The November 1 tripartite summit in Tehran among the presidents of Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan appears to have opened the way to resolving one of the most neuralgic problems of the post-Soviet era: the delimitation of the Caspian Sea among the five littoral states, the three represented in the Iranian capital as well as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. In Tehran, President Vladimir Putin said he hopes to sign an accord with his Iranian and Azerbaijani counterparts and then have it accepted by the leaders of the two other littoral states as well (, November 1).
If in fact this happens—and the odds are better today than at any point in the recent past—Russia will obtain more than earlier negotiations had suggested, while Iran will receive less. However, all the Caspian states will likely benefit. And this is not only because of the establishment of a firm legal basis for any outside investment, but also because such an accord will open the way for bilateral and multilateral accords about protecting the sea’s sensitive ecology—possibly saving the sturgeon, the source of caviar, and combating the problem of poaching.
Before the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the Caspian was divided between the Soviet Union and Iran, with Moscow controlling by far the larger portion. But after 1991, there were five littoral states not two; and they have had sharply differing views as to how to divide up this body of water. The three new countries, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, called for the adoption of the same principle that had governed the Soviet-Iranian delimitation. That is, they called for the extension of sea borders from their land borders to the middle of the Caspian. That would have left Iran with the least, Kazakhstan the most (30 percent of the sea’s surface), and Russia somewhere in between (19 percent). Not surprisingly, the Iranians opposed that approach and have called for the division of the Caspian into five equal parts. But that would have left Russia with far less that Moscow thought it deserved.
As a result, Russian negotiators have pressed for an entirely different principle for delimiting the sea: the establishment of coastal economic exclusion zones of 30 to 50 miles from shore and common use of all the Caspian’s surface and subsurface area beyond that. According to Andrey Grozin, a specialist on Central Asia with the Moscow-based Institute for CIS Countries, this Russian position is now gaining support not only from Iran, which recognizes that its solution will never be accepted in the other capitals, but also from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which have concluded that any agreement will work to their benefit more than continued legal uncertainty (, November 3).
As a result, Grozin suggests, conditions are right for an accord, and the Russian leader’s visit to Tehran and talks with both Iran and Azerbaijan make one more likely than not in the coming weeks or months. The national interests of the littoral states really do “seriously contradict one another,” the Moscow expert acknowledges; but many of the issues that kept them apart no longer do. On the one hand, the 2014 agreement not to allow any third-country navies to use the sea, a decision directed against the United States (see , May 5, 2014), has taken many of the geopolitical concerns off the table. And on the other, construction of trans-Caspian pipelines and those carrying petroleum further to the West mean that Azerbaijan and the two countries not represented in Tehran have a greater interest in ensuring the kind of legal framework that will permit more investment than they do in insisting on greater Russian recognition of their sea rights—something that they had once thought was necessary to their economic success.
All three of these countries and Iran increasingly recognize that drawing out discussions about the status of the Caspian will in fact harm their economies. They recognize that having clear “rules of the game” works to their benefit, something that Putin apparently stressed to good effect while in Tehran, Grozin says. And while the final details of the accord have not yet been published, the analyst notes that the outlines of the deal are quite clear.
As a result of the Tehran talks and bilateral negotiations between Russia and the other three littoral countries, he continues, “each of the Caspian states will be given a portion of the sea for their exclusive economic use. That will extend from 20 to 50 miles from shore. “The entire rest of the sea will be open for all Caspian littoral states, both for economic and military-political use” (, November 3). Given the size of Russia’s naval presence relative to that of the other four countries’, that will give Moscow and Putin yet another way to project power in the Caucasus and Central Asia (see , November 2).
At the same time, other Russian experts suggest, the agreement will not have significant economic consequences. The reason for that is that most of the major oil extraction platforms and pipelines are already in place; there are not likely to be many new ones. However, the Russian analysts say that an accord may boost investment from the West or China, neither of which is happy to put money into places where legal arrangements are uncertain (, November 5).
Still, by taking an irritation off the table, the likely accord will make it easier for these countries to cooperate, leading to an expansion in Russia’s position not only in Iran, something Putin has stressed is extremely important to him, but also in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan as well.