Long-Awaited Deal Reached Over Contested Caspian Sea

Last week, states bordering the Caspian Sea signed a deal agreeing upon a legal framework for sharing the contested body of water. After twenty years of negotiations, Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan have taken a landmark step towards regional peace. Under the agreement, the Caspian partners settled on 15 miles of sovereign waters extending from their coastline, in addition to 10 nautical miles of fishing zones beyond that. Beyond the fishing areas, there will exist common waters.

After the agreement was signed, Putin had been positive about the outcome. “Our summit is exceptional, if not truly epoch making,” he’d stated to The Guardian. Comments from the Iranian President had also been positive, although perhaps not as effusive, with Hassan Rouhani describing the deal as “a very important step”, but that there are “more important issues that need to be addressed”. Additionally, Reuters reports Rouhani remarking that “the delimitation of the seabed will require additional agreements between littoral nations”.

The diplomatic victory relies on vague wording and side-stepping decisive measures, writes Phoebe Greenwood in The Guardian, in reference to the delaying of how to split up the hydrocarbon-rich subsoil territory. Indeed, the above comments by the Iranian faction demonstrate the nuances involved in the deal and the importance of regional politics. Rouhani’s reluctant decision to agree to such an ambiguous deal evidences the difficulties facing Iran at this time – namely, the economic pressure from US sanctions. According to political scientist and author Ariane Tabatabai, “The best possible outcome for the Iranians will be to walk away with something tangible to take back to Tehran that says we’re doing just fine with or without US sanctions”. On a similar note, political analyst and Caspian Sea expert Stanislav Pritchin commented to The Guardian: “The signing of the convention is the real outcome – that is the great success.” And certainly, the fact that the regional leaders have reached an agreement should be recognised.

The Caspian Sea is the largest inland body of water in the world, and has been categorised as both a sea and the world’s largest lake. The question of its identity takes on political significance: while the regulation of lake waters is something for neighbouring states to manage, the international community and the United Nations Convention on the Seas have a say over international waters. This is important because the Caspian Sea’s contested natural resources include valuable fisheries, and, most importantly, petroleum and natural gas deposits.

The major power in the Caspian Sea over the last centuries has been Russia, but after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Caspian Sea and its natural resources became a source of contention between the newly created states, Russia and Iran. The body of water is demarcated by Kazakhstan to the northeast, Russia to the northwest, Azerbaijan to the west, Iran to the south, and Turkmenistan to the southeast. Until recently, hostile geopolitical games and negotiations over the seabed have been the norm, mainly focused on Soviet–Iranian treaties. Overall, the Caspian Sea countries had not officially come to terms with their respective maritime claims until last week.

This agreement could have serious implications for geopolitics in the region. The de-militarisation of and the ease of diplomatic relations among the Caspian neighbouring states are two of the main triumphs. This long-awaited convention has the potential to expand regional political and economic cooperation. Furthermore, regional stability and security have huge impacts on societal well-being. It is also a good step on energy policy matters, as the deal could allow the construction of underwater pipelines that would certainly benefit less-developed states like Turkmenistan – and, perhaps, prepare the grounds for more ambitious projects selling natural gas to Europe. The new legal clarity that will come with such an agreement is another win for the region, and countries could take advantage of it to engage in joint hydrocarbons ventures. However, time will tell if the most contentious questions can be solved among the participating nations.

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