Russia and Iran Lock NATO Out of Caspian Sea

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Russia and Iran Lock NATO Out of Caspian Sea

A summit earlier this week achieves consensus on the inadmissibility of a foreign military presence in the sea.

Russia and Iran Lock NATO Out of Caspian Sea
Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office, Kremlin

Iran and Russia have built unanimous consensus among the Caspian states, which also feature Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, over the inadmissibility of a foreign military presence in the Caspian Sea, ruling out any future possible deployment of NATO forces in the basin.

A political declaration signed by the presidents of the five Caspian states at the IV Caspian Summit held in Astrakhan, Russia, on September 29, “sets out a fundamental principle for guaranteeing stability and security, namely, that only the Caspian littoral states have the right to have their armed forces present on the Caspian,” according to a statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the wake of the summit.

His Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, added that “there is consensus among all the Caspian Sea littoral states that they are capable of maintaining the security of the Caspian Sea and military forces of no foreign country must enter the sea,” Iran’s state news agency PressTV quoted Rouhani as saying.

The move comes as both Russia and Iran are experiencing tense diplomatic relations with Western countries and feel increasingly threatened by a foreign military presence in the Caspian Sea.

“Both Iran and Russia have interests in keeping under control a military presence of Western countries in the basin,” Bahman Diba, foreign policy expert and author of The Law and Politics of the Caspian Sea, told The Diplomat.

“Because of the ongoing troubles with former Soviet countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, Russia revived a foreign policy that can bring to mind the Cold War era. At the same time, the Iranian regime is concerned that the west may use Caspian countries to put pressure on its nuclear program.”

The Ukraine crisis has left the West seriously at odds with Moscow, which stands accused of breaching international law and violating Ukraine sovereignty. The array of sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe on Russia following the annexation of Crimea and fighting in Eastern Ukraine represent the toughest action taken by Western countries against the Kremlin since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, Iran is engaged in delicate negotiations with the P5+1 bloc (the U.S., Russia, China, U.K., and France, plus Germany) over its civilian nuclear energy program. Since Rouhani took office in 2013, the two parties have moved beyond the impasse that prevailed during the tenure of Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a breakthrough agreement was struck in November 2013. Amid recurring hiccups in the negotiations, the two sides are now trying to strike a comprehensive agreement by November 24

On the other hand, the former Soviet republics in the Caspian basin have been stepping up cooperation with the U.S. and Europe on security and energy issues, particularly Azerbaijan. Since it gained  independence in 1991, Azerbaijan has emerged as a strategic partner to the West thanks to its vast oil and gas riches flowing westwards through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines, which are both outside Moscow’s control.

Speaking at the NATO summit in Wales in early September, President Ilham Aliyev said that his country had become a “reliable” partner for NATO and is stepping up efforts to provide increasing logistical support for NATO operations in Afghanistan. Indeed, Azerbaijan itself has been part of the ISAF forces in Afghanistan since 2002. Besides, it is widely known that NATO officials are trying to improve military cooperation with Russia’s “near abroad” (former Soviet Union members that are still under Moscow’s sphere of influence) as the Ukraine crisis escalates. Kazakhstan appeared to be in even more advanced talks for the establishment of a naval base catering to the needs of U.S. and NATO troops in northwestern port Aktau. At the same time, the U.S. has played an active role in helping Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan bolster their military defenses and even develop their own navies.

The decision to seal off the Caspian Sea from a foreign military presence now makes any plan for a NATO military base in the basin very unlikely. It may also have repercussions in the sphere of energy security.

“Russia is strongly against the project for a trans-Caspian pipeline carrying gas from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and may threaten to use military force should the two former Soviet republics decide to go ahead regardless,” Dmitry Shlapentokh, professor of Soviet and post-Soviet history at Indiana University, U.S, told The Diplomat.

“However, if there was a NATO base in the Caspian, Russia might eventually give in and accept the project.”

The legal feasibility of the project ultimately depends on the outcome of the negotiations over the Caspian Sea’s legal status. Should each littoral state be granted sovereign rights over the waters off its coasts, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan will have legal grounds to develop the pipeline and connect it to the Southern Gas Corridor being developed by Baku’s government and its Western allies, dramatically boosting the two countries’ combined gas export capacity. Russia sees the trans-Caspian pipeline as posing a serious threat to its monopoly over European gas supplies – Turkmenistan boasts the world’s fourth largest gas reserves and it is already competing with Russian gas in China – and will not easily yield. In a push to smooth things over and develop feasible alternatives, the Kremlin is pledging support for a North-South corridor linking western and northwestern Europe to the Caspian basin and southern Asia that would halve the shipping distance compared to the current route, as confirmed by Putin at the Caspian summit. The corridor would pass through existing artificial canals connecting the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea and will be rigorously controlled by Moscow.

Although Putin himself admitted there are outstanding issues that have yet to be resolved, he labeled the Astrakhan summit a breakthrough in the negotiations over the Caspian Sea’s legal status and expects a definitive agreement to be struck at the next summit in Kazakhstan in 2016. With the basin’s delimitation principles still hanging in the balance, it is at least clear that there will not be no NATO flag flying over the Caspian Sea waters as the littoral states look for some common ground and finally find a way to split the basin.

Jacopo Dettoni writes on business and current affairs.