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Synthesis/Regeneration 31   (Spring 2003)

The Caspian Basin and Shifting US Policy in Central Asia:
The Future of War for Oil

by Nathan Perz, Green Party of St. Louis

Few would deny the truism that oil is the axis upon which US foreign policy turns. A great deal of print has been expended detailing the importance of Middle-Eastern oil reserves to the United States. Saudi Arabia, in many ways an unofficial US protectorate, is the key to preserving US oil interests in the Middle East. The Gulf, however, is a dangerous place; an eternal quagmire of conflict and intrigue.

In order to secure the necessary oil without the high-maintenance, the US is looking beyond Arabia, beyond Kuwait and beyond Iraq. The US is looking to the Caspian Basin.

The Caspian Basin

Due north of the Persian Gulf lies another large body of water—the Caspian Sea. Until the 1990s, most of the lands surrounding the Caspian were firmly under the control of the Soviet Union. While under Soviet rule, the resources of this area remained largely untapped. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, numerous independent states emerged in the Caspian Basin: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Russia and Iran also maintain a strong presence in the area.

This region is significant because of the potential of its untapped oil and natural gas reserves. As of July 2002, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) released new figures for the Caspian Sea region:[1]

CountryProven Oil
Possible Oil
Proven Natural
Gas Reserves
Possible Natural
Gas Reserves
Azerbaijan1.2 bbl32 bbl4.4 tcf35 tcf
Iran*0.1 bbl15 bbl0 tcf11 tcf
Kazakhstan5.4 bbl92 bbl65 tcf88 tcf
Russia*2.7 bbl14 bblN/AN/A
Turkmenistan0.6 bbl80 bbl101 tcf159 tcf
Uzbekistan**0.3 bbl2 bbl81 tcf***35 tcf
Total10.3 bbl235 bbl251.4 tcf328 tcf
(Defn: bbl ~billion barrels of oil -- tcf ~trillion cubic feet of gas)

*Including only those areas near the Caspian Sea.
** Estimate from June 2000.
***Actual figures were 74-88 tcf.

“Proven” reserves are those deposits believed to exist with a 90% degree of certainty. “Possible” reserves are deposits that are believed to exist with a 50% degree of certainty. Combining the two, the region may possibly have an oil reserve of 245 billion barrels of oil (bbl) and 579 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas. To provide perspective, the US has an estimated oil reserve of 28.6 bbl (as of 2000), while Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest known reserve of 263.5 bbl (as of 2000). As a whole, the planet is believed to have a total remaining oil reserve of between 1,250 and 1,950 bbl. Clearly, Caspian oil reserves have great potential significance.

The feeding frenzy

Oil companies from the US, Europe, China, and Russia have been quick to move in. These companies frequently join with smaller local concerns to create large exploration and drilling operations. The resulting multi-billion dollar ventures have already begun to reshape the political, as well as physical, landscape of the region.

These multi-billion dollar ventures have already begun to reshape the political, as well as physical, landscape of the region.

In 1997, oil production in the Caspian region amounted to about 1.1 million barrels per day (mbd). This volume is predicted to increase to 4 mbd by 2010 and possibly 6 mbd by 2020.[2] This increase will also correspond to an expected decrease in production from many of the world’s now-producing oil reserves. As the most easily accessible portions of known reserves are consumed, that which remains will be more difficult and more expensive to extract. Also, the rapid industrialization of nations such as China, India and Brazil will cause the global rate of consumption to increase dramatically.

US interests

Obviously, as the world’s greatest consumer of petroleum, the US has a vital interest in keeping the oil flowing. The US imports about 51% of its crude oil. This percentage is expected to increase to 64% by the year 2020. Maintaining oil supplies is vital for both the growth of the US economy and the functioning of an increasingly aggressive and imperialistic military policy.

This thirst for petroleum has been the primary motive behind the last 50 years of US policy in the Middle East. The Saudi monarchy has been maintained as a kind of pseudo-protectorate since World War II. Iran was a client state until the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Saddam Hussein in Iraq was “our man” until his ill-conceived adventure in Kuwait forced the US to turn him into the region’s “super-villain.” All of this to fuel the post-war economic growth in the US.

