The Caspian Sea’s waters appear tranquil at first glance. However, this sea route, which provides a direct passage between Iran and Russia, is becoming increasingly congested with freight traffic, including alleged weapons shipments from Tehran to Moscow, according to CNN.
According to specialists, the Caspian Sea route is being used to transport drones, ammunition, and mortar shells that the Russian government has purchased from the Iranian dictatorship to reinforce its war effort in Ukraine. Tracking data suggests that vessels in the region are increasingly becoming “dark,” implying a rising effort to disguise the flow of cargo.
Last year, data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence revealed a September spike in the number of gaps in vessels tracking data in the Caspian. That’s shortly after the United States and Ukrainian governments said Moscow acquired drones from Tehran last summer.
“There is no risk to Iranian exports in the Caspian Sea because of the bordering countries – they don’t have the capability or motive to interdict in these sorts of exchanges,” said Martin Kelly, lead intelligence analyst at security company EOS Risk Group.
Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, all former Soviet republics, are the other nations with ports on the Caspian Sea.
It’s a “perfect environment for this trade to go unopposed,” Kelly added.
CNN reached out to the governments of Iran and Russia for comment but did not receive a response.
There’s been an overall jump in the number of vessels in the Caspian Sea turning off their tracking data between August and September of 2022, according to Kelly. And the number of gaps in ships’ tracking data remains high so far in 2023, according to data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence.
The phenomenon is largely driven by Russia-flagged and Iran-flagged ships and, in particular, the type of cargo ships capable of carrying weaponry, CNN cited Bridget Diakun, a data analyst and reporter for Lloyd’s List, which specializes in analysis of global maritime trade.
An International Maritime Organization resolution requires most vessels to carry a tracking system that automatically provides location and identification information to other ships and to coastal authorities. For safety reasons, those automatic identification systems are supposed to be transmitting data at all times, with limited exceptions. But ships are able to turn off their AIS tracking, a tactic that can be used to disguise parts of their journey, hide destinations, or go “dark” when calling into a port.
At the end of 2022, Lloyd’s List Intelligence data shows there was an uptick in “probable dark port calls” to Russia and Iran’s Caspian Sea ports, Diakun said.