Conflict Building Up in Oil-Rich Caspian


 Franz Schurmann


 NCM Online


 6 September 2001

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict dominates the media but offers no threat to America and the world. But a much bigger conflict is emerging over oil and natural gas that involves many more powers, great and small. If that conflict crosses the line between talk and action it could inflict a fuel crisis on America and the world that will make the last one of November-December 1973 look like a minor inconvenience. Franz Schurmann, emeritus professor at UC Berkeley, has written on oil for the last 20 years. His book "The Foreign Politics of Richard Nixon" (UC Institute of International Relations, 1987) analyzes in depth the first great oil crisis. 

Secretary of State Colin Powell got a lot of flak when he decided not to attend the Durban conference on global racism. And he got even more when he pulled out the American delegation in protest against labeling Israel a racist state. Yet he had good reasons for what he did as the number one adviser to President Bush who is the de facto president of the world.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a horror but it is not a threat to the welfare of Americans and the people of the world. But what is going on elsewhere in the Middle East is a big threat to both. It's not difficult to spot the threat if you are, say, over 30 years of age. People of this age group, be they in Boston, Brussels or Beijing, remember that just a decade ago there were fewer vehicles on the road in Boston and Brussels, but much fewer in Beijing. The experts all predict that in the years to come the number will be even greater all over the world. 

The vast majority of vehicles run on gasoline or natural gas. The biggest volume of these two fossil fuels comes from a swath of land from Nigeria to the south and Algeria to the north through the OPEC heart-lands and going deep into the Caspian and Central Asian regions. In this swath there is hardly a place that is stable and prosperous. And in many places there is deep trouble that could radically slash the supply of fossil fuels to most of the world's six billion people who seem to consider oil and gas an everlasting gift from a benevolent God. 

When, in the pre-presidential interim, Powell fingered Iraq as America's greatest global threat, the "mainstream" media guffawed. He never got over his bosses' vetoing a march on Baghdad back in 1991 when Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But Powell started his governmental career not long before the great oil crisis of October-November 1973. Powell's boss, the new secretary of state Henry Kissinger, called it a death threat to the Western world. It was the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930's. It took about two and a half years for the industrial world to climb out of it. 

Iraq is number two in the world in reserves of oil and natural gas (Saudi Arabia is number one by far). But even more important is Iraq's pivotal position vis-a-vis staunch US ally Saudi Arabia to the south, a resurgent Iran to the east and a similarly resurgent Russia to the north. The Saudis still have a deep fear of Saddam Hussein. The Iranians hate him with a passion because the Sunni Saddam reigns over a country whose Arab majority is overwhelmingly Shi'ah, a faith that the great majority of Iranians share (only 10 percent of the world's one billion Muslims are Shi'ah). And the Russians are now moving back into the Middle Eastern arena in a way that American strategists fear in the short term as much as they fear a surging China in the long term. 

Nowhere is the Great Game (shorthand for the power politics of oil and gas in Central Asia) being played more dead seriously than in the Caspian region. In the August 29 issue of the Egyptian Al-Ahram Muhammad Simak wrote a column entitled the "Game of Nations in the Caspian. Right at the beginning he wrote that in Caspian waters alone oil reserves amount to 200 billion barrels according to current explorations. And that doesn't include natural gas that comes out of the same offshore wells. 

No informed person any longer says "Caspian Sea," Simak noted. The Caspian is a body of water that could either be called a "great lake" or an "inland sea." According to international law if it is a lake then none of the littoral countries has sovereign rights over the waters. That means they cannot carve out an "economic zone" for themselves. If that's the case then the only way they can lift oil from the waters is by cooperating with each other. (Editor: China and Taiwan have just agreed to jointly lift oil in the Spratley Islands because they claim identical sovereignty rights.) 

But if some or all the countries call it a sea then they can carve out national economic zones. And that could lead to wars between them. There are growing signs that the clashing semantics is creating tensions in the Caspian that could lead to big disputes or worse. Going north from its southwestern corner, five countries abut the Caspian: Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran. Russia, Turkmenistan and Iran agree it is a lake and are cooperating on oil and natural gas projects. However Kazakhstan and especially Azerbaijan say it is a sea. Azerbaijan has already launched oil-lifting operations in waters over which it asserts sovereignty. They invited in British companies to do the work. A few months ago an Iranian warship sent warning signals against the operations. 

A few years ago Azerbaijan asked NATO to admit it into its ranks. According to old maps Azerbaijan is in Europe and therefore is entitled to membership. But "European" Azerbaijan is historically part of an "Asian" Azerbaijan in northwestern Iran that is twice as big as the former. 
Both Azerbaijans have identical peoples, language and religion. They are Turks, speak a Turkish dialect not that different from the language of modern Turkey but are almost all Shi'ah in contrast to the Turks who are overwhelmingly Sunni. Historically religion has drawn them southwards to the Persian empires far more than to the Ottoman empire to the west. 

"European" Azerbaijan is now worried. NATO is too far away to carry any weight in Caspian politics. So for some years now it has been cultivating friendship with its archenemy Armenia to the west. And now it is once again looking to Moscow for protection against Iran some of whose leaders have openly started talking about bringing "European" Azerbaijan back into Iran's fold. 

US-Russia relations have been even more frayed under the Bush administration than under Clinton. Russian president Putin is talking up empire. Some of the Iranian leaders like Mohsin Reza'i are also talking up empire. For the moment the two empires are cooperating and both of them are increasingly hostile to America. 

That means America and Britain are fast being squeezed out of the Caspian and Central Asian oil and gas pictures. Turkmenistan reportedly has the world's greatest reserves of natural gas has, as Simak noted. It has now thrown its lot with Russia and Iran. But what about Iraq? 

From 1980 to 1988 Iraq and Iran fought a bloody war. During much of that time America backed Iraq against Iran. But at the moment America hit Iraq with Operation Desert Storm in January 1991 Saddam flew his entire air force onto Iranian territory. Was some deal in the making between these two bloodied archenemies? The world doesn't know but many suspect there was. Such a deal would not have been surprising because of the close religious affinity between Iraqi Arabs and Iranian Persians, Turks and Arabs (both countries are highly inter-ethnic). 

For America and the Saudis that would have been a cataclysm. Most of the Arabs in Saudi Arabia's oil fields close to the Gulf are also Shi'ah while the people of the capital Riyadh's region called the Nejd are Sunni. If the Saudis saw their monarchy as endangered the Americans had nightmares of an oil crisis many times worse than that of 1974-1976. Washington desperately wants Saddam to become its tool, reluctant or not. But Saddam who has been in power since 1969 -- the same time period, 32 years, as Libya's Mo'amar Qaddhafi -- knows he holds some high cards in his hand and knows that the American president, both Clinton and Bush, hold less than Western observers think. 

Colin Powell well knows what's going on in the Middle East. And Condoleeza Rice, a Russia expert, has comparable awareness about Russia. But many if not most Americans know or intuit the real crisis as they drive along in their vehicles: how can we keep all these cars going without more and more dangerous and destructive wars? A lot of Americans, looking at the jumpy stock markets, see the country as skating on thin ice.

But the Bush team, like their predecessors going back to October-November 1973, know the correct fear is gas tanks all over the world, some going dry while others are full or half full. Such a contingency will lead to conflicts a thousand times worse than the horrors of the Holy Land.


>> For more:
>> CASPIAN SEA REGION - The Checkerboard of Oil & Minefields




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