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#5 - JRL 7219
June 10, 2003
By Igor Torbakov

A recent Russian media campaign claimed the United States had prepared a plan for military operations against Iran that would require the deployment of American military forces in both Azerbaijan and Georgia. US and Georgian diplomats labeled the reports "a joke," and even an Iranian envoy in the region described rumors of war as "frivolous." Nevertheless, political observers see the media campaign as a sign of intensifying geopolitical jockeying in the Caucasus.

The reports concerning a potential US attack against Iran began with a late May series of articles in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily, which is reputed to have strong connections with Russian policy makers. Citing "diplomatic sources," the newspaper alleged May 29 that the "process of getting White House approval" for military operations against Iran "is almost complete." The report went on to say that the attack blueprint would require the deployment of US forces in Azerbaijan and Georgia. "So, forces for the overthrow of the Iranian regime could in the near future be deployed right next to the Russian border," the report said.

The next day a second Nezavisimaya Gazeta article suggested that Iran might engage in preemptive military action against Azerbaijan and Georgia if US troops were to be stationed in both counties. Over the next week, a broad array of media reports examined the Iran attack possibility, as well as the implications of the US strategic presence in the Caucasus. For example, a commentary published in the Vremya MN daily focused on the rapidly expanding military contacts between the United States and Georgia, suggesting that the foundation for large troop deployments has already been laid. "It is not an accident that Georgia and the United States have signed and ratified an unprecedented agreement in the military sphere that grants the American troops [deployed] in Georgia broad rights," wrote regional analyst Irina Jorbenadze. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Some Russian political observers believe the media campaign itself was a preemptive strike, designed to intimidate Baku and Tbilisi and discourage them from enhancing their strategic ties with the United States. Accordingly, Russian reports suggested that, in the event of hostilities, Azerbaijan and Georgia would be devastated by an Iranian military blitz. Mikhail Khodarenok, Nezavisimaya Gazetas military analysts, suggested that Tehran would use Scud and Sahab tactical missiles in a "bombardment [that] would focus on big cities in Georgia and Azerbaijan." Khodarenok added that "fanatical" Iranian ground forces might invade Azerbaijan, predicting that Iranian troops "would reach the outskirts of Baku" within three days.

US, Azerbaijani and Georgian officials immediately denounced the reports. The US Ambassador to Georgia, Richard Miles, dismissed the media campaign as "a joke," a characterization endorsed by Georgias Deputy Foreign Minister, Kakha Sikharulidze, the Prime News agency reported May 30. On June 2, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze told Caucasus Press that the United States was unlikely to use force against Tehran, noting that "Iran is not Iraq."

Meanwhile, Fuad Akhundov, an aide to Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev, said in an interview with Ekho Moscvy that the Russian media campaign was "a total lie aimed at torpedoing the improved relations between Baku and Tehran." The US envoy to Baku, Ross Wilson, told the Baku-based web site Zerkalo.az that the Bush administration would like to see changes in the way Iran is governed. But Wilson added that Washington would go about achieving its aims vis a vis Iran "in a way that differs from the [strategy] used in Iraq."

Irans leadership has expressed concern about geo-strategic "encirclement" by the United States. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Yet, even Iranian officials scoffed at the suggestion of looming military action. Mohammad Farhad Koleini, the Iranian envoy to Armenia, told the Arminfo that "it is not worth speaking seriously about them [the US attack plan rumors]." An Iranian Foreign Ministry official indicated that Tehran and Baku would "not allow a third side to create a conflict between them," according to a May 30 report by the Turan news agency.

Political analysts in Moscow say Russias political leadership is unlikely to feel reassured by the vehement denials of Iran attack plan. The media campaign, some say, is a reflection of simmering concern among policy makers in Moscow that Russia is in danger of "losing" Azerbaijan and Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Indeed, the concerns of Russian policy makers over Moscows position in the Caucasus now appear likely to expand following a June 10 report in the Wall Street Journal stating that the Pentagon was finalizing plans to expand the US military profile in Azerbaijan and Georgia. According to the report, US military planners say an increased American strategic presence in the Caucasus is necessary to secure Caspian Basin energy export routes and to combat the threat of terrorism.

Aleksander Khramchikhin, a leading analyst at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow, has said that President Vladimir Putins administration must utilize all of its political and economic leverage if Russia is to preserve its geopolitical position in the Caucasus. Such comments are indicative that Moscows maneuvering in the Caucasus is likely to pick up in the coming weeks and months.

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