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Filling a void
Diplomatic history of the Caspian Sea

July 30, 2001
The Iranian

From Guive Mirfendereski's A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea: Treaties, Diaries, and Other Stories (Palgrave, 2001) .

-- 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


This book is about the diplomatic history of the Caspian Sea from the early 1720s to the end of the twentieth century. In successive chapters, the work tells the story of the domination of this sea by Russia and the Soviet Union, a process that was thought to have been completed formally with the entry into force of the 1957 Soviet-Iranian Frontier Agreement on December 20, 1962. But, the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the emergence of new actors on the scene have given rise to new issues, one of which is the delimitation of the areas of national jurisdiction.

The Caspian Sea is the world's largest salt water lake. It measures about 750 miles long from north to south and has an average width of 200 miles. Its circumference is about 4,000 miles. With an area of 143,000 square miles, it lies about 93.5 feet below the ocean level. Its maximum depths of about 3,360 feet occur in the south. For decades, its water level had been receding, but of late it has begun to rise again, causing coastal flooding that in some areas has resulted in the complete submergence of the old shoreline. The Caspian and its surrounding lands sit atop substantial oil and natural gas reserves, third only to Siberia and the Persian Gulf.

In its proper sense, the term "sea" refers to a collection of salt water surrounded by land. Geographically speaking, the Caspian Sea is a body of water entirely surrounded by land, and as such it is a lake. It owes its designation as a "sea" or "inland sea" to its vastness and to the fact that in its distant past it formed part of a greater sea that included also the Aral, Azov, and bodies to the west. To this heritage, the Caspian owes also its salinity. However, being saline or a vestige of an earlier and larger sea does not necessarily make a body of water a sea. For example, the body of water known as Urmia in western Iran is also saline and shares the same pedigree as the Caspian, but it is called Lake Urmia.

In international law, the Caspian is considered a land-locked body of water because one cannot enter it without first passing through the territory, internal waters, or territorial sea of a coastal state. In the epoch preceding the 1991 dissolution of the USSR, this inland body of water was surrounded by the territories of Iran and the USSR and it would have been governed by whatever rules these two countries imposed in accordance with traditional practices and agreements between them. Yet, on this point, for example, Iran's 1955 continental shelf-legislation provided expressly that the basis for exploration and exploitation of continental shelf resources of the Caspian Sea had been and was to be in accordance with principles of international law relative to enclosed seas.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 gave rise to four new territorial sovereignties along the Caspian coast: Kazakhstan; Turkmenistan; the Russian Federation, which on the Caspian consists of the republics of Daghestan, Kalmykia, and Russia proper; and Azerbaijan, not to be confused with the part of northwest Iran called Azarbaijan. Previously, the Caspian coastline had run six parts in the territory of the USSR and one part in Iran, but now the coast is divided between five countries, each vying to reach out and secure, among other things, a part of the sea's oil and gas deposits.

Most contemporary works on the Caspian are in the form of articles or monograms, and almost all are about oil and gas, pipelines, and urgent security issues. Lost in all this is the historical record about this sea in the context of the relations of the two countries that bordered it exclusively for such a long time before the collapse of the Soviet Union. This work hopes to fill this void in the historical record.

This narrative employs geography, history, anecdotes, and international law notes in order to tell the story of the Caspian's status primarily from the Iranian perspective and generally in reference to Russian-Iranian diplomatic relations. When appropriate, especially in the context of the twentieth century, the stories are told against the backdrop of larger events, like the World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

My academic interest in the Caspian Sea is of recent origin. A few years ago, I was asked to contribute a chapter on the legal regime of the Caspian Sea to an edited volume. At first I hesitated but eventually accepted the challenge, largely because I knew the subject would grow on me just as I had grown to love the ritualistic and perilous summer journeys that my family took to the Caspian coast in the 1960s. On the map, the distance from the Iranian capital of Tehran to the Caspian coast was not much. In reality, however, to get from Tehran to the coast, on the other side of the Alborz Mountains, meant embarking on an odyssey of many hours of tricky driving along narrow and meandering roads. The single lane that crawled north and the return lane each intermittently hugged the mountain and then flirted with the edge of the precipice in one neverending and continuously nauseating swirl. Where the flimsy guardrail or safety barrier was not interrupted by a vehicular punctuation mark, the carcass of a smashed up automobile resting against the mountain side instead served as reminder that this road was dangerous.

