Caspian Sea as a source of disagreement between Iran and Russia
By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law of the Sea
On the occasion of the 4th Caspian Summit Conference
(source: google earth)
Russia has been increasingly successful in convincing littoral states to accept its plan to divide the Caspian Sea based on a formula of Modified Median Line (MML). Agreements using the Russian proposal as the basis of defining a legal regime for the Caspian Sea have been reached between Russia and Kazakhstan, Russia and Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, leaving Iran and partly Turkmenistan as the lone holdouts. Turkmenistan has recently showed an inclination to accept the MML. Iran has so far declined to accept any of the above-mentioned agreements.
Under the MML approach the seabed of the Caspian would be divided among the five littoral states by extending into the Caspian a set of median lines drawn according to their relative share of the coastlines. The superjacent waters, i.e. , the waters over the seabed, would be left for the “common use” of the littoral states, which would--among other things-- mean the Russian navy would retain full access to all parts of the Caspian Sea.
The MML approach would give Kazakhstan approximately 29.5% of the Caspian; Azerbaijan 21%: Russia 20% and Turkmenistan 17%. Iran would receive the remaining 12.5% or so, parts of which are the deepest portions of the Caspian, in some places reaching a depth of over 900 meters. As a result, Iranian efforts to exploit resources in its sector would generally be more difficult and expensive than in any of the other sectors.
Iran has argued since 2004 that the Caspian should be divided equally among the littoral states, with each state receiving a 20% portion. More to the point, under the Iranian proposal, each state’s sovereignty would extend over both the seabed and the superjacent waters. More recently Iran talks about division of the entire Caspian Sea (not only the seabed) according to equity and Iran has made it clear that equity means at least 20 percent for Iran.
What are those positions?
Although the USSR is dead and the Russian Federation is not a super power as it was once, the Russian leaders are always dreaming of restoring the Russian hegemony in the area that once used to be the Russian domain. As far as the Caspian Sea is concerned, they want to use the whole Caspian Sea for their military and civilian fleet. They are following these policies:
- Division of the Caspian Sea bed (only) on the basis of a modified median line (MML). It means the more coastal area you have, the more area of the Caspian Sea you get. According to the MML, Russia, and Azerbaijan get almost twenty percent (each of them), Kazakhstan gets 30 percent, Turkmenistan gets almost 17 percent and Iran gets almost 13 percent of the Caspian Sea-bed. The MML formula leaves the waters of the Caspian Sea for common use of the littoral states.
- Putting pressure on all Caspian states, especially Iran, to accept the MML for division of the Caspian Seabed. The Russians have succeeded to convince Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in this field. Iran, along with the on and off support of Turkmenistan, has not agreed with it.
- Excluding all non-littoral states from having military or civilian presence in the Caspian Sea. The Russians have stationed one of their most important naval concentrations in the Caspian Sea. The civilian fleet of the Russians in the Caspian Sea handles ninety percent of the maritime transportations in the Caspian Sea. The Fishing fleet of the Russians has no rival in the region. They want to exclude the non-littoral states to have no rival. The other littoral states have nothing considerable in the Caspian Sea, except than some old dated boats and the fishermen who work in the way the ancient tribes.
- Creating difficulties for the usage of Volga-Don and Volga-Baltic channel for the other littoral and non-littoral states, for keeping the advantages of the Russian fleet, ports and facilities. The Russians have been insisting that the Volga channel is completely an internal waterway. (While the new conditions of the Caspian Sea requires some kind of reconsideration in this regard and make it an international waterway or a waterway under a special regime, such as the Bosporus and Dardanelle.)
- Refraining from providing the other littoral states with larger ships for expansion their military or civilian fleet. For example by refraining from selling ships, or helping them to build naval facilities. The littoral states of the Caspian Sea, except than the Russian Federation, do not have any military of civilian fleet (Iran’s share from the shipping in the Caspian Sea is less than 4 percent.) and the Russians want to keep them that way.
- Forcing the littoral states to use Russian outlets for the export of their oil and gas. The landlocked states of the Caspian Sea need proper outlets for their exports and the Russians try to make them use the Russians facilities. One of the ways to do so is the rejection of building under water pipelines in the Caspian Sea under the pretext that it damages the environment. It is noteworthy that the Russians are responsible for ninety percent of the pollution in the Caspian Sea through thousands of the Russian factories that pour their industrial wastes in the Volga River and eventually the Caspian Sea.
- Formation of a kind of common military force for the Caspian Sea. This force will be almost completely a Russian instrument for patrolling all the Caspian Sea. Other littoral states have hardly enough boats to do low-level police activity in their shorelines.
