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Azerbaijan's maneuver in the Caspian Sea: Who is the hypothetical enemy?

By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD. Int. Law of the Sea


The Republic of Azerbaijan will be conducting naval maneuvers in the Caspian Sea.  The aim of the maneuver is declared as upgrading the ability of the Azeris Coast Guards for protection of boundaries in the Caspian Sea.  But the question is: What boundaries? 


There are no borders in the Caspian Sea yet.  Even the Russian tailored and imposed formula of Modified Median Line (MML) is only supposed to divide the seabed in the case of the countries that have accepted it (including Azerbaijan) and it has nothing to do with the maritime territories, over-flight, navigation of the commercial and military units of the coastal and non-coastal states and so on. 


The Caspian Sea littoral states have not yet succeeded to define commonly accepted formula for the legal regime of the Caspian Sea.  Azerbaijan has no arrangements with Iran and Turkmenistan in the Caspian Sea.  The existing agreements of Azerbaijan with the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan are only about the Seabed.  Iran believes that MML is not able to create an equitable situation in the division of the Caspian, and Turkmenistan believes several oil fields that Azerbaijan controls them according to the MML must be the Turkmenistan's share. 


The failure in the agreement has led to several instances of conflict like 2001 incident of Iran-Azerbaijan dispute and the Azerbaijan-Turkmenistan dispute.  The latter led to the closure of the respective embassies in their capitals for some time.   


Another phenomenon of the failure was the militarization and naval maneuvers.  This was first started by the Russian Federation.  The biggest maneuver since the collapse of the USSR was conducted immediately after the Asghabat Summit Conference failed even to produce a final document.  Now it's the turn for Azeris.  As always, every military maneuver has a hypothetical enemy.   Who is the enemy for the Azerbaijan Republic?  It is not definitely the Russian Federation because the Russian Federation is a great nuclear power with the ability to kill all population of the earth 10 times, and its naval fleet in the Caspian Sea is a powerful force.  Kazakhstan has no special problems with the Azeris, but in the south Caspian there are several disputes:


Azerbaijan believes that the seabed must be divided according to the MML.  This gives Azerbaijan 21% of the Caspian Sea and control over all 15 major oil fields that it is claming now, including the Alborz Field claimed by Iran.  This area is not the biggest share of the seabed for a single country in the Caspian (the biggest share goes to Kazakhstan with almost 29% of the Caspian seabed), but it is the home to the vast resources of the Caspian oil (compared to the Iranian hypothetical share of the seabed, using the MML, which is almost 13 percent and free from any major known resources.  The deep Sea in the Iranian part makes the exploration and exploitation even more difficult).  Azerbaijan's position in this field is supported by the Russian Federation, the founder of the MML in the Caspian Sea, and it is also supported by US.  US has clearly rejected Iranian positions for the division of the Caspian Sea and almost all other matters (routes of the oil and gas pipelines, navigation of the non-littoral states, military presence and so on).  


So far, a clear case of confrontation has happened in July 2001 between Iran and Azerbaijan.  The incident, which has been played down by both sides, had many elements of a dangerous hostility.  Iranian gunboats asked the British research vessel that worked for Azeris to leave the disputed area.  The Iranian aircraft flew over the area constantly.  The Azeris claimed that the Iranian aircraft had violated the airspace of Azerbaijan and threatened the country.  A short while later, several Turkish Air Force jets flew to Baku, apparently to take part in an air show, but everybody in the involved countries knew that it was a demonstration of support for Azerbaijan by the big Turkish brother.  The Azeris extensively welcomed the Turkish show of support and arranged street demonstrations, shouting slogans against the Islamic Republic of Iran and they condemned the violation of their "rights."   The British Petroleum, which operated the research ship, declared that it would not return to the concerned area until the two sides have made some kind of agreement.   A cursory look reveals that the characteristics of this incident look exactly like the stated aim of the maneuvers of the Azerbaijan forces in the Caspian Sea. 


