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Opinion: Putin’s Next Hunting Ground | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An aerial view shows the artificial islands at the Kashagan offshore oil field in the Caspian sea in western Kazakhstan in this October 16, 2013 ,file photograph. To match Insight OIL-KASHAGAN/ REUTERS/Stringer/Files (KAZAKHSTAN – Tags: BUSINESS ENERGY ENVIRONMENT)

Having flexed his muscles in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing to mark out the Caspian Basin as another zone of influence for Moscow. Next week, foreign ministers of the five littoral states—Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan—are scheduled to establish an agenda for a summit in Moscow in September.

With estimated oil reserves of 28 billion barrels (compared to the North Sea’s 16 billion barrels), the Caspian Basin is the world’s largest known oilfield after the Gulf. Anxious to reduce its dependence on oil from OPEC, Washington has been interested in the Caspian since the 1990s. In 2002 a “working paper” prepared for the administration of President George W. Bush even identified Russia as a “strategic partner” for the US in managing global energy supplies.

Putin’s calculation is that the US retreat under President Barack Obama could allow Russia to consolidate its position at the center of the global energy market by expanding its presence to include the Gulf via Iran. The success of the Russo–Iranian partnership in maintaining President Bashar Al-Assad’s hold on Syria has strengthened Putin’s belief that he could use Iran as a junior partner throughout the region.

For that strategy to succeed, Putin needs to firmly establish Russia as the power with the final say in the Caspian.

Putin’s ambitions for the Caspian are nothing new. In 2002, he ordered the first military maneuvers there since the fall of the Soviet empire. At the time, however, Moscow sought Washington’s informal approval for the five-day exercises that included 10,000 elite troops, 60 warships, 30 attack aircraft and an unknown number of amphibious vessels. To allay fears of Russia re-emerging as a hegemonic power, two former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, were included in the exercises.

This time, however, Putin has no need to “consult” Washington. “There is no one there!” suggests a Russian commentator. Nor does Putin need the fig leaf of multilateralism for his plan to transform the Caspian into a Russian lake. None of the other littoral nations has the military clout to temper the appetite of the master of the Kremlin. Putin has kept Iran, the largest of Russia’s neighbors in the Caspian, sweet by offering to help the mullahs circumvent sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the European Union and the US. The scheme includes the sale by Russia of up to 20 billion US dollars’ worth of Iranian oil on global markets in the framework of a barter accord.

The last time the Caspian witnessed a naval battle was in 1856, when the Russians sank the Persian Navy and established full military control. A treaty that Russia imposed on the Qajar Shah in Tehran followed. Under it, Iran agreed not to maintain a navy in the Caspian and to limit commercial navigation to its coastal waters.

After the fall of the Soviet empire, Iran timidly tried to build a naval presence in the Caspian. It consisted of a few coastguard vessels operating within the Iranian territorial waters supposedly against poachers of caviar-bearing sturgeons.

Since 1991, Iran has sought an agreement to declare the Caspian a closed sea jointly owned by its five littoral states. Under the plan, the Caspian would be jointly managed as far as such issues as protecting the environment, regulating commercial navigation, fixing quotas for fishing and developing tourism were concerned.

When it came to oil and gas resources, however, the Iranian plan would give each of the five littoral states 20 percent of the total.

Azerbaijan, backed by the US, opposed the Iranian plan right from the start. The Azerbaijanis insist that the Caspian should be divided among the littoral states in accordance with the size of their coastline. That would give Iran only 11 percent of the total. Russia initially supported Iran in a bid to prevent the US from gaining a dominant position in the Caspian through Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. The Russian position changed after Putin and Bush established “a strategic partnership” during a summit at Crawford, Texas, in 2001.

Turkmenistan, for its part, had tried to sit on the fence to please Russia and the US, which control the country’s energy resources, without antagonizing Iran that is home to some 4 million ethnic Turkmen who could be used against the authoritarian regime in Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat.

Having failed to sell its “shared sovereignty,” Iran then tried to revive treaties it had signed with Russia in 1856, 1928 and 1942. Under those treaties, only Russia and Iran had any rights over the Caspian Sea. This was because Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan did not exist as independent states in those years.

The treaties, however, came under attack from many quarters, including some members of the Islamic Majlis in Tehran. Imposed on Iran by the Tsarist empire and its successor, the Soviet empire, under duress, the treaties imposed severe limitations on Iranian sovereignty.

Under the scheme now promoted by Putin, Russia gets just under 20 per cent of the Caspian, while Kazakhstan receives 27 per cent. A further 23 per cent will go to Turkmenistan. Azerbaijan’s share will be 18 per cent, leaving 12 per cent for Iran. The status of several former Iranian islands, effectively annexed by Azerbaijan and Russia, remains unclear. At the same time, Iran has removed all inhabitants of the island of Ashuradeh and disbanded its small military presence there.

Russia is enhancing its influence in Iran in yet another way. It is orchestrating a multi-national scheme under which oil and gas from the Caspian and Russia feed refineries in the northern half of Iran.

While Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, deludes himself into believing he is on top of the world, Russia is cutting Iran down to size in the Caspian.