Geopolitics in the Caspian Sea

19 Aug

I’ve a habit of saying I’ll do something, only to be diverted by something else. A two year delay in my post on whether, on consideration, I still think 9/11 ‘truthers’ deluded is a case in point. More pressing is a long threatened post on the labour theory of value, and why it matters for reasons including but by no means confined to its central place in capitalism’s exploitation – at point of wealth production rather than wealth distribution – of the many by the few.

Then there’s my snailpaced follow up to parts one and two of Why the West hates Putin …

… of which I can at least say I’m continuing to research. I just might have to hole up in a hotel in the back of beyond – Slough or Hartlepool, say – with all my notes. If so I’ll include a copy of the post below, read yesterday on OffGuardian. I immediately emailed its author, barrister James O’Neill, to thank him for a piece “lucid, informative and sober in tone while giving ground for cautious optimism” – and to seek his permission, kindly granted, to reproduce it here. Do please read. In its quiet way it is deeply subversive of mainstream and perilously misleading narratives on Russia, Iran and China …

(Maps added by steel city scribe. Two terms may be unfamiliar. Littoral  means pertaining to the shoreline, so a littoral state to the Caspian is one which borders on that inland sea. Inter alia  means ‘amongst other things’ – James O’Neill, remember, is a lawyer!)

On 12 August 2018 the five littoral states to the Caspian Sea (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan) signed an historic agreement governing the use of the Caspian Sea. The negotiations had been ongoing for more than 20 years.

One of the issues was with [sic] the Caspian should be regarded as a sea (it is salty but completely enclosed) or a lake. If the former, then it would be governed by the international law of the sea. If defined as a lake, then the resources would be divided equally between the five States. In the event, the five nations agreed to accord it ‘a special status,’ neither lake nor sea. Whether this unique formulation will be recognised by non-littoral States is an open question.

There are several significant elements to the Caspian Sea Convention (CSC) that are worthy of note. The first aspect is the size of the resources at stake. The Caspian Sea basin is known to hold 50 billion barrels of oil in proven reserves, and nearly 9 trillion cubic metres of natural gas. To put that in perspective, the gas reserves are greater then the entire known United States reserves.

The agreement signed on 12 August gave each of the five states a 15 nautical mile exclusive territorial zone, plus a further 10 nautical mile exclusive fishing zone. The balance of the sea area was for common use. Its economic development would therefore be a joint exercise with the benefits equally shared. A Caspian Economic Forum was also established to determine, inter alia, the practical means and effects of such cooperation.

The second aspect of the agreement relates to security arrangements. All non-littoral States are forbidden to have foreign military bases. This is specifically directed at NATO, which continues its encroachment and attempted encroachment in all nations with proximity to Russia.

Russia is the underwriter of security in the Caspian, a factor that increases its geopolitical strength viz a viz other nations, and in particular Iran that is looking increasingly to secure arrangements unaffected by the unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States.

Both Russia and China are developing closer economic and political ties with Iran. Both countries have made significant investments in Iranian infrastructure and resource development. Iran is also a pivotal State in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Neither Russia nor China are likely to tolerate overt aggression against Iran of the type advocated by some of the more extreme neocon elements of the US administration.

That does not preclude those same elements increasing the intensity of the hybrid warfare waged against Iran for many years, including overt support for the terrorist MEK group. Hybrid warfare is also the main means by which the US will seek to undermine China’s Belt and Road Initiative, as overt warfare is now, as the Rand Corporation acknowledged recently, “unthinkable.”

The leaders of Iran and Kazakhstan also held separate meetings, an object of which in part was to establish economic links bypassing the United States dollar. This also reflects a developing trend of a move away from the US dollar, the ramifications of which are potentially enormous.

The third major consequence is in the links between some members of the CSA and related Eurasian organisations. Iran had earlier this year signed a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union, (EAEU) two of whose members, Kazakhstan and Russia are also parties to the CSC. Iran is an observer State (and likely full member soon) of the Shanghai Corporation Organisation. That organization’s full members include CSC States Russia and Kazakhstan, as well as neighbouring Pakistan and fellow SCO observer State Afghanistan. A resolution of the long running Afghanistan war will require the co-operation of Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours, all of whom are members of the SCO.

The CSC therefore represents a further step in the significant shift of geopolitical power to the Eurasian heartland. Although China was not a party to the CSC it is nonetheless the dominant economic power in the region, with close ties to the CSC signatories, particularly through the SCO, but also with non-member States such as Turkmenistan from whom it is a major importer of natural gas.

Although there are important differences between the Caspian Sea and the South China Sea, there are also lessons that can be drawn. Following the recent ASEAN meeting in Singapore, the ASEAN nations and China announced that they had agreed upon a new draft code of conduct for the littoral States of the South China Sea. Those negotiations had also been very lengthy.

