Satellite image of the Caspian Sea
A rise in the naval buildup of powers on the Caspian Sea highlights the deepening of unresolved regional tensions.
By John CK Daly for ISN Security Watch
Why has Russia built a new stealth equipped artillery ship, the Mahachkala, as Kazakhstan prepares to launch the Kazakhstan missile boat, its first domestically built warship, from its Zenit shipyard in Uralsk?
Because both nations are concerned about the security of their burgeoning Caspian energy assets, with Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan also developing Caspian flotillas. While the global media focuses on rising US-Chinese naval tensions in the western Pacific, in isolated Central Asia a maritime arms race has been triggered by the resources of the Caspian, a cultural and political fault line where Christian Europe intersects the Muslim world. The sea, previously peacefully divided between the USSR and Iran, now has new players.
The 143,244 square-mile Caspian is the world’s largest enclosed body of water and is an endorheic sea: rivers only flow into it, with no egress to the open ocean.
What assets are the five nations scrambling to protect? Reserves, offshore production fields, undersea pipelines and tankers. In 2009 the US Energy Information Administration estimated that the Caspian could contain up to 250 billion barrels of recoverable oil along with an additional 200 billion barrels of potential reserves and 9.2 trillion cubic meters of recoverable natural gas.
Before 1991 the Soviet Union and Iran divided the inland sea amongst themselves. Under the 1921 Soviet-Iranian Treaty of Friendship, each had an “exclusive fishing rights in its coastal waters up to a limit of 10 nautical miles,” while the 1940 Soviet-Iranian treaty which supplemented the agreement further declared that the “parties hold the Caspian to belong to Iran and to the Soviet Union.” Needless to say, both treaties became invalid with the breakup of the USSR.
Ripples of discontent
Since the December 1991 implosion of the USSR, three new nations arose in the Caspian region and contested the bilateral arrangements: Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. ever since, the five nations have wrangled about how equitably to divide the Caspian’s waters and seabed, but little has been achieved. Adding to the confusion, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) did not definitively declare whether the international law of the sea or the law of inland lakes applied to the Caspian, labeling it instead as “a special inner sea.”