Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Caspian Power Struggle

The flare-up of tension between Tehran and Baku is not only about oil.
By Nair Aliev
Some regional analysts are convinced that oil is not all that's at stake with the recent tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan in the Caspian Sea. The argument is based on the actual quantity of oil reserves which Iran is after which are small in comparison with deposits in the Iranian Gulf.



There is little sense, say the analysts, in Iran risking a military set-to over the disputed Alov oil field where an Iranian warplane buzzed two Azeri vessels July 23 before a gunboat was sent to escort them out of "Iranian waters". It was this incident which set off the recent escalation in tensions between the two countries.



More important say the experts is power-brokering in the region. Iranians are upset over what they see as trouble-stirring on the behalf of the Azeris. Although Azerbaijan has a population of just 8 million, up to 30 million Azeris live over the border in Northern Iran. Tehran has accused Azerbaijan of stirring up nationalist sentiment among this community. Iran also feels snubbed by Baku's rejection of offers to mediate between the Azeris and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.



Iran's insistence on gaining a 20 per cent share of the Caspian rather than the 11 per cent it has now - based on Soviet Union's and Iran's division of the waters in the 1950s - is thus seen as a means of using its leverage on its littoral partners to expand its influence here.



The Azeri media answered these accusations in turn by saying that Iran was exporting the "Iranian model of political Islam" as a means of spreading its influence.



Much of the tub-thumping language used in Iran has seemed less tuned to feelings of economic or territorial sleight and more bolstered by nationalist motivation. This has gone so far as to suggest that Azerbaijan should go the way of the rest of its territory last century and become a part of Iran itself.



Secretary of the Iranian Legislative Council Mokhsen Rezai threatened to turn Azerbaijan into an Iranian province. "Iranian youth is more victory-oriented than ever," he said. The Tehran Times then reported on the mobilisation of Iranian armed forces on the border with Azerbaijan.



The Russia Journal, based in Moscow, quoted a professor at the Moscow Military Academy as saying that Iran was preparing to deploy tactical squadrons - including submarines, war ships and naval jets and said that in his opinion military confrontation was a possibility if Azerbaijan continues the active development of the disputed oil fields."



On August 7, the Iranian Foreign Ministry announced that it was prepared to defend its sector of the Caspian Sea and would not hesitate to take action against foreign companies active in Iranian waters. The comment referred to the vessel of British Petroleum, BP, which was one of the ships in the July 23 incident.



But analysts take the strategic scenario further to embrace western countries saying that their interest is also not primarily in the oil but in the region. Pointing once again at the small size of the oil reserves, the analysts suggest that geo-political interests are what makes the Caspian so important. Russia remains a major player in dialogue among the Caspian states.



Azerbaijan's first reaction to Iran's actions was to turn to the West for support. But the British oil giant decided to suspend operations in the area and made it clear that it expected Iran and Azerbaijan to resolve the matter at a state level. The US limited its reaction to an official statement expressing its concern. Staking the full Iranian claim to the Caspian, National Security official Hassan Rouhani told Azeri President Heidar Aliev and BP representatives in a meeting prior to the July 23 incident that "Iran will not permit foreign countries to launch any oil and gas activities within its 20 per cent control share of the sea".



The language on the Azeri side heated up, too, especially after an Iranian war plane violated Azeri airspace on July 29. Although President Aliev called the infraction a "minor incident", some politicians said that appropriate steps should have been taken and the plane either forced or shot down. While Defence Minister Safar Abiev insisted that Iran was "not a hostile country", he also said that "Azerbaijan's air defence system is ready to repulse an attack by air at any time". President Aliev's son, Ilham, who is being groomed to fill his father's shoes, also pitched in, saying that "adequate measures would be taken" if Iran attempted to use force again.



Turkmenistan, which is also in dispute with the Azeris over Caspian oil fields, has also resorted to fierce language. It has threatened to "send the navy to defend its oil fields" and has taken measures to strengthen its military muscle, signing several arms contracts with Ukraine, Georgia and Russia.



Unlike Iran, analysts say that Turkmenistan has sound economic arguments for fighting its corner. Not least is the money it needs to honour its part of a 6,000-kilometre pipeline project agreed with China.



Despite the many theories about possible reasons of the conflict, the incidents of late July and early August have not only complicated Azerbaijan's desire to explore the oil reserves of its sector in the Caspian Sea, but also added a military dimension to the Caspian quarrel, involving all Caspian countries.



Nair Aliev is a staff writer at the Baku independent newspaper Ekho.