|Central Eurasian Water Crisis: Caspian, Aral, and Dead Seas (UNU, 1998, 203 pages)|
|Part III: The Caspian Sea|
|9. Iranian perspectives on the Caspian Sea and Central Asia|
The decade of the 1990s began with tremendous changes in the global political system. These profound changes prepared the framework for an entirely new set of geopolitical circumstances for the twenty-first century. From the point of view of political geography, 1991 was an outstanding year, in the sense that it was the year during which two major events occurred that highlighted the rapid rate of change in the global system. The first was the Kuwait crisis, which triggered an almost universal reaction. This, in turn, gave birth to the concept of "international community" to replace the term "free world" in the dying days of the communist bloc. The second event was the collapse of the geostrategic structure of the Warsaw Pact, which not only destroyed former communist states such as the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, but also brought down the bipolar system that had evolved in the wake of World War II. These developments accelerated the speed of the globalization of the interests and aspirations of many nations. This further intensified political and economic competition worldwide.
These political equivalents of a global earthquake shook the global political system, with staggering regional results, especially for the area of our particular concern extending from central Europe to the Pacific Ocean, and in the area known as the Middle East. Regional issues tend to dominate an individual nation's foreign policy considerations and regional interests. This, in turn, is the basis on which the globalization of interests has been gradually developing.
The new geopolitical realities have fundamentally changed the balance of forces in the international community. Global thinkers proposed visions of what they perceived could be a New World Order: (a) a unipolar system with the United States at the top of the pyramid of the global structure playing the role of the "global gendarme," (b) a clash of civilizations, and (c) the beginning of a multipolar economically oriented global system (Mojtahed-Zadeh, 1992). The recent demise of the ideologically oriented bipolar world is evidence of the changing geopolitical structure.
The end of the Cold War was marked by an unprecedented intensification of economic competition among North America, Western Europe, and Pacific Rim countries. The economic successes of the European Union encouraged other economic powers to form regional economic groupings of their own. For example, the United States joined with Canada and Mexico to create the North American Free Trade Agreement. Countries in South-East Asia had already formed the Association of South-East Asian Nations.
The emergence of these regional economic groupings as giants presents a picture of how the changing world order is shaping up on the brink of the twenty-first century. Although the "paper" successor to the Soviet Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), with both Slavic and Islamic members, may not survive in its present form, the possibility exists that increased rivalries with, as well as encouragement from, other geostrategic regions will result in the formation of a more realistic grouping between Russia and, for example, some of the nations of Eastern Europe. However, today most East European nations strive to join NATO and the European Union. In Asia, China's expanding economy, together with its reunification with Hong Kong in 1997 and a wider economic grouping with other countries in the region, will result in the formation of yet another regional economic giant.
Other regional economic arrangements will be the subject of change and modification in terms of goals, structure, and geographical scope. The Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) is one such arrangement. This grouping includes Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan. As a regional organization, it has never functioned seriously and needs fundamental changes in terms of its structural shape and its regional and global aspirations before being able to function in the new geopolitical environment. A news report in 1995 noted that "ECO officials boast of the region's potential, 300 million people with rich natural resources. But it will be a huge task to make it anything like a real common market" (The Economist, 2 December 1991, p. 42).
In sum, with the demise of communism, ideological rivalries in the global system have been increasingly replaced by economic competition. What was once described as the capitalist economy has become the prevailing global economic system. Increased global exchange to be further boosted by the World Trade Organization as a successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade - has undermined many aspects of the economic sovereignty of nation-states.
In the emerging global political system Iran is uniquely situated as a land-bridge connecting two very important regions - the Caspian Central Asia region and the Persian Gulf region. This geopolitical position has had an immense influence on Iran's global and regional policies as well as on the policies of other powers toward these two regions. Iranian policy makers, however, do not appear to have formulated, as yet, a clearly defined strategy for maximizing the influence of Iran's unique geographical position between two of the most important areas of energy deposits on earth. Iran's evolving strategies, still somewhat vague, have not yet brought home to the international community the message that Iran's territory is geographically and economically the most logical and most sensible route to pipe oil and gas from the Caspian and Central Asian regions to the high seas by way of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. This is especially true if one considers the export of oil to Japan and to other major oil consumers in the Far East. Full realization of this position is bound to lead to a substantial modification of Iran's political outlook as well as the modification of the reactions of others in response to Iranian policies.
Iran's new geostrategic position has led it to identify two major regions of direct interest: one to the north and one to the south. This paper presents an overview of Iran's northern geopolitical interests in the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea region, and Central Asia. It also includes a brief discussion of Iran's eastern hydropolitics: the case of Lake Hamun and the Hirmand River on the southern edge of Central Asia.