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The Caspian Powderkeg: Oil Plus Boundary Disputes Does Not Equal Joy

It wasn’t that long ago that Cold War analysts feared Soviet domination of Iran and, with it, the Persian Gulf. The Russian and Persian world had a long history of rivalry, as the Russian Empire gobbled up territories like Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and parts of Kurdish Anatolia that Persians regarded as belonging to a “Greater Iran.” After World War II, Stalin occupied Azeri-speaking territories in what is now northwestern Iran, and before his ouster the Shah was as rattled as anyone by increasing Soviet influence in Afghanistan in the 1970s. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fragmentation of Eurasia into several smaller states has led to anything but a cooling of ambitions along the shores of the Caspian Sea, writes Joshua Kucera in a recent piece for Foreign Policy.

The Caspian Sea was traditionally far from a geopolitical hotspot. Located hundreds of miles inland and unequivocally under the domination of the Kremlin, even when huge oil and gas reserves were discovered offshore near Baku, Krasnovodsk (now Türkmenbashi, Turkmenistan), or Atyrau, Kazakhstan, they were protected by the Soviet Navy and their revenues went into Soviet coffers. But the Soviet split-up, compounded by the growth in Iran’s ambitions over the last decade, has changed the rules of the game:

While the world focuses on the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, a little-noticed arms buildup has been taking place to Iran’s north, among the ex-Soviet states bordering the Caspian. Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union created three new states on the sea, their boundaries have still not been delineated. And with rich oil and natural gas fields in those contested waters, the new countries — Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan — are using their newfound riches to protect the source of that wealth. So they’re building new navies from scratch, while the two bigger powers, Russia and Iran, are strengthening the navies they already have. It all amounts to something that has never before been seen on the Caspian: an arms race.

The new geopolitical rivalries are leading to new and unexpected military buildups. In Astana, KADEX, Kazakhstan’s biennial exposition for arms and defense manufacturers, is booming as Nursultan Nazarbayev seeks to translate his country’s energy wealth into power on the Caspian. Last September, Astana and Moscow conducted joint military exercises to plan for an air attack on Kazakhstan’s Caspian oil fields by an unnamed aggressor state from the south and southwest. (For the military nerds among Via Meadia‘s readers, detailed maps are here, in Russian.) And this April, Azerbaijan purchased Gabriel anti-ship missiles from Israel in a big defense deal. We’ll be interested to see how Azerbaijani diplomats try to explain those away as for use in mountainous Nagorno-Karabagh the next time they meet with their Iranian counterparts.

It all highlights how much more unpredictable and complex 21st century international relations will be. Back during the Cold War, analysts “only” had to concern themselves with Soviet-Iranian relations. Today, American diplomats and analysts have to contend with new, unprecedented partnerships that demand ditching Cold War mindsets ASAP. Azerbaijan and Russia seem to want to move closer to Israel which has distanced itself recently from Georgia. Turkmenistan continues to play a key role in Afghanistan-Pakistan-India relations as deals for a regional gas pipeline continue, even as Ashgabat supplies gas to China and wants a trans-Caspian pipeline to Turkey and Europe. The United States never has been and never should aspire to be the dominant force in this part of the world. Like Central Asia as a whole, it is inland, far away from us, and much closer countries like Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and India. As our role in Afghanistan decreases, the US will have less focus on and less investment in this part of the world and that, on the whole, is a good thing.

But our role, while not dominant, will still count.  America generally supports a balance of power around and on the Eurasian landmass, and that certainly includes this part of it. We hope to see a situation in which no one power dominates all the rest, and the various contenders reach compromise positions — that also protect the rights and security of the smaller states. This is a reasonable approach to a difficult region; sticking to it would be the best way the US can promote peaceful development in this part of the world.

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  • Walter Sobchak

    We need to learn to ignore everything and everyone between Israel and India. If they cut-off oil, we need to drill for it in California and Florida. I suggest starting in Robert Redford’s bedroom.

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