The waters of the Caspian Sea appear calm on the surface, but in reality they serve as a direct sea route between Iran and Russia that is increasingly loaded with the movement of cargoes that include weapons and ammunition that Moscow purchased from Tehran for the war in Ukraine, CNN reported. According to the report, the phenomenon is expanding as cooperation Action between the two countries is deepening, and analysts say Ukraine’s Western allies will have little power to stop such arms shipments.
According to the report, the Caspian Sea route is used to transport drones, bullets and mortar bombs that the Russian government purchased from the Iranian regime to strengthen the war effort in Ukraine, surveillance data shows that the vessels in the area are becoming “darker” – indicating a growing intention to obscure the movement of goods.
Last year, data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence indicated a September spike in traffic in the Caspian Sea, shortly after the US and Ukraine claimed Moscow had purchased drones from Tehran. Also, later in the fall, Russia’s use of Iranian drones increased, including against critical energy infrastructure in Ukraine.
CNN reached out to the governments of Iran and Russia for a response but none was received.
The disclosure is based on data collected by Lloyd’s List Intelligence which shows an increase in the number of discrepancies in the tracking data of Russian and Iranian ships in the Caspian Sea. The discrepancies are caused by turning off tracking of AIS vessels, and thus these vessels are able to hide parts of their voyages, destinations or ship-to-ship transfers. Experts say that suspected arms transfers from Tehran to Moscow are carried out through this route.
This data is based on a decision by the International Maritime Organization that requires most vessels to carry a tracking system that automatically provides location and identification information to other ships and coastal authorities. For safety reasons, those Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) should transmit data at all times, with limited exceptions. But ships are able to turn off their AIS tracking, a tactic that can be used to mask parts of their journey, hide destinations or go dark when calling a port.
The data shows an overall jump in the number of vessels in the Caspian Sea that turn off their tracking data between August and September 2022. The phenomenon is mainly driven by Russian and Iranian-flagged ships, and especially the type of cargo ships capable of carrying weapons, according to Bridget Deacon, a data analyst and Lloyd’s reporter. Liszt, who specializes in the analysis of global maritime trade.
“There is no risk to Iranian exports in the Caspian because of the bordering countries – they don’t have the ability or the motivation to ban this kind of exchange,” said Martin Kelly, chief intelligence analyst at security firm EOS Risk Group. Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, all former Soviet republics, are the other countries with ports on the Caspian Sea. It’s “a perfect environment for this trade so there’s no resistance,” Kelly added.
According to Kelly, there was an overall jump in the number of Caspian vessels turning off their tracking data between August and September 2022. And the number of gaps in ship tracking data remains high so far in 2023, according to data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence. The data show an increase in the number of discrepancies in the tracking data of Russian and Iranian ships in the Caspian Sea.
At the end of 2022, Lloyd’s List intelligence data shows that there has been an increase in “probable dark port calls” to the Caspian Sea ports of Russia and Iran. “It is suspicious if a ship simply leaves one port and returns without calling another port” unless the ship transfers cargo to another ship and not to the port,” she explained.
Most of the gaps in tracking data for Russian-flagged and Iranian-flagged cargo ships occurred near Iran’s Amirabad and Anzali ports, as well as Russia’s Volga River and Astrakhan port, according to Lloyd’s List intelligence.
Using data from MarineTraffic, a ship tracking and maritime analytics provider, CNN tracked six Russian-flagged and two Iranian-flagged ships that analysts say have exhibited suspicious behavior since the full-scale invasion and are likely linked to arms trafficking.
Several patterns were discovered – some of the ships can be seen making the journey from Iranian ports to Astrakhan, even though they did not make an official port call there. Other vessels that experts have highlighted as suspicious can be seen going dark approaching Iran’s Emirabad port and Russia’s Astrakhan port, or can be seen turning off their tracking data for extended periods of time.
Although analysts say it is difficult to know for sure what cargo is on these ships, without eyewitnesses or satellite images, the patterns of suspiciously nefarious activity in the Caspian Sea support Western intelligence reports about Iran’s drone exports to Russia.
“There is a correlation between Russia requesting drones from Iran, dark port calls in the Caspian Sea, and an increase in dark AIS activity,” Kelly said.
Train from Moscow to Tehran?
Even before Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine, there was increased attention on the Caspian Sea route by the Iranians. “I think this is a route that has been ignored, but for years, the countries bordering the Caspian Sea wanted to strengthen this maritime route and do more trade,” an expert told CNN, noting that strengthening the trade route has long been on the agenda of countries in the region.
According to him, the Caspian Sea – where Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan also have ports – sees a lot of legitimate trade and is a key route for moving goods to Asian markets. But it is also a “hot spot for sanctioned vessels”.
The Istanbul-based consultancy Bosphorus Observer told CNN that the Iranian regime invested in improving Russia’s Astrakhan port before the war to strengthen its shipping options to Europe via a route that could bypass sanctions. According to him, Iran is also helping Russia in the long-standing project of dredging the Volga River, which will allow heavier shipments to the port of Astrakhan and the Black Sea and beyond, through the Volga-Don Canal.