The draft code of conduct underscores the importance of those nations most affected by the issues in dispute being the ones best able to formulate a resolution when they are able to do so. Those negotiations arguably have a better chance of success, absent the involvement of outside countries such as the United States and Australia. The actions and statements of those two nations demonstrate an inability to promote a peaceful resolution of the South China Sea issues, preferring instead a provocative and confrontational methodology.

The Caspian Sea Convention and the South China Sea code of conduct provide evidence that an alternative model is available.

James O’Neill is a barrister at law and geopolitical analyst. He may be contacted at


Postscript next day. See CounterPunch, August 20: The Road to Disaster? Carl Boggs gives wider historic context to the particulars addressed here by James O’Neill.

9 Replies to “Geopolitics in the Caspian Sea

  1. This agreement is drawing a lot of attention from a great many bloggers, which is really good.
    Many thanks for the article!

    • I’m glad to hear that, Susan. I noted the relatively few comments James – any relation? – attracts on OffGuardian. But their level of debate is high.

  2. Phil,
    Thanks for a very informative and comprehensive overview of the recent developments and geopolitics of the Caspian sea. I am certain that you this aka “the largest lake” is not just important for its gas and oil, but is also unique ecologically as the sole environment for its sturgeon and caviar.

    • Yes, I thought about the sturgeon too Saeed. It’s worth going to the OffGuardian version (linked in my intro) for the BTL comments. O’Neill’s excellent piece has attracted less of them, but of a higher average standard, than is often the case. But one comment says:

      ‘Fifty billion barrels of oil, nine trillion cubic meters of gas’? Really? Climate change will lay those figures in an early grave. How about an agreement on SANITY!!!

      Nice thought. Meanwhile, here on planet earth, I welcome moves that check its most rapacious capitalism …

  3. Sitting here with my (systems) engineers head on ( which, to be Frank, is the only one I ‘ve got) I have to concur with the all too breif observation of Fair Dinkum.

    Regardless of where we are located on the planet the situation is becoming not just desperate but dire – as this piece from the NYT of just over a year ago details:

    Regardless of geo-politics (and with a heads up to Kipling’s poem about the copybook headings) survival requires a rapid move to zero carbon emissions because it’s not just the sea level rises it’s also the impact on global agricultural production from large parts of productive land overheating. As the NYT article observes. Food prices will be rising within the year ahead as a result of the impact on the current crop yields arising from the existing recent summer temperatures high has even seen forest fires in the Arctic.

    Just as an aside it’s quite plausible on current global warming trends (and it’s the rapid rate of change which is the killer app here) that the outcome of the long running Middle East problem will be a no State solution as parts of the world become too hot to be habitable. And let’s be clear we are not talking end of century here but likely mid century, which ain’t that far away.

    Now we all know that even though the carbon needs to stay in the ground that’s unlikely to happen, which means current arrangements are not going to survive the resulting stresses (regardless of who happens to be’t biggest, baddest and bestest) particularly when we factor in such as:

    The key fact here is that this out of control debt crisis is borrowing from the future rather than existing current accounts (Kipling’s poem is again relevant here)

    But I’m just an engineer, not a oxygen breathing decision maker. Perhaps it’s time to re-revise the Crash Course:

    • Dave, I’ve been e-conversing today with Roger Annis, whose blog – A Socialist in Canada – I strongly recommend. He too takes climate change very seriously. As for me, I’ve no wish to minimise the existential threat posed by capitalism’s destruction of nature. But like it or not those Caspian reserves will be exploited, and I’d rather it was by those five littoral states than, again, the planet’s most rapacious capitalism. Not least because if there’s a glimmer of hope here – including on the environment – it’s that the USA can no longer act with impunity in its global plunder.

      Well that’s the way I see it …

  4. Like you Philip, I believe the Caspian Sea agreement is a double edged sword in that it means even more environmentally hostile energy reserves being exploited, but I think it quite crucial that these countries do the exploiting rather than the already massively wealthy corporations of the murderous Imperialist countries who plunder incessantly for self enrichment with little benefit to others.

      • Hi Susan. Re your opening sentence, sadly I must agree. (Sadly because I still see much of value in Trotsky’s writing – and btw he was a terrific pensman – and would recommend to anyone his The Revolution Betrayed.) I’ve had less than comradely exchanges with members of Trotskyist sects over Syria. They were just as bad on Iraq and Libya, and have swallowed the Russia-is-imperialist line without doing a scrap of theoretical work on the question. Our mutual friend Roger Annis is good on this. See his blog, A Socialist in Canada.

        Re your penultimate sentence, I’m not sure what you’re asking me. Could you rephrase it?

        Your final sentence I’ll forward to AA. I’m sure she’ll be pleased. Like you she combines a passionate sense of right and wrong with rare – I speak of course as a feller – modesty and lack of pretension.

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