It would, of course, be the ultimate understatement to say that the Middle East is a troublesome place. Political ferment mixed with ethnic tension and religious fundamentalism have produced a volatile brew. Being involved in the Middle East is both complex and costly. But for its oil reserves, the US would likely have little interest or involvement in the Middle East.

The Caspian Basin, however, is considerably more accessible (from the US standpoint). The governments in the region are new and weak. These governments are eager to look to others for money and security, especially if it empowers them against traditional Russian dominance.

Unlike the Middle East, which has (relatively) easy access to ocean-going transportation, Central Asia is landlocked.

Additionally, the region has experienced a kind of “power vacuum” since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia has tried to maintain its sphere of influence, but Russian influence is waning. The US, however, has been very eager to step in and establish a political, economic and military presence in the Caspian region.[3]

Foreign policy: Today and onward

Let us assume that US influence in the new states of Central Asia continues to expand and solidify. Controlling the source of the oil is only part of the problem. Unlike the Middle East, which has (relatively) easy access to ocean-going transportation, Central Asia is landlocked. After the oil is gotten out of the ground, the problem becomes getting it to the US.

Without tankers, the only way to transport large volumes of oil is by pipeline. Pipelines, however, are both expensive and vulnerable to attack or sabotage. To secure a pipeline, one must secure the land through which the pipeline runs.[4]


The shortest and most obvious route for Caspian oil is south, through Iran, and then to tankers in the Persian Gulf. This, however, is the outcome which the US will not allow under any circumstances. “Containing” Iran is, and has been, one of the primary US policy goals in the Middle East. Iran is a large and populous country with considerable oil reserves of its own. Iran was a client state under the Shah until the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Since then, Iran has been the United States’ number-one adversary in the region.[5]

Assuming the US will attempt to exclude Iran as much as possible from Caspian oil, what can we expect to see from US policy in the region? Pakistan is firmly in the pro-US camp, as the present dictatorship depends on the US and the rest of the world to legitimize his rule. Afghanistan will likely devolve into a centralized and authoritarian state whose foreign policy will be largely directed by the US. The Central Asia republics will become increasingly dependent on US aid and US corporations. The real “wildcard” may be Iraq.


As of this writing, the US invasion of Iraq is well underway. Many readers likely already see through both the hollow pretense of the “War Against Terrorism” and the melodrama about the Hussein regime developing and proliferating weapons of “mass destruction.” Therefore, this writer will not belabor the “war-for-oil” argument here.

While there is no real doubt as to the outcome of this war, there is room for a great deal of speculation regarding future of post-war Iraq. What will be done with Iraq after its conquest? Three points are worth considering.

First, the instillation of a pro-US regime is inevitable. Such a regime would have to be set up and strengthened very quickly. Even if the US were genuinely interested in promoting democracy in Iraq, there is not sufficient time for the rebuilding of Iraqi civil society and the germination of genuinely democratic practices and institutions. The US foreign policy hawks require a strong Iraq to serve as a counterweight to Iran in the region.[6] Also, an Iraq dominated by the US would facilitate the development of US hegemony just to the north, in the Caspian region.

Second, what is to be done with the significant population of Shia Muslims in southern Iraq? These people have suffered greatly under the Sunni regime. The US has encouraged this population to rise up against Saddam Hussein in revolt. Cultivating this kind of alienation and independence would make it less likely that these people could be integrated into a unified post-war Iraq. Even if treated equitably and given full legal and civil rights, the Shia population may seek out their own path.

The Iraqi Shia may find that their interests are more in line with the major Shia power of the region—Iran. An independent or pseudo-independent Shia entity in southern Iraq would empower Iran and increase Iran’s potential influence in the region. The US will not tolerate this under any circumstances.

If, however, the US or the US-backed Iraqi regime tries to forcibly assimilate these Shia populations into the “new” Iraq, then Iran would have to opportunity to play the role of “defender of the faithfull.” This would be a situation ripe for Iran to unfurl the banners of Western imperialism and persecution against Islam. In either case, an empowered Iran is a natural opponent to US expansion in the Caspian region.