At the same time, the problems of the two states are not limited to the Caspian per se.  The special interest of Azerbaijan to affect the Azeri section of Iran is an important problem for both sides.   The Azeris on both sides of the border have common culture and language.  In fact a large part of the present Azerbaijan Republic consists of the territories separated from Iran, after 20 years of unequal wars between the Iran and Tsarist Russia, and two imposed treaties.  Therefore, there are important unifying feelings on both sides. 


Although at the moment Azerbaijan Republic only tacitly confirms the inclination to attract the Iranian Azeris, and the government of Iran (and sometimes people of Iran) deny that there are such important social forces in the region, the issue is as alive as it can be. 


The Iranian Azeris, who have been deprived of their fundamental rights and freedoms, are also humiliated, despite being an important part of the Iranian population, and they are stopped from using the local language.  They have been subject to mockery as idiots (usually resembled to donkey as a symbol of idiocy).  Now, the political movements of the Iranian Azeris, like the Chehreghani group, are benefiting from the discriminatory and humiliating behaviors to follow their political goals.  The problem of Iranian Azeris may turn into an international crisis in a short time unless the Iranian government takes serious steps to defuse the situation.  


Another point of contention is the foreign policy of the two countries.  Azerbaijan considers itself a European country and wants to become a member of the European Union (EU) and NATO as soon as possible. Therefore, it has been inclined to invite the Western forces to Azerbaijan.  Azerbaijan has taken part in any NATO program that it could, and it has invited US and NATO to establish a military base in Absheroon Peninsula in the Caspian Sea.  Also due to the military stand off with Armenia over Nagorno Karabagh, it has entered into an Axis of Azerbaijan-Turkey-Israel.  Iran on the other hand is afraid of the Western presence and considers this as a part of preparations for possible military intervention in all or parts of Iran by US (after getting the tacit agreement of the Russians who have always wished to see the disintegration of Iran).  Iran is worried about the standardization of the Azeris army with NATO rules and the existing reports about contacts with Israel, which has constantly threatened to attack the nuclear facilities of Iran. 


Let us add to this picture the prospects of starting to use the Baku-Jeyhan pipeline.  The famous pipeline, which has been called by some experts as the most important development in the Caspian region since the collapse of the USSR, will be operational in 2005.  The pipeline, which will be the major outlet of the Caspian oil for the foreseeable future, is the symbols of several points:


  1. Defeat of Iran in the pipeline diplomacy (It will probably mean the death of Iranian swap plans and discarding the pipelines that Iran is building unilaterally)
  2. Defeat of Russians in the implementation of their policies in the reign.
  3. Victory of US-Azerbaijan-Turkey axis in implementation of a project based on political considerations (support of the US allies, depriving the US opponents from the transportation of oil from the landlocked states of the Caspian Sea region). 

Undoubtedly, the NATO and Azerbaijan will be in charge of providing security for the expensive pipeline, and the Azeris maneuvers are somehow based on the same notion up to a limit. 


There are two more points that should be added:  The war against terrorism and the combat against the trafficking of the narcotic drugs.  Terrorism hotbeds are very close to the Caspian Sea area and all countries around the Caspian Sea have to make themselves ready to confront the effects of the international terrorism activities.  Also, since the independence of the new republics in the south of the former USSR, the traffickers of the narcotic drugs are showing new interests to use the Caspian route rather the traditional the Golden Triangle Afghanistan-Iran-Turkey route. 




The end result is that the main hypothetical enemy in the Azerbaijan's military maneuvers in the Caspian Sea is the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Although, there are several other issues of concern for the Azeris, what is stated as the official reason of the maneuvers is compatible with a possible situation that Iran may cause.  At the same time, the different policies of the two countries are going to constitute a great source of threat between the only two Shiite states of the world. 


About the author:

Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD Int. Law, is a consultant in international law to the World Resources Company in the Washington DC area.

... Payvand News - 5/12/04 ... --

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