The result of the game of chicken played by reckless drivers was proof positive that human miscalculation was in its end as devastating as the ravages of the physical hazards on this road, especially at night. The fog, fog lights, bright headlights, trucks and mini buses decked like shrines on wheels, in all colors of light, and the ritual honking of the horn enriched the texture of the experience of travelling to shomal, "the North," or going back to shahr, "the City," as the destinations were commonly described by the Tehranis. My favorite part of the Tehran-to-Chalus trip was when we motored through the tunnel that connected a part of the barren foothills of Alborz Mountains' slopes with its green, lavish, and tropical northern side that faced the Caspian Sea. The Kandavan Tunnel had been carved some 30 years earlier and legend told of the human sacrifice expended in the carving of this hole in the rock, which was dug with fingernails, shovels, hoes, and by laborers practically in slave conditions. Yet, it all stood as a symbolic representation of the will of a people and the steely determination and "can do" attitude of the Iranian ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi.

Before entering the tunnel, the skin felt warm and dry. Some short distance into it, the air became cool, then cold, very and then very, very cold; icicles appeared on the walls and overhead. One rolled up the window. A blanket was always comforting. Some distance later, the natural light would appear and on exiting the tunnel the air would begin to warm up, greenery would eventually appear everywhere, and then the skin would begin slowly to feel sticky from humidity. Welcome to the North, vacation had begun.

My earliest memory of grappling with the limits of the Caspian dates to one of those summer vacations. One evening in the mid-1960s, as the sun was setting over the Ghazian lagoon, I pointed in the direction of the single cargo ship heading away into the open sea and asked an elder where it was going to, what lay on the other side of the sea. "Russia," he replied. Interestingly, regardless of the country across the way being known at the time as the Soviet Union, to Iranians everything to the north had been, was, and still is Russia. In military maneuvers of the generation preceding mine, the enemy was always advancing from the north, as indeed Russia had done with great regularity and relish in 1722-1723, in the nineteenth century, and again at the time of World War I and World War II.

The question of the ownership of the Caspian seeped into my consciousness in seventh or eight grade. I recall distinctly, albeit more in abstract than in a verbatim recollection, a teacher, of history or geography, relating to the class one day how Iran had lost the Caspian to the Russians. The story went something like this: The minister came to the king and said to him, "Lord, the Russians desire the Caspian Sea." "The water of this Caspian," the shah queried, "is it sweet or salty?" "Salty, my Lord," rejoined the minister. The shah thought for a moment and said, "In that case, let them have it." Just recently, I learned that the anecdote originated apparently with Hajji Mirza Aqasi, a minister to the Iranian king Fathali Shah Qajar (1797-1834) and later prime minister to Mohammad Shah Qajar (1834-1848). Born and raised in Yerevan, now in Armenia, Aqasi is said to have muttered, "We are not about to embitter the Tsar of Russia and his sweet disposition over the Caspian's saline waters."

When a graduate student in Medford, Massachusetts, I frequently availed myself of my cousins' hospitality in Vermont. During one of the trips to Burlington, I got lost driving and happened upon Caspian Lake in the middle of the state. In discovering this exciting toponymic connection with my earlier years, I retold the adventure to my uncle. An accomplished and informed sailor, he pulled out an atlas and we poured over the map of Vermont, and later the study inevitably extended to looking up the Caspian Sea. When he asked about the Soviet-Iranian boundary in the sea, I had to confess complete ignorance. In all the summers that I had played in its sand and waves, the Caspian had seemed so limitless.

In selecting an appropriate title for this book, I first toyed with the title "At The Water's Edge: Iran and the Caspian Sea," a title that spoke to my own view that historically Iranians by and large were content with their sovereignty ending at the edge of the Caspian as long as fisheries and navigation were permitted to the local inhabitants of Iran's Caspian provinces. Another possibility was to call the book "Caspian Stories," but this title did not convey fully the contents of the work, which trace the diplomatic history of the Caspian Sea in the context of Russian-Iranian relations. Regardless of the broad appeal of the present title, the objective has been all along to provide a unique review of the diplomatic history of this basin, and by no means it is intended for this undertaking to be the only or the last word on the subject.

Purchase A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Guive Mirfendereski


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