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Source: The Hill

Dec 8, 2023

Iran wants its oar in the Black Sea


Iran sees lucrative markets across the Black Sea region. It also sees an opportunity to expand strategic cooperation with Russia. And there’s just a chance that America will turn inward in 2025.

It’s all dangerous. To get the picture, start by connecting the dots.

Last May, Velislava Petrova traveled from Sofia to Tehran. Donning a hijab in her meeting with Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Bulgaria’s deputy foreign minister announced new agreements that will inch NATO member Bulgaria and the anti-American theocracy closer together through expanded trade and cultural cooperation.

Bulgaria and Iran had already agreed several years ago to deepen cooperation on nuclear power issues.

Last summer, another guest turned up in Iran — Lazar Comanescu, Secretary General of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) organization and a former foreign minister of Romania.

Comanescu sat with the same Amir-Abdollahian and expressed  interest in “enhancing the already active cooperation.”  In 2022, Iran signed a deal with a Romanian company to export unspecified technical and engineering.

This while Iran was ramping up to send trainers and kamikaze drones for Russian attacks on Ukraine.

Iran wants economic and technological cooperation with NATO and EU members Romania and Bulgaria. It’s expanding economic ties to Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. And for Iranian mullahs, business is strategy and foreign policy is anti-West.

No surprise that the Islamic Republic wants to sink deeper into the Black Sea region in order to expand its strategic cooperation with Russia.

Over the last two years Iran has emerged as Vladimir Putin’s one true ally. Tehran delivers deep knowledge on sanctions-evasion and provides lethal weapons when no one else will. And there’s a quid pro quo. The Black Sea region is both a transit route and a final destination for Iranians weapons and the illicit oil trade. Russia can clear the way.

Iran has vast knowledge and experience in sanctions-evasion. As an energy exporting power contending with a serious sanctions regime over decades, the Mullahs have mastered the art. Iran invested in a fleet of second hand (and dangerously old) ships to move sanctioned goods, particularly oil and weapons. Ownership and movements of these so-called ghost ships are obfuscated.

As soon as a comprehensive sanctions regime hit Russia last year, hundreds of vessels from Iran’s ghost fleet started operating on routes to and from Russia. Many of these ghost ships are now on routes to and from Russia’s Black Sea ports. They operate through the Bosporus and the Kerch straits, bringing with them, incidentally, “tremendous environmental damage and safety risks and associated costs,” the U.S. Department of the Treasury warns.

That’s the least of our worries, of course. If left unchecked, Russo-Iranian maritime strategic cooperation will deepen.

In June, the Islamic Republic announced plans to create a joint shipping company with the Putin regime. Russia has granted Iran (and China) access to the Volga-Don canal, the only waterway through which Moscow and Tehran can now send ships from their Caspian Sea flotillas into the Black Sea.

Until last year, the Kremlin had never permitted any other country access to the canal. Now Tehran is navigating — and helping Moscow dredge and widen — this strategically vital canal.

Ukraine’s fate figures prominently. Iran’s Shahed drone has become a Russian favorite. Last summer, Revolutionary Guard members were in occupied Crimea, training Russians to fly these kamikaze drones. For over a year now, swarms of them have been terrorizing Ukraine’s civilian population in urban areas and damaging the country’s energy infrastructure.

This summer, Iranian drones even fell on NATO territory. They’re effective and cost efficient. One Shahed costs $10,000 to $20,000. One missile used to shoot down such a drone from a Patriot system costs $1 million.

Recently, the White House warned that Iran could provide ballistic missiles to Russia. Iran wants to buy billions of dollars of military equipment from Russia, including the most modern fighter jets Russia has to offer. Late last month, Tehran claimed that a deal for advanced Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jets, combat helicopters and hundreds of training aircraft has been finalized.

There are dots to connect. In Russia, Iran has gained access to a Muslim-majority region, Tatarstan. It’s in the Tatar capital of Kazan, one of Russia’s largest cities, that Iran is building drones, in a factory that employs children, no less.

This is no time for America to turn inward. If anything, Washington needs a wider lens.

Iulia Sabina-Joja teaches at Georgetown University and George Washington University, runs the Middle East Institute’s Black Sea program in Washington, D.C., and is co-host of the AEI podcast “Eastern Front.”

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