The Caspian Sea, an oil-rich body of water on the border of Iran and the former Soviet Union, has seen an unprecedented amount of naval activity this year: Iran has launched its largest ship yet into the Caspian, Kazakhstan has declared plans to start construction of six new ships by the end of the year and Turkmenistan announced the creation of its first navy. This military build-up, though so far still modest in scope, has observers wondering if the stage is being set for an arms race on this heretofore quiet sea.
The stakes in the Caspian Sea are high: According to the US Department of Energy, the Caspian region contains about ten percent of the world’s potential oil reserves, as well as still precisely unknown—but vast—natural gas deposits. The newly-independent countries that surround the sea have staked their futures on petroleum riches, and they’re trying to use the first revenues to protect that future. A Russian defence magazine recently described the emerging situation as ‘a keg of gunpowder in a sea of black gold.’
Government and military leaders of the five countries surrounding the Caspian—Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan—often use rhetoric about ‘demilitarizing’ of the sea. The president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has said, ‘demilitarization of the Caspian is the most favourable option.’ And in 2007, the commander of Iran’s navy said: ‘We view the Caspian as a sea of peace and friendship and we believe upgrading and expanding military equipment in this sea is incorrect.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But actions haven’t matched words. In April, Iran announced that it had launched a Jamaran-class ship (Iran calls it a destroyer, but by international standards it’s a smaller corvette) in the Caspian. With a displacement of about 1,400 tonnes, the Jamaran is the largest ship in its 90-something Caspian fleet, and is designed to host an armed helicopter. Iran is also planning to build 75 smaller missile boats of the Peykaap II class, which though they will likely be largely based in the Persian Gulf, Russian analysts believe could be transported by land to the Caspian if necessary. And at the end of August Iran announced that it will start mass production of a new missile boat, the Seraj, which will be deployed in the Caspian.
Kazakhstan, meanwhile, now maintains only a coast guard, but has said it’s planning to commission its first six naval ships this year, three patrol boats and three corvettes. The commander of Kazakhstan’s navy has said the ships will be equipped with Exocet ship-to-ship missiles, but has also said the navy was not oriented towards fighting other navies and is instead aimed at defending Kazakhstan’s oil and natural gas infrastructure from terrorists, a claim that has been received sceptically. Kazakhstan also is currently building a naval base at Aktau, and is building up its manpower by training cadets abroad—mainly in Russia and Turkey, but also in smaller numbers in the United States, Germany, India, Pakistan and South Korea.