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Caspian Sea: Potentials for Conflict

12/06/10 By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law of the Sea

Leaders of the Caspian Sea littoral states constantly talk about peace and security in the Caspian region. They even signed a security agreement at the third summit of the Caspian states (Baku, Azerbaijan Republic, 18 November 2010). The reality, however, is that the Caspian Sea is not as peaceful as it seems. The region has serious potential for turning into a flashpoint for confrontation and conflict. Not only have the littoral countries of the Caspian Sea failed to solve their problems, they have actually taken steps to further militarize the region.

Caspian Sea from space (NASA, 2003) -- see high resolution

What are the problems?

The division of the Caspian Sea remains a thorny issue complicating relations among the littoral states. Since the collapse of the former USSR, these states made efforts (such as the Ashgabat summit in 2001 and the Tehran summit in 2007) to arrive at a collective solution; they failed. Thus, bilateral agreements among some littoral states have begun to overshadow efforts at collective diplomacy, resulting in the conclusion of several treaties among Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. The so-called southern states of the Caspian Sea, namely, Iran and Turkmenistan, have refused to go along, declaring these agreements null and void.

Nor has the conclusion of bilateral treaties among the northern Caspian states resolved all issues. The concerned treaties focus on the division of the seabed on the basis of the modified (equidistance or) median line (MML), leaving many other issues unresolved. The formula, devised by the Russians, leaves the waters of the Caspian Sea free for shipping of all littoral states (and does not clarify shipping by non-littoral states). Other than the Russians, the littoral states do not have important naval units or commercial ships in the Caspian Sea. So it is clear that the formula used in the concerned bilateral treaties serves the interests of Russia above the others. Furthermore, these agreements make no distinction between military and commercial shipping, leaving the door open for all sorts of disputes.

If the provisions of the international law of the sea regarding maritime areas are applied in the Caspian Sea (as suggested by some states, without requiring compliance by the littoral states), a number of issues will demand attention: territorial water, baselines, internal waters, river mouths, bays, ports, islands and their territories, low-tide elevations, innocent passage of commercial and military units, submarine traffic, passage through the Volga-Don waterway, sea lanes, traffic separation schemes, passage of nuclear powered ships, warships of the littoral and non-littoral state, responsibility of the flag state, hot pursuit, regulations governing safety of life at sea, certification of seaworthiness, indemnity for damages from shipping and pollution, contagious zone, research and survey activities, economic zones, regulations for laying pipelines, responsibility for accidental and operational oil and nuclear pollution, and so on.

Iran and Turkmenistan do not agree with the criteria used by others for the division of the seabed in the Caspian Sea. Iran insists that the division of the Caspian must be based on equitable and just principles, giving equal shares to all five states. Having failed to convince the others to accept the common administration of the sea, Iran is now insisting on equitable division of the entire Caspian. In 2004, Iran's representative in Caspian affairs, Mehdi Safari, said Iran had prepared documents explaining that, according to international law, Iran's share of the Caspian must be 20.4 percent (interview with Iranian TV, 10 April 2004), but the Iranians have never made these documents publicly available. Iran demands control of the Alborz/Alove oilfields, which Azerbaijan also claims, while Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan contend for ownership of oilfields (Sardar/Capaz) that both claim.

In the years that Iran insisted on "equity" in division of the Caspian Sea, it seemed this might imply acceptance of something less than 20 percent for all the littoral states (for example, 16 or 17 percent for Iran or any formula that included a couple of known oilfields such as Alborz-which Azeris call Alove or Flame). But before the 2010 Summit in Baku, Iranian officials made it clear this was not the case. Immediately after the conclusion of the meeting of the Caspian ministers in Tehran (15 November 2010), the special envoy of the Iranian president for Caspian Sea affairs, Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh, responded to a question by the official news agency of Iran, IRNA, about a 20 percent share for Iran: "Our aim goes further than this limit."

Combining these regional issues with the existence of undemocratic, corrupt, and unstable governments in the littoral states of the Caspian Sea, the inclination of the great powers to use Caspian oil as a rival or alternative to OPEC and OAPEC oil, and the expansion of NATO toward the East, one sees the picture of oil, blood and politics that Alfred Nobel saw a century ago.

Militarization efforts

During the last couple of years, the militarization of the Caspian Sea has been a hot topic in all the meetings of the regional states at various levels, including the last session of the foreign ministers in Tehran. As early as 2000, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) convened a conference entitled "National and Regional Security of the Central Asian States in the Caspian Sea Region" (22-23 September 2000, Almaty, Kazakhstan). The conference concluded, inter alia, that:

"The Central Asian region is now a zone of acute political instability and the national security of regional states is challenged by a wide variety of political, military and socio-economic threats, both from within the region as well as from the outside.... The main domestic threats are associated with the declining state of living standards of the majority of the local populations, as well as with growing inter-ethnic and inter-confessional tensions and conflicts, while the main external threats to national and regional security are posed by religious extremism supported from abroad, international terrorism as well as illegal trade in arms and drugs. Among other major threats and risks to national and regional security were the unresolved issues of the legal status of the Caspian Sea, problems of transportation of oil and gas to the world market, as well as territorial and border problems between regional states."