- Using the opportunity gained by Iran’s isolation to force Iran to accept the MML. Iran is under pressure and the Iranian regime is desperate for its survival. The Russians are well aware that they cannot treat a thoroughly nationalist government in Iran, as they treat the Islamic regime of Iran.
The Republic of Azerbaijan is happy to get twenty percent of the Caspian Sea by the MML. However their policies are:
- Attracting the Western countries, especially the USA into the Caspian Sea. The inclination of Azerbaijan to the Western states, especially the USA, is not originating from an inherent love. This policy is based on the fact that the Azerbaijan Republic, as the second Shiite country in the world (after Iran), is feeling worried about the ideological provocations orchestrated by the Islamic Republic and other Islamic extremist elements. Also, the Azeris need to neutralize the Russian presence, as a force supporting Armenia (which has close relations with Iran and Russian Federation).
- Good relations with Israel as an indication of the inclination to the Western countries. The Azerbaijan Republic is aware that its relations with Israel can play an important role in convincing the West about its intentions.
- Presenting the Baku-Jeyhan pipeline as the best way for oil exports of the Caspian land-locked countries. The Baku-Jeyhan pipeline is now operational and despite the fact that it was not an economical project, the Western support has succeeded to create this pipeline. The Baku-Jeyhan pipeline is the clear sign of the failure of Iran and Russia in the regional pipeline diplomacy. However, the Azeri oil is not enough for using the full capacity of the Baku-Jeyhan pipeline, and Azerbaijan needs to attract the cooperation of the regional countries, especially Kazakhstan to give this pipeline.
- Promoting the proposed Gas Pipeline called Nabucco, as an alternative route for carrying gas from the Caspian area, cutting the monopoly of the Russians in the regional business and creating a “gas” Baku-jeyhan.
- Getting into NATO and leaving the hand of NATO free in the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan has already suggested the Americans and the NATO to use the Abshoran peninsula as their military bases. There are some news about establishment of the radar posts by the NATO in Azerbaijan and possible use of the Azeri territory for an attack against the Islamic regime of Iran.
- Getting the international support in the case of Nagorno Gharabagh with Armenia. This is the most important issue in the political agenda of the Azeri governments. Azerbaijan is ready to give concessions in the Caspian Sea to the forces that help it in the case of Nagorno Karabagh. The Republic of Azerbaijan has rejected the suggestions of Iran for meddling in this issue because they do not believe in impartiality of Tehran.
- Exploration and exploitation of the resource in the Caspian Sea with the capital and expertise of the Western countries. Azerbaijan has been exploring the oil resources of the Caspian Sea for the last two hundred years (more seriously in the last fifty years). They need new technology and investment in the oil and gas resources.
- The Azerbaijan Republic has already joined with the Russians in using the MML as the formula for division of the maritime borders with the Russian Federation, as far as the Caspian Seabed is concerned. However, they are interested to make this division wider and to include the waters too.
Kazakhstan is trying to make use of the opportunity created by the access of the country to most of the Caspian Sea. The MML leaves this country with 30% of the Caspian Sea-bed. The Kazakhstan’s fields are actively developed by the Western companies, especially the Americans, interested in non-OPEC, non-Arab, Non-Iranian oil. Kazakhstan has already concluded treaties with the Russians and the Azerbaijan Republic for using the MML as the division criteria of the Caspian Seabed. Iran has proclaimed such treaties as null and void because the littoral states have originally agreed to make decision on the legal regime of the Caspian Sea unanimously.
The government of Turkmenistan is not satisfied with the MML, not because its share according to the MML formula is 17 percent, but due to the fact that the important oil fields claimed by Turkmenistan are given to Azerbaijan by the MML. Turkmenistan once went to the brink of war with Azerbaijan over these oil fields (Kapaz or Sardar oil fields). It was interested to be in the side of Iran against the MML, but it was not ready to tie its destiny to the Islamic regime of Iran. Turkmenistan has already showed that it agrees with the MML and there are only some problems (such as the Kapaz oil fields) that should be hammered out. Also Turkmenistan is waiting for the destiny of Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline. What is the position of Iran?
The position of Iran is to divide the Caspian Sea according to equity (20% for each). The Russian Federation is imposing its formula of MML for the division of the Caspian Sea-bed and leaving the superjacent waters for the common use. Iranian position about the possible division of the Caspian Sea is not limited to the “seabed” (unlike MML). Iran is asking for a complete division of the whole sea. This kind of division will lead to:
- Restriction of the Russian forces from traveling freely all over the Caspian Sea.
- Stopping the industrialized fishing fleet of the Russians from using the national sections of the other countries
- Disconnection the direct link of the Russians with Iran. The Russian Federation has no land border with Iran at the moment. Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the land border of Iran and the Russians was removed. Division of the Caspian Sea into national sectors, as Iran is calling for, will result into removing the water borders with the Russians too.
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