How Hydrocarbons Are Changing the Caspian Sea Political and military events

The security architecture of the Caspian Sea, the largest enclosed inland body of water in the world, may soon change. Of all the states that border the sea — Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan — Russia has the strongest navy, and military activity in Caspian waters tends to reflect its strength.

But that may no longer be the case. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan appear determined to develop their own naval capabilities, ones that would function independently of Russia. On Nov. 4, they signed a bilateral defense cooperation agreement that will take effect in 2016. The agreement emphasizes joint naval exercises and invites officials in Azerbaijan to attend KADEX, an arms exhibition held in Kazakhstan.

Their interests in the Caspian are well founded: Its waters are rife with hydrocarbons resources. The Caspian Sea Basin holds up to 48 billion barrels of oil and up to 8.2 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It also lies directly on the route of the Trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline, which would supply Europe with natural gas without Russian involvement.

Naturally, these interests bring Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan into conflict with Iran and Russia, which want to limit their neighbors' access to offshore oil fields and obstruct the construction of the Trans-Caspian pipeline. And they want to do so by manipulating the territorial boundaries in the sea.

Currently, Iran controls only 13 percent of the water in the Caspian Sea, a number derived from the length of its coastline. Tehran wants each country to have a 20 percent share, splitting the territory evenly among all the states that border the sea, regardless of how long their coasts are. The discrepancy has created a disputed zone, into which Iran has deployed naval assets to fend off Azerbaijani hydrocarbon exploration vessels. For its part, Russia will continue to discourage new pipeline routes into Europe, much as it did with the failed Nabucco pipeline.

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