The Russian Federation has been the frontrunner in the militarization of the Caspian Sea. In fact, the Russians have indirectly used the demonstration of their military power to convince the others to accept the type of bilateral treaties that they prefer.

"The growing complexity of political-economic interests in the region has forced Russia to change its position on the Caspian's status on more than one occasion. Not only are the Caspian's resources at stake, but also transportation networks, commercial operations, the status of the Sea itself and the issue of military control over the region.... The military issue has developed into an area of intense concern of late.... Such an arrangement would greatly heighten tensions in the Caspian region and could lead to war.... The increased US and NATO attention toward the region prompted one Russian general to claim that the greatest threat to Russia is not China or Islamists but the possibility of Desert Storm II starting on the shores of the Caspian over economic issues." (Timothy L. Thomas, Russian National Interests and the Caspian Sea, Perceptions, 1999-2000, vol. IV, no. 4, pp. 750-96.)

Of course, the Americans are there, too. Post-9/11 US strategies, especially the security of Israel, the war against terrorism and control of oil resources, have opened a new stage in the role of the USA in the region. Economically, the Americans are as interested as the Russians in Caspian oil. At the same time, from a military point of view the Americans are interested in moving their forces to places closer to hot spots (Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the Persian Gulf, and Caspian Sea). The new American military bases are likely to be small but equipped with rapid-response forces in the region. After this stage, many of the older types of bases, such as Incirlik in Turkey-which proved useless in the invasion of Iraq-will be closed.

Azerbaijan Republic is prime real estate for the American presence. In every possible way, the Azeris have been calling for the Americans to have a presence there. Unhappy with the US assistance to Azerbaijan, Tehran has complained that this represents a military build-up against itself. Iran is also locked in a dispute with Azerbaijan over ownership of an oil-rich corner of the Caspian Sea, resulting in a 2001 clash between an Iranian warship and an Azeri oil research vessel. A real threat from Iran to Azerbaijan may reveal Russia's role in this process in a new light. Russia will neither support Azerbaijan in the open, nor quarrel with Iran. Most likely it will play the role of a peacekeeper. Whatever the case, signs point disturbingly to contention, even bloodshed, for Caspian energy resources.

In an English-language article titled "War for Caspian Sea Inevitable?" the Russian newspaper Pravda writes: "Problems exist in the relations between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, as well as between Azerbaijan and Iran. These countries still argue about the borders of their sectors of the sea. The Caspian dispute has triggered the militarization of the Caspian Sea."

In the Caucasian Review on International Affairs, Alexander Jackson, writes: "Kazakhstan is negotiating to buy corvettes armed with formidable Exocet anti-ship missiles (Eurasianet, 23 June 2010), whilst Russia's Caspian Flotilla is being boosted with new frigates (, 2 November 2010), and Azerbaijan is strengthening its radar and command-and-control systems. Even Turkmenistan is trying to increase its naval profile (Jamestown Foundation, 16 February 2010). The white elephant in the room is Iran's naval aspirations, framed by its stubborn and isolated position on Caspian delimitation. Earlier this year, Iran announced the launch of its first destroyer in the Caspian, capable of electronic warfare, anti-submarine and anti-aircraft attacks-in short, far more firepower than necessary to stop sturgeon poachers (, 19 February 2010). Moscow and Tehran are uneasy about each other's naval presence, but have so far presented a united front to prevent their biggest fear-a greater role in the Caspian for the US or NATO (Eurasianet, 19 November 2010). These fears presumably informed the security agreement which emerged from the Baku summit." ( Of course, the same article makes a serious mistake about the positions of Iran about the legal regime of the Caspian Sea, assuming that Iran is retreating from its past positions.

Regarding the relations of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan as far as the Caspian Sea in concerned, Anar Valiyev says: "In 1997 [Kazakh President Saparmurad] Niyazov accused Azerbaijan of illegally exploiting the Azeri and Chirag oilfields, and threatened to sue the oil companies involved. That same year, pressure by Turkmenistan caused Russian companies Rosneft and Lukoil to withdraw from a project to develop the Kyapaz oilfield. At the same time, a consortium of foreign oil companies led by the Bechtel Corporation proposed the construction of a Transcaspian gas pipeline to transport Turkmen gas to Turkey through Azerbaijan. In the absence of any significant gas reserves of its own, Azerbaijan's role was going to be one only of transit. Niyazov's death in 2006 heralded the start of a new era in Turkmen-Azerbaijani relations. Many expected that the proposed Nabucco pipeline, designed to connect Caspian gas fields to Europe through Turkey, would provide a natural point of alliance and cooperation for Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. However, differences between the countries persist.... Analyzing the foreign policies of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, it is easy to see that both countries are moving in different directions rather than approaching a common position..."


For the foreseeable future the Caspian Sea will remain a hot spot in international affairs. This importance results from regional and global geo-politics, oil resources, terrorism, and narco-trafficking. The littoral states of the Caspian Sea are inclined to gradually strengthen their military forces in the Caspian, triggering the era of militarization in the Caspian Sea. Such an increase in militarization makes a bad mixture with the regimes all around the Caspian Sea, deeply plunged as they are in undemocratic and unstable dictatorships, corruption, violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, discrimination, nepotism, social gaps and ethnic rivalries.

About the author: Bahman Aghai Diba is a senior consultant to the World Resources Company in the USA

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