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19

Trouble brews in Caspian Sea

A dispute that began 10 years ago over oil and gas deposits is taking a turn for the military. A rapid build-up of Russian and Iranian naval and other armed forces is taking place in the Caspian Sea as the countries in the region move to enforce a demarcation line drawn up in the 1950s, according to a Russian report published this week.

A dispute that began 10 years ago over oil and gas deposits is taking a turn for the military.
A rapid build-up of Russian and Iranian naval and other armed forces is taking place in the Caspian Sea as the countries in the region move to enforce a demarcation line drawn up in the 1950s, according to a Russian report published this week.
Their immediate targets are US and other international oil, engineering and shipping companies operating in the region, but the outcome could be a shooting war between Iran and Azerbaijan affecting global oil prices, Russian military analysts believe.
Valery Alexin, a professor at the Military Academy in Moscow, sayi Iran would shortly deploy tactical squadrons in the Caspian including submarines, surface vessels, marine aviation and marines. Military action in the Caspian is "possible", Alexin says, "if Azerbaijan continues active development of disputed oil fields".
Russian forces were also being mobilized in the Caspian. "With 20000 men, Russia has the largest fleet in the region. It has recently beefed up the fleet with amphibious planes, patrol and antiship helicopters and new vessels including four missile and artillery fast-attack craft."
A month ago, Iran made the first show of force in the Caspian, when military aircraft buzzed a British Petroleum (BP) exploration vessel, the Geofizik-3, and an Azeri vessel, which were working near a group of offshore oil fields known in Azerbaijan as Araz, Alov and Sharg. An armed Iranian patrol boat then approached and ordered the BP and Azeri vessels to move several miles to the north.
This, according to Russian naval sources, was the first time Iran tried to enforce the Astara-Gasankuli (Hosseingholi if spelled the Iranian way) line a demarcation line between the eastern and western shores of the Caspian, negotiated in the mid-1950s by Soviet and Iranian diplomats. It granted Iran a maritime zone in the Caspian of 11%, while the Soviet Union claimed the rest.
The dispute that began when the Soviet Union broke up 10 years ago has seen all five Caspian littoral states Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan claim offshore zones where valuable oil and gas deposits are believed to lie. Azerbaijan has disregarded the Astara-Gasankuli line, and granted concessions to foreign oil companies including BP.
Iran has told Azerbaijan it will not agree to offshore oil drilling until there is general agreement on the sea territory. It is refusing to accept a zone of 14% delineated on maps drafted in Moscow and Baku. These give Russia 17%, Kazakhstan 29%, Turkmenistan 20% and Azerbaijan 20%.
Policymakers in Moscow have been torn between the domestic oil companies, the foreign ministry and the defence ministry. The government agencies remain more supportive of Iran, while oil companies have already built alliances to develop undersea deposits everywhere but in the Iranian zone.
Victor Kalyuzhny, a former oil company executive who is now the Kremlin's special representative for Caspian Sea negotiations, has tried isolating Iran by announcing Russian agreements with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.
A meeting in Moscow between President Vladimir Putin and President Mohammad Khatami avoided open disagreement and, since then, Kalyuzhny has been unable to convene a summit meeting of the Caspian Five. A public insult he issued to the Iranians also encouraged Tehran to pursue a unilateral policy of dissuasion by force.
Russian military policymakers say they feel closer to Iran, which is a major buyer of Russian arms and a supporter of Russia's policy to contain US and Turkish influence in the region.
The Russian military backed the foreign ministry's pro-Iranian equal-zone proposals when Yevgeny Primakov was foreign minister before 1998.
Although Putin recently said it was unacceptable to use force to resolve the dispute, Russian officers are quietly satisfied with the Iranian display of force and the deterrent effect this has had on western oil companies. Kalyuzhny, however, said an arms build-up in the region would hurt business.
"There are a lot of countries," said Alexin. "Not just the Caspian countries themselves, who have their eyes on a sea that could yield 15- to 30-billion tons of oil and gas. With diplomatic negotiations not going anywhere, force is starting to come into play."
Neftegaz.ru