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Old spoils and the sea
Diplomatic history of the Caspian Sea

July 27, 2001
The Iranian

The current dispute between Iran and Azerbaijan is only the latest development in the ongoing wranglings between regional states over the Caspian Sea's huge oil and gas resources. Guive Mirfendereski's A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea: Treaties, Diaries, and Other Stories (Palgrave, 2001) puts these events into perspective by providing a historic background from 1720 to present. Several excerpts from the book will be published in iranian.com, beginning with Houchang E. Chehabi's foreword (below). Mirfendereski, a regular contributor to iranian.com, is a professorial lecturer in international relations and law, and practices law in Massachusetts. Chehabi is professor of international relations and history at Boston University.

-- Chapter titles and endorsements
-- Foreward
-- Introduction
-- Chapter 13: Taming of the Turkmans
-- Chapter 31: The Shah's Northern Navy
-- Chapter 33: Making Virtue of Necessity
-- Appendix

Foreward

Guive Mirfendereski's book is the first study in a Western language to probe Iran's relationship with the Caspian Sea, the world's largest lake. Most Iranians are far more familiar with the Caspian Sea than with the Persian Gulf, yet the body of water that bears Iran's old name has been the object of far more scholarly attention than the big lake in the north that Iranians call the Khazar Sea or, less often, the Sea of Mazandaran. The reason for this neglect is that until relatively recently the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf was much more complicated and volatile than that of the Caspian Sea.

However, for ordinary Iranians, especially in the northern half of the country where most of them live, the Caspian Sea and its southern shore occupy a privileged place in their geographic imagination. This is because the Iranian provinces bordering on the Caspian, nowadays collectively referred to as the "North" (shomal), are not at all typical for the country:

Where the rest of Iran is mostly arid and sparsely populated, the Caspian provinces are humid, covered with lush vegetation, and marked by high population density. On the plateau houses are inward-looking and enclose a courtyard invisible from the outside; in the North they often have verandas and are open to the public space of the village. On the plateau bread was until recently the staple of most people's daily diet; in the North it has always been rice.

Finally, gender relations have traditionally been more egalitarian and the sexes less segregated than on the plateau. To visualize this, one need only watch such internationally acclaimed films as Bashu: The Little Stranger and The Color of Paradise, which illustrate a cultural specificity that led the French anthropologist Christian Bromberger to call the Caspian provinces an "Iran in reverse."

Politically, the North was for a long time somewhat aloof from the Iranian Plateau: The Alburz Mountains and the insalubrious climate of the jungle that covered its northern slopes kept outsiders out. The Arab conquest of Iran in the seventh century did not extend to the southwestern shores of the Caspian, Gilan, and reached its neighbor to the east, Tabaristan -- today's Mazandaran --, only in the second half of the eighth century. Most of the time local dynasties, some of which traced their lineage to pre-Islamic noble families, continued ruling. The Caspian Sea was much less of a barrier than the mountains, and its southern shores were visited by, among others, Viking raiders and Genoese traders who had come down the Volga.

It was only under the Safavids (1500-1722) that the areas north of the Alburz Mountains were brought permanently into the ambit of the Iranian state. This dynasty's inglorious end in the eighteenth century coincided with the beginning of the Russian Empire's southward expansion, which, in the nineteenth century, extended the Russian domains on both sides of the Caspian at the expense of Iran, leading to a dramatic contraction of Iranian shorelines.

The last two imperial dynasties of Iran, the Qajars (1796-1925) and the Pahlavis (1925-1979), both hailed from Mazandaran, and their capital, Tehran, was relatively close to the Sea. Under their rule the Iranian state made up for losing its peripheral territories in the northwest and the northeast by reasserting its control over what remained; successive Shahs paid personal attention to the Caspian provinces, as Mirfendereski's vignettes suggestively document.

For most of the twentieth century the Caspian Sea was bounded by only two states. Iran was by far the weaker of the two, and "knew its place": Russian domination was nowise contested. The dissymetry was only mitigated by the fact that the sea is deeper on the Iranian side in the south, making Iranian waters home to species of sturgeon that produce a higher quality roe than the ones found farther to the north: sophisticated palates prefer Persian to Russian caviar.

But the southern coasts were for Iranians to enjoy, and in the 1960s Darya (Sea) became synonymous with the Caspian, as improved communications by land and by air turned the beaches and coastal areas of the once isolated provinces into a playground for the new middle class. Sadly, a sharp rise in the sea-level destroyed many beaches in the 1980s and 1990s, and those that remained lost much of their luster when gender apartheid was imposed on them in the name of Islamic morality following the revolution of 1979.

The break-up of the Soviet Union in 1992 changed the geopolitics of the Caspian region. With the independence of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, three new sovereign nations were added to the old duumvirate. Moreover, the Russian Federation's window on the Caspian includes the two republics of Dagestan and Kalmykia, the former the most multiethnic republic in the federation, the latter home to a Mongolian people among whom the Dalai Lama enjoys much respect.

The Caspian Sea is thus a space where the Slavic, Turkic, Iranian, Caucasian, and Mongolian cultures meet, its shores home to people professing Islam (in both its Sunni and Shi'i varieties), Christianity, and Buddhism. Outside powers, lured by putative oil wealth, complicate the picture further.

Since 1992 the old legal regime imposed by the Soviet Union on Iran no longer pertains, and the five littoral states have attempted, with more or less good faith, to come to an agreement as to the division of the Caspian among them. Much of the discussion has focused on the question of whether the Caspian is a "sea" or a "lake." As Mirfendereski convincingly shows, however, this is a moot point, for under international law there is no standard method for dividing up lakes.

In other words, whether "sea" or "lake," it is up to Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Azerbaijan to negotiate their respective boundaries on the water. While these countries' governments dither, their technologically obsolete industries and growing cities continue turning the Caspian into a cesspool, threatening its wildlife as well as the health of its coastal dwellers. This is all the more sadly ironic as one of the first international treaties to provide for environmental protection, the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, was negotiated in and named after the once-idyllic seaside resort in Mazandaran.

Guive Mirfendereski's book brings to life the human experience of the inhabitants of Iran's Caspian provinces and sheds light on the policy constraints that geography and the realities of international politics have imposed on Iran's leaders over the last few centuries. All those interested in the new geopolitics of Central and Southwest Asia will learn from it.

Houchang E. Chehabi

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