Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 146

Iran’s use of military force to evict a British-led oil consortium from Azerbaijani waters (see the Monitor, July 25-26) poses far-reaching international problems. Iran’s unchallenged move adds to uncertainties about the legal status of the Caspian Sea and even creates uncertainties where there were none. This–along with the threat of force–can only advance Moscow’s and Tehran’s common goal of inhibiting Western-led development of Caspian mineral resources and isolating the region’s new independent states. The stick brandished in front of international companies in the Caspian, coupled with carrots shown the same companies in new oil projects in southern Iran, appears designed to subvert the American-imposed sanctions regime and divide Western countries.

By staging this incident and threatening more of the same, Iran is living up to its “rogue state” status. Yet the Western response has been remarkably restrained in Washington–where State Department spokesman Philip Reeker took two days to issue a softly worded reaction—and seems supine in London, apparently because the West has few options at its disposal in this closed sea. Iran in any case is making its moves in the long shadow of Russia, the main potential beneficiary of such interference with the Western projects. It is Moscow, not Tehran that has spearheaded the militarization of the Caspian Sea and set a precedent of using gunboat diplomacy in January of this year. That demonstration, in front of Baku–and thus more intrusive than Iran’s July 23 naval foray–drew no response from either powerless Azerbaijan or its powerful Western partners.

Those concerns are reflected in Kazakhstan’s forthright reaction to Iran’s move. In a July 26 statement, the Foreign Affairs Ministry announced that “Kazakhstan regards any attempt at settling disputes in the Caspian Sea through the use or threat of force as a violation of the UN Charter, of the fundamental principles of international cooperation, and of existing agreements among Caspian countries. Such attempts have a negative impact on the negotiations toward determining the legal status of the Caspian Sea. Kazakhstan proceeds from the principle that Caspian nations, as UN members, should take their guidance from the UN Charter’s norms which require nonuse of force or threat of force.”

Moscow’s reaction reflects a predictable decision to exploit the opportunity created by Iran’s action. In a July 27 statement, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry asserted that “this occurrence confirms the need to speed up the process of defining a new legal status for the Caspian Sea and, on that basis, settling the issues of using the Caspian natural resources.” It urged, moreover, cooperation “on an equal basis” in developing Caspian resources.

Moscow seeks a voice and a piece of the action in projects beyond Russia’s own, resource-poor waters. It consequently views Iran’s move as a useful counter to the sectoral division principle, championed by Azerbaijan. This, as well as Moscow’s overall relationship with Tehran, explains why the Russian statement failed to criticize the threat of force, even as it paid lip service to the goal of creating a Caspian “zone of peace.” That phrase in Moscow’s diplomatic parlance denotes a closed subregional arrangement to guarantee Russian preeminence.

Turkmenistan’s reaction illustrates the increasingly erratic nature of its policies. Emboldened by Tehran’s action, Ashgabat issued on July 27 a strongly worded statement, reiterating earlier Turkmen claims to indisputably Azerbaijani offshore oilfields as well as to disputed ones. It condemned ongoing international projects in some of those oilfields as “inadmissible and unacceptable actions, which impinge on the rights and interests of other riparian countries;” and it warned Azerbaijan against proceeding with “illegal” development or exploration at those fields in partnership with international companies, as long as the Caspian Sea’s legal status has not yet been determined.

Turkmenistan’s note laid full or partial claim to what it termed the Osman, Hazar and Altyn-Asyr offshore oilfields. The first two are Turkmen names for Azerbaijan’s Chirag and Azeri oilfields. Those are two of the three fields–the third is Guneshly–which are being developed as the US$10 billion “deal of the century” by an international consortium, and which will feed the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. Altyn-Asyr is the Turkmen name for Azerbaijan’s–now reclassified overnight as “disputed”–Sharg offshore oilfield, a part of the Alov-Araz-Sharg complex. Ironically, that complex is the one now claimed by Tehran, and the scene of the July 23 incident staged by Iran, which calls that complex Alborz.

On July 29-30, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niazov declined to receive Azerbaijan’s First Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov, who was in Ashgabat for talks on the unrelated issue of Azerbaijani debts for Turkmen gas. The Turkmen officials, however–such as Deputy Prime Minister Yelly Gurbanmuradov, responsible for mineral resources, as well as the Oil and Gas Minister Gurbannazar Nazarov–confronted Abbasov with claims to those Azerbaijani oilfields. Turkmenistan’s claims to Azerbaijan’s Chirag-Azeri-Guneshli are nothing new and have thus far been ignored. Unlike Iran, the Turkmens have no naval capabilities in the Caspian. Niazov and Moscow may be planning to change that, however. Last month, the two reached preliminary agreement on a “gas for weapons” deal, under which Turkmenistan would acquire naval vessels from Russia.

The Alov-Araz-Sharg complex is located well to the north of the former Soviet-Iranian border, which ran from Astara (Azerbaijan)- to Hassan Guli (Turkmenistan). That line has generally been accepted and treated since 1991 as the Azerbaijan-Iran and Turkmenistan-Iran border. Iran’s claim would only make sense–and then only in part–if Iran were granted the 20 percent it seeks of the Caspian Sea’s area. Not a single country accepts that 20 percent claim. Russia is no exception. Yet, it is not affected by Iran’s claim, and it seems prepared to exploit the mischief for its own goals. One such goal is to arbitrate and manipulate the legal disputes and the sheer confusion, which Moscow’s own proposals have promoted. The other goal, political in nature and shared with Iran, is to limit the West’s role and increase Russia’s and Iran’s shares of the oil and gas extracted and transported from the other countries’ offshore sectors (Habar, July 26; Caspian News Agency, July 27; Turkmen State News Service, July 27, 29; Itar-Tass, RIA Novosti, July 27-28; Ekho (Baku), July 28; Turan, July 27, 30; IRNA, July 27, 29; see the Monitor, January 16, June 15, 29, July 25-26).

The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of senior analysts Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and Jonas Bernstein, and analysts Ilya Malyakin, Peter Rutland, Oleg Varfolomeyev and Ilias Bogatyrev. It is edited and compiled by Helen Glenn Court. If you have any questions regarding the content of the Monitor, please contact the editor at .

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The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of senior analysts Jonas Bernstein, Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and analysts Ilya Malyakin, Oleg Varfolomeyev and Ilias Bogatyrev. If you have any questions regarding the content of the Monitor, please contact the foundation. If you would like information on subscribing to the Monitor, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at, by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4516 43rd Street NW, Washington DC 20016. Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of the Monitor is strictly prohibited by law. Copyright (c) 1983-2002 The Jamestown Foundation Site Maintenance by Johnny Flash Productions