By David Hagman
Despite its name, the Caspian Sea is often referred to as the world’s largest lake. It has also been referred to as an “enclosed sea”, an “inland sea”, or a “unique body of water”. According to dictionaries and common perceptions, a lake is defined as a reasonably large area of water surrounded by land and not connected to the ocean, unlike seas. The Caspian Sea, however, is not a typical lake. For one, it is enormous (with a surface of 374 000 km², it outsizes Germany), and it has been referred to as a sea since antiquity.
Whether to call it a sea or a lake might sound like an utterly trivial matter, but it does have great implications for international relations. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a nation’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles (roughly 22 kilometers) into the ocean, with the rest being considered international waters. Lakes, on, the other hand, are divided bi- or multilaterally between the adjacent countries. Being rich in oil, gas, and caviar, you could probably imagine why the surrounding nations want to get as big a chunk as possible of the Caspian Sea’s riches.
During much of modern history, the Caspian Sea was divided between the Russians and the Iranians. In the early 19th century, Iran lost big portions of its possessions in Central Asia and the Caucasus to tsarist Russia, and in the Ttreaty of Turkmenchay of 1828, they were forbidden from having a navy in the Caspian Sea. Fast forward to the Russian Revolution, Lenin decided that none of the treaties signed by imperial Russia was valid, so they renegotiated the terms, and in 1921 it was decided that Iran could have their Caspian navy, and the sea/lake would be shared “equally”.
However, Iran had trouble competing with its superpower neighbor for the resources under the seabed. When the Soviets started drilling for oil in the shallow waters off the coast of today’s Azerbaijan, the Iranians did not have the wherewithal to set up their own oil rigs.
Whether to call it a sea or a lake might sound like an utterly trivial matter, but it does have great implications for international relations
After the fall of the USSR, five nations had to agree on how to divide the giant lake. To simplify, Iran and Russia wanted the Caspian Sea to be a condominium, a common possession of all surrounding countries, which would exploit its resources together. Iran was especially keen on keeping foreign companies out of the picture. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, wanted to divide it and bring in the multinational firms that could develop its vast oil fields the quickest. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan wanted to recognize the Caspian Sea as a sea and apply the 12-nautical-miles rule according to the UN’s convention (which they never signed themselves, though).
According to a temporary solution, every country would get exclusive rights over water and seabed 45 nautical miles (83 kilometers) from their shore, with the rest being shared among them. However, this solution would soon be undermined by several bilateral agreements. In 1994, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs scolded Azerbaijan for setting up a consortium of western companies to exploit its oil fields, even threatening to disrupt the project by force.
At the same time, Azerbaijan had given the Russian oil company Lukoil a substantial share of this consortium, and the Russian Ministry of Fuel and Power was assisting the same project that the other branch of the government was threatening. Eventually, the oil companies’ interests prevailed, and Russia supported dividing up the whole seabed among the nations involved, but how?
Iran, claiming that the 1921 treaty conferred 50 percent of the Caspian to them, made the point that an equal 20-percent split of the sea would be a fair compromise. The other four argued that one should consider the countries’ shorelines and that the border should be “equidistant”, which is equally far from lands on both sides.
This would not benefit Iran since they occupy a short end of the Caspian. In addition, the part closest to them is the deepest, with depths reaching one kilometer, which is difficult to drill and mine.
After decades of negotiations, the nations bordering the Caspian Sea reached a provisional agreement in the Kazakh city of Aktau in 2018, using the principle of equidistant line, which left Iran with a paltry 13 percent of the Caspian Sea. They also agreed to not host any military from other than the five nations and to cooperate in combating organized crime and smuggling in the area. However, the division only applies to the water and not the bottom of the lake.
Thumbnail illustration: Angelica Halvarsson