Last week, Putin and his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi signed a deal to finance and build an Iranian railway line as part of the first steps of creating a “north-south transportation artery,” according to the Kremlin. Putin said that the railway – which will have a central extension along the Caspian Sea – will help connect Russia’s ports in the Baltic Sea with Iran’s ports in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf, and help boost global trade for both countries.
“We know that the current administration in Iran is pushing to improve ties with Eastern countries, but in particular with Russia,” said Anisha Besiri Tabrizi, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Royal United Services Institute (ROI). RUSI), a British think tank. She added that the balance of power has changed since February last year, when now “Russia sees Iran as a natural supplier of weapons capability for its war in Ukraine.”
The huge number of sanctions imposed on Russia in the past year is also a new challenge for the country, she said, “while Iran has been navigating this environment for several decades.” The perception in Moscow is that Iran can teach Russia a lot about “the tools to evade sanctions” and “how to still have a significant economy even when sanctions are imposed,” according to her.
Iran’s finance minister, Ahsan Khandozi, told the Financial Times in March that “we define our relations with Russia as strategic and we work together in many aspects, especially in economic relations.”
The US, along with European allies, view Tehran’s arms transfers to Russia as a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which was passed to ratify the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and control arms transfers from Iran. “There is a great potential here for all kinds of different sanctions violations,” said Bosphorus Observer analyst Yurok Ishik, adding that Russia may send spare parts and other equipment to Iran through the Caspian Sea route, which would be illegal in the eyes of the West.
U.S. officials are also looking to increase sanctions enforcement to prevent Iran from accessing U.S. and Western technologies used in drones. In January, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council told CNN in a statement: “We are exploring ways to target Iranian drone production through sanctions, export controls and talking to private companies whose parts were used in production.”
In April, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet, visited both Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to meet with officials in the region and discuss “a range of issues … including how the U.S. Navy is strengthening partnerships and accelerating innovation in the Middle East” to increase regional maritime security,” a 5th Fleet spokesman told CNN.
Weapons by air mail
Iran has also been accused by Ukrainian, Western governments and security analysts of sending weapons and supplies to Russia by plane. According to Ukraine’s National Resistance Center, three Iranian state-owned airlines and “one supposedly private” airline called Mahan Air provided drones “and guides” to Moscow. In 2011, the US Department of Defense sanctioned Mahan Air for transporting weapons, fighters and supplies for Iran’s Quds Force.
Last year, the U.S. Commerce Department identified four Iranian cargo planes it said flew to Russia in violation of U.S. export controls, with U.S. authorities tying those planes to “refilling items to Russia.” The U.S. trade statement said that supporting such aircraft violates U.S. export controls, given Iran’s “support for Russia’s war machine, including the recent supply of unmanned aerial vehicles.”
CNN analyzed tracking data from Flightradar24 for those four cargo planes, which reveals that collectively, the Iranian planes made at least 85 trips to Moscow airports between May 2022 and March 2023.
“There are several Iranian state airlines that transport drones from Iran to Russia,” said Kelly of the EOS Risk Group. “However, in terms of comparing the volume of what can be transported in a single voyage, a ship gives you much greater volume and capacity.”
In November, the Iranian regime admitted that it had sold “a limited number of drones” to Russia, but Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdulhian insisted that the weapons were supplied “in the months before the start of the war in Ukraine”. Iran maintains that the sale does not violate UN directives.
Russia, which held the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council during April, continues to scoff at Western sanctions. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said last year that reports that the country was using Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were “inconclusive” based,” even though Ukraine, its allies, and weapons tracking experts have found ample evidence of their use in Ukraine.
Analysts predict that levels of nefarious activity and “dark” port calls in the Caspian Sea will remain high in 2023, and that Moscow’s influence over the world’s largest inland body of water will remain intact. “They have no other authority to hide from,” Ishik said of the vessels sailing in the Caspian Sea. He also noted that “a Russian-flagged ship gives you an extra layer of protection,” given that other countries and actors in the region are wary of probing or interfering with Russian vessels.
The growing cooperation in this inland sea – hidden from the influence and interference of Western countries – strengthens the power of both Moscow and Tehran. “The Caspian Sea used to be a theater of conflict between Russia and Iran, and now it is a potential avenue for the evasion of sanctions and the provision of potential weapons,” Tabrizi said, noting that the countries now have a more equal partnership, especially when it comes to military cooperation.
Iran has exported drones, or drone capabilities, to its regional representatives and allies in the past, Tabrizi said, and that was considered a threat, “but I think the scale of the export we’re seeing now is different.” In terms of long-term consequences… on a more strategic front when it comes to the Middle East, but also on a larger scale, I think it’s going to be very interesting to watch and potentially very problematic for Western interests.”
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