Third, what is to be done with the large Kurdish population in northern Iraq? In the 12 years since the “No Fly Zones” have been enforced, Kurdish northern Iraq has developed into a kind of pseudo-state. The Kurds handle their own affairs independent of Baghdad; the Kurdish economy is thriving while the rest of Iraq wallows in poverty.

...it is worthwhile to speculate on the relationship between the US need to move Caspian oil and the recent war and regime change in Afghanistan.

As with the Shia in the south, the Iraqi Kurds will likely resist being assimilated into a new, centralized Iraqi state. The US will resist Kurdish independence for two reasons. First, a fragmented Iraq would be weak and therefore ineffective as a containment devise against Iran. Second, Kurdish nationalism in northern Iraq would invariably spread to the Kurdish populations in eastern Turkey.[7]

Turkey has had a long history of conflict with, and oppression of, it’s own Kurdish people. The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) has been the standard-bearer for Kurdish nationalism for many years. Kurdish resistance has been both political and military. Consequently, the Turkish army has cracked down hard on the Turkish Kurds.

Turkey is both an important NATO ally and a terminus for many of the oil pipelines in the region. Turkey would be the major export route for Caspian oil. Maintaining US–Turkey relations is of extreme importance to both governments. The US will not jeopardize this relationship by supporting Kurdish independence. As of this writing, the US is already allowing Turkish troops into northern Iraq. Are these troops there to support the war effort? Certainly not. Their purpose is to secure Turkey’s interest in a subjugated and pacified Kurdish population. The makings of a Kurdish intifada? Perhaps.


Another possible route for Caspian oil is through already existing pipelines running through southern Russia to the Black Sea. The Baku area (now part of Azerbaijan) had traditionally been a major oil-producing area for Russia. Additionally, Russia has been exerting considerable pressure on Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to export their oil through Russian pipelines. This would provide Russia with both badly needed revenue and the power to exercise considerable geopolitical influence against the US and the European Union.

Since Central Asia has traditionally been Russia’s “backyard,” there is no reason to believe that Russia will quietly step aside for the US. One can expect heightened tensions between the US and Russia as they jockey for position and influence in the region. Russia has already demonstrated its willingness to exercise force in the region.

Consider the recent Russian invasion of Chechnya. Such a reaction is excessive, if one believes that the invasion was solely about flushing out small bands of “terrorists.” Stability and Russian dominance on Chechnya is of great importance to Russia because of its proximity to the major Russian pipelines, as discussed above.

Considering this, it should be no surprise that shortly following the events of September 11, 2001, Russia was trying to make its pacification of Chechnya an integral part of the US-conceived “War on Terror.” Equally unsurprising is Russia’s attempt to condition it support of the war in Iraq upon the rest of the international community (or, at least, the rest of the UN Security Council) accepting expanded Russian military efforts in Chechnya.


Another option is the proposed Central Asian Oil Pipeline. This pipeline would run from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan, and finally, to the Pakistani port of Gwadar. This pipeline would have a carrying capacity of 1 million barrels a day and would run over a 1,000 miles for a cost of $2.5 billion. This would be one of the largest pipelines in the region.

While this pipeline has not actually been begun, it is worthwhile to speculate on the relationship between the US need to move Caspian oil and the recent war and regime change in Afghanistan. To what degree was Osama bin Ladin and the Taliban an excuse for intervention? One can only guess. As for the US involvement with post-Taliban Afghanistan, pacification of the country is necessary for both the pipeline in particular, and the US control of Caspian republics in general.


Turkey is integral to the “American” scenario. This plan involves constructing a massive pipeline to run from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, under the Caspian Sea to Azerbajian, and then through Georgia to the port of Ceyhan in Turkey and then out to the Mediterranean Sea. Presently, major oil companies in the region do ship a large amount of their production through the Russian pipelines. The US proposed pipeline, however, could shift the balance dramatically in favor of the US.

