Asian republics, in particular Turkmenistan. And Iran will do its utmost to facilitate this process. Thus, it is the former Soviet republic that could become a real instigator of the war in the Caspian region."

Got all that? Good. Because all this means…

Actually I have no idea at all what it all means. Honestly, this is just a tiny glimpse of the comings and goings around the Caspian, and it beggars both logic and belief.

All I know for certain is that trying to figure it all out is giving me a headache. Past that, it isn't likely that it is even possible to make many accurate predictions about anything in the future of the Caspian Sea. Other than the high likelihood of future confusion and subsequent headaches.

Predictions? The next fight in that region will be about whatever you want it to be about; it's a big, soggy, geopolitical Rorsach Test.

Do you want to believe the next conflict there will be about Israel and nuclear weapons? Then yes, by all means, predict that. Or do you prefer NATO and oil pipelines? Sure thing! Everything is so plausible that it defies conspiracy theories. There will be enough slivers of concrete evidence available to support just about any narrative that an observer wants to stick with.

Making guesses about the future of conflict in the Caspian feels more like a matter of figuring out why the signs and portents prove you right about whatever you thought you knew before you came in and tried to figure anything out.

When parsing out something like the Caspian, there is such an enormous potential for all the little confirmation biases and cognitive errors that send analyses off track, even among the most seasoned and dedicated professional analysts. This is a big problem if you're one of those professional analysts. Or even worse, a decision-maker in one of those countries around the Caspian.

In this kind of very complex environment, where analysis appears intractable, there can be value in being able to simply collect more data. Sometimes simple, unintegrated raw data can do more to unseat established narratives or disprove prior misconception than all the prognostication in the world.

Which brings us back to the Iranian submarine. Submarines can be excellent listening posts, collecting information about what's going on and who is going where.

At first blush, building a sub for the Caspian might seem like an absurd waste, especially since Iran has finite resources for its navy and a whole lot of other pressing issues in the Persian Gulf. But the Caspian may just be so baffling that better situational awareness and intelligence is worth the price of building a sub that will never make it to an ocean.

And hey, if situational awareness comes with the ability to launch torpedoes, just think of it as a fallback plan that can sink ships. Is it the best possible fallback plan? Of course it is! This is the Caspian Sea; all analyses appear equally valid.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.