Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s frequently begins his speeches with a prayer for justice and peace. Implicit in the ritual is the idea that Iran is the peace-seeking foil to America’s belligerence, as much a defender of the globally downtrodden as America is their oppressor. But Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric is sharply at variance with his conduct of foreign policy.
One could get a glimpse of the real Ahmadinejad at last month’s international summit in Teheran. The summit was held with the goal of allowing the nations bordering the Caspian Sea to reconcile their territorial differences over that energy-rich zone. The Caspian’s division was previously established by two agreements between Iran and the Soviet Union, dating back to 1921 and 1940 respectively. The Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991 brought confusion into the region when four independent nations – Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan – emerged in place of the former USSR. Since then, the five littoral states have squabbled over how much of the Caspian territory they deserve.
At first sight, Ahmadinejad’s position seems reasonable. He argues that the landlocked sea should be divided equally, with each country receiving a fifth. What makes that position grossly unjust is that Iran has by far the shortest coastline of all – only some thirteen percent. Understandably, then, the other nations do not like Ahmadinejad’s proposal. They call for a different division, one in which each country would receive a share in proportion to the length of its shoreline. It is a reasonable solution to the controversial territory, one normally used in disputes of this nature.
Ahmadinejad, however, strongly opposes such a compromise. He insists that Iran be granted one fifth of the disputed territory -- a land grab that far exceeds Iran’s defensible claims. In essence, Ahmadinejad is demanding fifty percent more than he is entitled to. Under most circumstances, this kind of international insolence would be laughed out of the conference hall. That Iran’s proposal still stands is thus less a commentary on its merit, such as it is, than a testimony to the fact that the Islamic Republic has the ear of the most powerful member of the Caspian group, Russia.
There are two main reasons for why Russia finds Iran’s position appealing. To begin with, Iran’s scheme would give Russia some five percent more than what it is by rights entitled to. Given today’s energy prices, this would translate into many millions in extra revenue. Even more important, Ahmadinejad’s scheme would make it more difficult for Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to lay pipelines across the Caspian to transport oil and gas to European destinations. This is especially important to Russia, which holds a virtual monopoly on fuel transport to Europe. (And it’s not only in the energy sector that Russia’s monopoly on negotiating energy prices gives it outsize leverage. If you have ever wondered why the Europeans have been largely silent about Russia’s domestic political excesses in recent years, this is a big part of the reason.)
By dangling before Russia the prospect of financial and strategic bribe, Ahmadinejad is hoping to deprive the three smaller states of their due portion. The biggest winner, of course, would be Ahmadinejad himself, since under his proposal Iran would receive one half more than its rightful share. This would be gained at the expense of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, whose fields happen to be more oil-rich than those of Iran.
Azerbaijan’s deposits in particular are considered to be the most valuable in the region, especially the Araz-Alov-Sharg sector that lies just north of the Iranian border, and which Iran would like to appropriate as its own. This it has been trying to accomplish through largely unwholesome means, military intimidation being foremost among them. There have been several incidents in recent years when Iran dispatched military vessels and aircraft into its neighbor’s waters hoping to frighten Azerbaijan out of its territorial legacy.
It should be evident from this background that, at today’s record energy prices, Iran’s takeover would amount to the most brazen instance of international thievery in recent memory. But the full extent of Ahmadinejad’s nastiness will only become obvious when we learn whom he intends to rob. At thirty-three thousand squares miles, Azerbaijan is smaller than Maine and ranks 114 in the world by territory. With barely five million people, Turkmenistan has fewer inhabitants than Wisconsin and places 113 globally in terms of population. It is this diminutive, Shiite Muslim nation that Iran would dispossess of a critical natural resource.
Ahmadinejad’s attempted theft is made more unseemly by the fact that Azerbaijan’s and Turkmenistan’s Caspian field are these countries’ primary source of natural wealth. For Iran, on the other hand, the Caspian is only one of several revenue sources. A large country situated in an oil-soaked corner of the globe, Iran has a number of extensive deposits within its boundaries. Its most valuable happen to be opposite the Caspian in the Persian Gulf.
Presiding over one of the world’s resource-richest nations, Ahmadinejad is trying to rob his two tiny neighbors of a portion of their comparatively modest resources. To put this into perspective, Iran’s territory is nearly twenty times that of Azerbaijan while its population exceeds that of Turkmenistan by a factor of fourteen. As if this were not bad enough, Ahmadinejad is trying to pull this off with the help of Russia – the world’s largest country by far – whom he is offering a bribe of something that does not even belong to him. How ironic that two small, struggling nations stand in danger of being swindled by a self-professed champion of the world’s little guys.