Another related option is transporting oil to the port of Supsa in the Republic of Georgia. From here, the oil could be taken either by tanker through the congested Bosphorus Straits, or to Bulgaria, where it could be shipped by a proposed trans-Balkan pipeline running through Macedonia to the Albanian port of Vlore.[8]


There is no indication that the industrialized economies will be shifting away from petroleum-based energy anytime soon. Oil consumption will continue to increase globally, especially as developing economies (such as China) attempt to modernize. Global oil reserves, however, are fixed and being depleted rapidly. The oil of the Caspian Basin will be increasingly important to the survival of industrial capitalism.

The oil of the Caspian Basin will be increasingly important to the survival of industrial capitalism.

Consequently, the US is positioning itself to be a major, if not dominant, player in Central Asia. US control of Caspian oil reserves may allow the US to disengage, at least partially, from political quagmire that is the Middle East. The beginnings of this shift can be seen in the deepening political, economic and military relationships with the Central Asia republics. This shift to Central Asia also requires the pacification of Afghanistan, as well as the neutralization of Iraq as a player in the region.

While proponents of this policy shift may claim that reliance on Caspian oil will make the US less vulnerable to the violence and turmoil of the Middle East, new problems are lurking in the shadows. An expanded US presence in Central Asia will lead to the militarization of the region as Russia reacts to secure its traditional sphere of influence. US efforts to exclude Iran from the region will also prevent a complete US detachment from Middle Eastern politics.

…the Caspian Basin could develop into another Middle East.

Additionally, the new states of Central Asia have inherited their own legacies of ethnic and religious tension. What would otherwise be minor clashes between impoverished neighbors will become contests between heavily armed states backed by major powers like the US and Russia.

Islamic fundamentalism is also on the rise in much of Central Asia. Were Iran to be successfully excluded, such fundamentalism would be the most logical card for Iran to play. If the pacification of Afghanistan is unsuccessful, the country could once again become a haven for anti-Western militants, who will rely on “terrorism” as their most effective form of asymmetrical warfare.

With this major shift in US policy towards Central Asia, the Caspian Basin could develop into another Middle East. This new battleground, however, will be more dangerous. Russia and Iran are more serious players than is Iraq (despite recent propaganda that Saddam Hussein is global enemy number one). Afghanistan, and the imminent invasion of Iraq, are the beginnings of a deepening US commitment in an inherently volatile part of the world. A permanent US presence creates a permanent incentive and target for terrorism and war.


1. Available from www.eia.doe.gov  [http://eia.doe.gov/indexnjava.html].   The upper limits of these amounts are sometimes disputed. Critics (and some proponents), however, often seem to either ignore or fail to understand the difference between “proven” and “possible” reserves.

2. By comparison the 1990 production of the US was 8 mbd; that of Saudi Arabia was 9.2 mbd.

3. 1997 saw the first deployment of US troops to a former Soviet Republic in Central Asia.

4. Take, for example, the recent US interest in Columbia and Venezuela. A destabilized Columbia is a potential threat to oil extraction, processing, and transport in Venezuela. Oil pipelines are frequent targets for resistance groups.

5. Hence the US support of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War launched (by Iraq) in 1980. When the Shah was deposed, Saddam became “our man” in the region.

6. To remove Saddam Hussein without installing some other strong presence would make Iraq ineffective as a buffer against Iranian expansion in the region. This was the original purpose behind the massive US support given to Hussein after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the exile of the Shah.

7. The potential downside of a formal or informal Kurdish state would be a revival of nationalistic efforts on the part of ethnic Kurds living in Turkey (a member of NATO and a key US ally in the region). Turkey has engaged in an extensive campaign of terror and repression against its own Kurdish separatists. It is revealing that in February 2003, Turkey tried to make Turkish control of Kurdish northern-Iraq a condition of its support of the pending US invasion.

8. Tankers going through the Bosphorus are restricted to 150,000 tons. There is a fairly obvious connection between the proposed trans-Balkan pipeline and the considerable US military presence in Kosovo. Camp Bondsteel, in Kosovo, is the largest “from scratch” overseas US military base since the Vietnam War.

[18 apr 03]

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