As the largest closed lake in the world, the Caspian Sea has always played an important role for coastal countries, especially the Islamic Republic of Iran and Russia. Although this great water source was neglected at some point, this region is currently struggling with a new situation, including the renaissance of Russia, powerful Iran, ambitious Azerbaijan, growing China, and the rise of Islamic extremism. This is while in the third millennium, due to the discovery of huge oil and gas resources, this region has gained a more prominent position for the coastal countries and in the energy supply process of Europe and Turkey.
The energy resources of the Caspian Sea have made the region of special international importance. According to forecasts, there are about 48 billion barrels of oil and 292 trillion cubic meters of natural gas proven and probable resources in the region. In addition to oil and gas, this region is home to more than a hundred types of fish, the most important of which is the European Estrogen, listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). About 90% of the black and red sturgeon sold in the world are from the Caspian Sea. However, over the decades, the existence of fish in the region has been threatened due to overfishing and pollution.
Another important issue is that the Caspian Sea is located between Europe and Asia, two continents that are the largest energy consumption markets in the world today. Therefore, billions of dollars are spent to connect the region to other parts of the world and in new and modern corridors and rails to connect the Caspian to Europe, East Asia, and India; some are active, and some are being launched.
In general, the Caspian is a challenging region, and despite several rounds of negotiations and the signing of the document, there is still no clear situation regarding the share and access of the coastal countries. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran are the biggest players in the region, and Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan are emerging as regional powers.
Russia’s conflict in Ukraine has strengthened and changed the activism of some countries along the Caspian Sea. For example, the foreign policy of Baku, as one of the important countries in using the oil resources of the Caspian region, focuses on strengthening independence, improving the position in the international community, ensuring the country’s territorial integrity, and eliminating the consequences of the military conflict with Armenia and providing economic and energy security based on defence policies. On the other hand, Turkey is trying to strengthen its role and influence in the region with the components of cultural, linguistic, and economic relations with three countries that have Turkish ethnicity, namely Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, especially with very close relations with Baku, and Turkish companies are investing billions of dollars in the region.
Iran is also one of the stable powers of Eurasia and, therefore, has a special position in the Caspian region. The southernmost part of the Caspian Sea is located in Iran and is very deep and contains two-thirds of the total volume of seawater. After Russia, Iran is the second largest country in the world, with 10% of the world’s crude oil reserves and 17% of its natural gas reserves. Of course, Iran’s oil reserves, like gas reserves, are located far from the shores of the Caspian Sea. Still, recently, the news of restricting the Volga River’s water intake has worried Tehran. The interesting thing to note is that the people of Iran pay special attention to the Caspian Sea as the most important recreational and natural tourism destination in all seasons, especially summer.
Also, the Caspian region has a growing importance for regional and extra-regional powers. In recent years, the United States has paid special attention to the Caspian region with important goals such as strengthening the Caspian to become a transportation centre, stable and safe production of energy resources, monitoring the movements of Iran and Russia, and resolving long disputes in the region. Europe’s multilateral relations with regional countries also focus on practical cooperation based on economic and energy issues.
On the other hand, China has made heavy investments in some infrastructure projects in Central Asia. The main part of China’s activities is in the eastern part of the shores of the Caspian Sea. Russia has exerted its maximum influence in the region through economic, diplomatic, and military means and has the largest naval fleet in the Caspian Sea. Russian trade and investment have been developed in each of the coastal countries of the Caspian Sea, and organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union, which Russia supports, are trying to bind the capital of the countries to Moscow through agreements and treaties.
In the Caspian, Moscow is focusing on issues such as the marginalization of Western influence in the region, the convergence of regional countries under the supervision of supported organizations, and discouraging foreign investment in Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, which can facilitate the flow of oil and gas to the European market, and focus on the increasing economic activity with other coastal countries of the Caspian Sea.
Therefore, the changes in the playing field, especially the competition and, in some cases, the conflict between regional and extra-regional actors in the Caspian region, have caused this region to continue to be of great importance in the strategic chess of regional and global powers in the future and be considered as one of the focal points.
Disclaimer. The views and opinions expressed in this analysis are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of MEPEI or/and IPIS. Any content provided by our authors is of their opinion and is not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.
About the author:
Ali Beman Eghbali Zarch is Senior Expert in Eurasia issues at IPIS (Institute for Political and International Studies), Tehran, Iran.