Tension mounted in the southern Caspian in late July when an Iranian air force plane crossed the Astana Gasankuli line which had marked the sea border between the Soviet Union and Iran and circled over two Azerbaijani ships. An Iranian warship approached and demanded that the Azerbaijani vessels move five miles to the north.
The two geological exploration ships were sailing near the Araz-Alov-Sharg oilfields (as they are known in Azerbaijan). Six days later, another Iranian plane entered the area. Azerbaijani military specialists say the plane flew at 500 km/h at a height of 200 meters, meaning it could have taken photographs of the oilfields. Azerbaijan considers the oilfields its territory and wants to develop them together with British companies. Iran also claims the area.
These are the ingredients for a potential conflict that has C.I.S. leaders worried. It stems from the unsettled demarcation of the sea borders of the strategic and economically crucial Caspian sea. Previous treaties called for a sharing of Caspian resources between the U.S.S.R. and Iran, the only two nations bordering the sea at that time. But with the fall of the Soviet Union, there are now five countries bordering the body of water, and it is not yet been decided how to divide up the riches.
Iran and Turkmenistan are pushing for an equal division 20 percent each for themselves, Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakstan. Meanwhile, Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakstan say the Caspian should be divided up in relation to each nation's physical border on the sea, which would give Iran the smallest share. It's a volatile mix of oil and national pride that some fear could someday lead to a shooting war.
Commenting at the recent C.I.S. summit in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin said it was unacceptable to use force to resolve disputes in the Caspian. "It is our common task to do everything we can to make the Caspian a sea of peace and tranquility," he said. The presidents of Azerbaijan and Kazakstan also expressed commitment to resolving disputes by peaceful means.
But the Iranians seem to be in a more militant mood. Commenting on the actions by his country's armed forces, Akhad Gazai, the Iranian Ambassador to Azerbaijan, said his government had repeatedly warned Azerbaijan about trying to develop the disputed oilfields before the Caspian's status was officially decided.
Gazai said Iran and the former Soviet Union never signed an agreement on using the Caspian seabed. "The agreements signed in 1920, 1921 and 1940 gave both states equal shipping rights in the Caspian," he said. "Officially, the Astara-Gasankuli line didn't exist; it was just that as the stronger country, the Soviet Union wouldn't let Iran past that line. But now there is no Soviet Union, and the five Caspian nations have to come to an agreement on its status."
"The Caspian countries have long been talking about the need to agree on the sea's status," said Military Academy Professor Valery Alexin, who was formerly a counter-admiral and chief naval navigator. "The problem is, it's very difficult to reach an agreement. There are a lot of countries, not just the Caspian countries themselves, who have their eyes on a sea that could yield 15-30 billion tons of oil and gas. With diplomatic negotiations not going anywhere, force is starting to come into play. Iran has the strongest naval potential in the region after Russia, and it has decided to put on a show of force."
Alexin noted that Iran has raised defense spending to more than 7 percent of its GDP in recent years. It has also mastered technology for building small diesel submarines and naval vessels that could be deployed in the Caspian. He said he also has information that Iran plans to set up tactical squadrons in the Caspian to take part in military action if need be. The squadrons will include submarines, surface vessels, marine aviation and marines, he said.
Alexin saw the fact that Iran purchased a Varshavyanka submarine from Russia in 1995 (it's deployed in the Persian Gulf), has naval officers training at Russia's Baltiisk base and is pursuing cooperation in other military areas as signs that Tehran is serious about being able to ensure its security, including through military operations.
He said that military action in the Caspian was possible if Azerbaijan continued active development of the disputed oilfields. He added that opposition to Baku's plans would come not just from Iran but from Turkmenistan as well. Turkmen authorities think Azerbaijan seized the Osman, Khazar and Altyn Asyr (called "Chirag," "Azeri" and "Sharg" by Azerbaijan) oilfields with the help of an international consortium. Recent negotiations between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan ended without success, and officials in the Turkmen capital Ashkhabad said they would defend their positions in the Caspian by whatever means necessary.
Officially, Turkmenistan has no navy. It renounced its share of the Caspian fleet in favor of Moscow after the breakup of the Soviet Union and guarded its sea border jointly with Russia until 1999. But Turkmenistan recently bought 20 ships capable of reaching high speeds from Ukraine, half of which are 40-ton vessels equipped with large-caliber machine guns. Turkmenistan also inherited from the Soviet Union the largest aviation group in Central Asia. There have already been cases of Turkmen military aircraft flying over territory it disputes with Azerbaijan.
But how prepared is Azerbaijan for military action? Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev has been stressing peaceful relations with Iran in public comments. He is set to visit Iran this month, and so far there has been no official word that the visit might be called off. Azerbaijan said it still hopes for a peaceful solution, probably the reason it took no retaliatory action toward the Iranians in recent incidents.
"This doesn't mean Azerbaijan should have resorted to using arms," Col. Elchin Guliyev, Azerbaijani Border Guards commander, told journalists. "Retaliatory action could have dealt a serious blow to our bilateral relations."
But should it choose, Azerbaijan does have the capacity to retaliate. Baku was home to the Caspian Fleet Headquarters un-til 1992, and after the breakup of the Soviet Union it inherited 25 percent of the fleet's surface vessels and a considerable part of the infrastructure. It is true that a lot of valuable equipment and arms were withdrawn to Russia, but the remaining infrastructure and Baku's longtime status as home to the Caspian Fleet still makes it the largest base on the Caspian along, with Astrakhan.
This means that both sides in the conflict have the military potential to wage a war in the Caspian. Meanwhile, Russia and Kazakstan are also increasing their military potential in the area.
With 20,000 men, Russia has the largest fleet in the region. It has plans to further develop it and can reinforce it from the air through its links with Air Force units in the North Caucasus Military District. Russia has recently beefed up the Caspian fleet with amphibious planes, patrol and anti-ship helicopters and new vessels including four missile and artillery fast-attack craft. Analysts from the Turan Azerbaijan Information Agency said that Russia recently has nearly doubled its military potential in the Caspian.
Kazakstan is not far behind. Kazak President Nursultan Nazarbayev called the Caspian a priority region for his country's armed forces.
Like Turkmenistan, Kazakstan renounced its share of the Caspian Fleet in 1992 and has only border guards and coastguards in the area, based in the Caspian ports of Aktau and Atyrau.
Russia has signed agreements with Kazakstan to help it purchase ships and modernize its infrastructure. Kazakstan has agreements with Russia, Turkey and Ukraine to have marine personnel train in these countries' naval academies. It is also opening its own naval academy this year in Aktau.
"I think the military buildup in the Caspian will deal a serious blow to security issues in the region," said Georgy Trapeznikov, president of the International Academy of Spiritual Unity Among the Peoples of the World. "Armed conflict can't be ruled out in the present situation. At the next meeting to relaunch dialogue on the sea's status, the Caspian states should agree on withdrawing naval forces from the area. It's enough to have customs and border-guard services there."
(Vladimir Mukhin is military correspondent for Nezavisimaya Gazeta.)