The Battle of the Caspian Sea

The Battle of the Caspian Sea

Who gets what share of the mineral riches at the bottom of the Caspian depend on whether it's a sea or a lake.

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The sources: “The Caspian Sea: Rivalry and Cooperation” by Mahmoud Ghafouri, in Middle East Policy, Summer 2008, and “The Iraq War, Turkey, and Renewed Caspian Energy Prospects” by Paul A. Williams and Ali Tekin, in The Middle East Journal, Summer ­2008.

The wellhead of the oil industry in 1900 was not the Middle East but the Caspian Sea. Half of the world’s oil came from Baku, Azerbaijan, where “liquid black gold” brought wealth in the 19th century and war in the 20th. In 1942, the German Army was lunging for Caspian oil when Hitler launched the Battle of Stalingrad, which cost as many as two million Soviet and German ­lives.

The area still contains one of the world’s largest reservoirs of oil and natural gas, most of it beneath the 640-­mile-­long Caspian seabed. About 90 feet below sea level and less than 16 feet deep in much of its northern basin, the Caspian is an icy, stormy body of water. De­vel­opment has been hindered because the five riparian nations, Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakh­stan, and Turkmen­istan, can’t agree, among other things, on whether it is a lake or a ­sea.

As a sea, it would be subject to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which allows states to extend mineral claims to the edge of their continental shelves. If the Caspian were a lake, the seabed could be divided up, with Kazakhstan claiming the lar­gest portion because of its longer coastline. Russia and Iran, whose predecessor states agreed that the Cas­pian would be a Soviet-Iranian sea, no longer share that view. Russia—worried about Western petroleum giants muscling in on its oil flanks—is looking out for itself and some of its for­mer Soviet republics. Iran, with the shortest coastline, wants min­eral resources to be prorated, like the costs in a condo­minium building, or doled out equally, 20 per­cent to each ­state.

Such differences are blocking the full development of oil re­sources just as potential returns are growing more lucrative. The region now produces roughly 2.3 million barrels of oil a day, and it has re­serves that may be as great as 257 billion barrels. Develop­ment, however, will need unani­mous consent, asserts Mah­moud Ghafouri, an assistant pro­fessor at Shahid Ba­hon­ar Univer­sity in Kerman, Iran. And before the “Cas­pian five” nations can truly capitalize on their re­serves, the poisonous relation­ship between Iran and the United States must be re­paired. The “second oil rush in the Cas­pian” re­quires pipelines or other pathways to get the oil to market, and the West­ern firms with the easiest access to capital are denied some of the most viable routes—through Iran—by U.S.-Iranian enmity.

Iran’s loss has been Turkey’s gain. The Iraq war, instead of opening floodgates of Iraqi oil, initially did the opposite, providing an unforeseen boost to Cas­pian oil. Pipeline projects that skirt both Russia and Iran at­tracted more interest with each uptick in oil’s price. Turkish oil and gas transport projects that seemed ­far-­fetched in the 1990s have proven successful, and new ones have gotten increased impetus, write Paul A. Williams and Ali Tekin, professors at Bilkent University in An­kara. As the three recently inde­pendent Caspian states stand poised to become major players in the world econ­omy because of their energy re­serves, Turkey, the area’s energy ­have-­not nation, has already benefited from increased energy transit fees and better access to oil for its own ­economy.

Ghafouri concludes that the lure of oil wealth can go a long way toward promoting international cooperation in the Caspian. After years of rivalry in the Persian Gulf region, the joint development of offshore oil and natural gas re­sources is under way. And if the states in the volatile Persian Gulf can swallow their differences in the interest of making money, can the Caspian be far ­behind?

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