BISHKEK (TCA) — Defining the legal status of the Caspian Sea by its littoral countries — Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan — has been a pending issue since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The way the Sea will be defined is important for geostrategic and military plans of Russia and Iran, and for energy projects pursued by Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. We are republishing this article by Stephen Blank on the issue, originally published by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute (CACI) Analyst:
On December 5, 2017, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that all the key issues regarding the delimitation of the Caspian Sea had been resolved and that a treaty was being prepared for heads of state to sign in 2018 in Astana. Yet less optimistic statements from the other parties, particularly Iran, suggest that Lavrov’s assessment was premature. If Russia and Iran can nevertheless reconcile their differences on the demarcation of the Caspian, this would have important strategic consequences not only for the littoral states, but also for the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East.
BACKGROUND: Lavrov’s announcement came at the conclusion of a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Caspian Sea’s littoral states in Moscow to complete work on that draft treaty. Lavrov’s announcement accords with Russian policy, which has moved from seeking multilateral agreements to forging bilateral or trilateral agreements to move towards general agreement.
Yet the positions of other parties indicated that Lavrov’s optimism was premature. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov indicated that some issues were still in dispute though he did not enumerate what they were. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan remained silent, perhaps suggesting that not everything has worked out to their satisfaction. More pertinently, Iranian diplomats pushed back against Lavrov’s sanguine and evidently premature announcement. One senior diplomat, Ebrahim Rahimpoiur, said that any suggestion that Iran’s share of the Caspian Sea has been finalized is “a false and unfounded remark, misleading public opinion.”
Although Iranian officials concede that there were some major agreements at the Moscow meeting, Iran claims it has not yet agreed with the other four countries, and especially Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, over the division of the sea.
Azerbaijan’s position reflected optimism about the future demarcation of the Caspian. Deputy Foreign Minister Halaf Halafov said that the five parties had reached agreement on a modified median line for dividing the seabed that would be equidistant from their coasts, something Iran had previously rejected.
Halafov also registered agreement on the construction of underwater pipelines, contending that consent is needed only from the states situated along the route of the pipeline – implying that Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan could in principle build a trans-Caspian gas pipeline without permission from the other three states. Moscow and Tehran have previously insisted on the consent of all five parties to such projects.
However Iran’s objections to Lavrov’s statements suggest that the pipeline and demarcation issues are not as closed as Baku suggests. Iran still opposes the idea that these pipelines can be built without its consent. Thus Iran has for now poured cold water on Lavrov’s announcement and on Azerbaijan’s apparent optimism about an agreement concerning the demarcation of the Caspian.
At the same time the continuing silence from Ashgabat and Astana suggests that the legal issues, even if they are resolved, are not actually binding. If the Caspian is designated under international law as a lake, then all five littoral states may equally share all the resources and profits from those resources, in which case any one state could veto other governments’ projects of which they disapprove. This is what Iran has wanted. On the other hand, if the signatories designate the Caspian as a sea, then each state would map out its territorial waters and exploit those resources as they see fit. While this would not necessarily resolve the issue of the resources and profits accruing from them to the rest of the Caspian Sea, for example the Trans-Caspian pipeline, these competing alternatives are significant. Defining the Caspian as a sea meets with the desires of the states besides Iran who wish to claim their share of the territorial waters. But it leaves open the issue of the resources from the rest of the Sea.
IMPLICATIONS: The decision to demarcate the Caspian as a lake or as a sea also has geoeconomic consequences. Defining it as a sea allows for the construction of pipelines through the Caspian from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan and then to Europe. As this is obviously against Russia’s interests, Moscow is unlikely to agree to such an outcome. Instead, Moscow has pressed Turkmenistan to resume gas supplies through Russia to Europe, which benefits Russia far more than Turkmenistan. Yet the latter is in particularly precarious economic conditions and may not be able to object.
However, Russia has apparently sought to secure everyone’s agreement to treat the Caspian Sea as a sea, allowing it to exploit its own coastline without seeking others’ consent. This contradicts Moscow’s objective of preventing any trans-Caspian pipeline as well as Iran’s position on demarcating the sea. If Moscow and Tehran can reconcile their stances they could effectively veto all hope of a trans-Caspian gas (and oil) pipeline, further confirming Turkmenistan’s and Kazakhstan’s dependence on pipelines traversing Russia for energy exports to Europe.
Achieving such a reconciliation would signify Russia’s and Iran’s ability to impose their views on the other states and would further consolidate their overall strategic partnership. Apart from the obvious manifestations of that partnership in Syria, the Middle East more generally, bilateral energy deals, and Russian arms sales, this would offer Russia and Iran a real possibility to open up their vaunted North-South trade route program to India without traversing either Azerbaijan or Central Asia. That outcome reduces tariffs that might accrue to those states. And if major land-based infrastructural projects ensue through Azerbaijan – the likely candidate for such programs – to Iran from Russia and thence to India, they would move Baku towards greater harmony with both Tehran and Moscow and greater receptivity to Russian economic pressure.
Moscow has long, albeit unsuccessfully, sought to induce Azerbaijan to join the Eurasian Economic Union. A tripartite link-up with Iran and Azerbaijan would further stimulate such pressure and back it up with real material clout. Azerbaijan’s ties to Iran, which have steadily improved since 2012, would also consolidate further and Iran would gain an alternative outlet to Western markets through Azerbaijan. Yet that development would also mean substantially more Iranian influence in Azerbaijan. If, indeed, these developments come to pass, they would exert a considerable momentum towards diverting Azerbaijan away from its independence in foreign policy and its self-professed leanings to the West.
Another consequence of the agreement, if Moscow and Tehran can persuade other littoral states of their view, is that it would exclude a foreign naval presence in the form of not only deployments, but of arms sales and training programs. Indeed, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, publicly stated in the wake of the foreign ministers’ conference that all five littoral states have agreed to ban foreign navies from the sea. Adding weight to his statement is the fact that Iran clearly intends to deploy coercive military power to the Caspian and has indicated that line of policy by deploying a new corvette there. This trend certainly comports with Moscow’s interests and suggests another point where Russian and Iranian perspectives coincide or converge.
If we assume that Moscow and Tehran both see the Caspian Sea as essentially a Mare Clausus – a closed sea – the strategic implications of this agreement become clear. Along with Iran’s bases and capabilities in the Caspian, the big naval base that Russia is building at Kaspiisk can dominate the entire Caspian littoral and project long-range strikes for hundreds of miles beyond it into the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and possibly the Gulf. With combined forces, Iran and Russia will essentially have closed the Caucasus to Western military presence and could also restrict Western access to Central Asia except for the U.S./NATO presence in Afghanistan that they are, in any case, attempting to subvert through their support for the Taliban. Moscow would also be able to hold at risk opposing militaries in the Middle East with a capability that might extend even into the Persian Gulf. Given the technologies in Iran’s arsenal, including those it gets from North Korea, can develop indigenously, or is buying from Russia, Iran too might be able to project power from the Caspian to the Gulf.
CONCLUSIONS: Clearly Moscow is trying to force the pace and shoehorn other countries into its definition of their interests while also working towards a broader partnership with Tehran. Yet if this agreement does come about in 2018 it will not only be due to Russia’s persistent pressure on these states and unending quest for a working partnership with Iran. It is also due to the stubbornly persistent but myopic Western strategic neglect of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Such neglect is in no way benign, but quite malignant. It is largely due to such strategic inattention that Moscow and Tehran have continued to advance their agendas and until it is reversed they will continue to do so.