The Caspian Lake . . . I Mean Sea . . . I Mean Who Knows?

By John Dunnam

History of the Caspian: 

Is the Caspian Sea a sea or is it a lake? The Caspian Sea is the largest land locked body of water at 143,00 square miles.[1] Originally, the Caspian was managed by two littoral states, the Soviet Union (USSR) and Iran.[2] Prior to the dissolution of the USSR, the 1921 Treaty of Friendship between the USSR and Iran managed the Caspian, with primary focus on navigation and fishing rights.[3] There was a general understanding between the USSR and Iran that the Caspian Sea would be managed as if it were a lake.[4]  Once the USSR dissolved in 1991 so did the general understanding on how to treat the Caspian Sea.[5] Now for over two decades the Caspian has been disputed.[6] Several countries formed from the collapse of the USSR.[7] Of the countries formed from the collapse of the USSR Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan each border Caspian and want to use the Caspian for its resources[8]. It is crucial that the Caspian’s status as a sea be determined.[9] The ambiguity has led to confusion between the countries, disagreements between the countries, and has not prevented the countries from exploiting the Caspian’s resources.[10]

It may seem insignificant whether to consider the Caspian Sea a lake or a sea, but determining whether it is a lake or sea plays a pivotal role in determining how to manage the Caspian.[11] If the Caspian is treated as a sea then it is governed by the International Maritime Law, The United Nations Law of the Sea, which already has laws on how to manage and divide a sea’s resources.[12] On the other hand the if it is considered a lake the resources would have to be divided equally.[13] The Caspian basin is an “import source of oil for world markets.”[14] It is estimated that beneath the Caspian there is “50 billion barrels of oil and nearly 300 trillion cubic feet (8.4 trillion cubic meters) of natural gas beneath its seabed.”[15]   These vast resources have been the center of the dispute for dividing the Caspian.[16]  The countries have disputed each other’s claims to attempt to exploit the Caspian’s resources for themselves.[17] Dividing the resources equally would prove beneficial to Iran who has the least amount of shoreline and the least resourceful seabed; however, for a country like Azerbaijan, who has the largest shore line and a resourceful seabed, treating it as sea would be more beneficial.[18]


Current Resolve:


With natural resources on the line Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan met on August 12, 2018 to discuss the division of Caspian Sea.[19] Although the official text has yet to be published, the countries did come to an agreement.[20] All five countries’ leaders signed the “Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea,” at the summit meeting in Kazakhstan.[21] This pact provided the Caspian Sea with special legal status where it is not divided specifically as a sea or a lake.[22] The pact is a compromise of “treating the surface as international water and dividing the seabed into territorial zones.”[23] Although the pact has been signed, there are still details that need to be ironed out.[24] Iran argues that future negotiations must take place to determine boundaries. [25] Iran with the least resource- rich shoreline wants to ensure they still are able to benefit from the overall resource rich Caspian.[26] Another issue the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea was supposed to solve was the ability to deploy military vessels into the Caspian.[27] In the past Russia’s naval fleet used the Caspian Sea as a launching point against Syria.[28] If the Caspian Sea would have been split into national territories, Russia “would have confined its own navy to a northwestern corner.”[29]  In order to avoid giving up  naval power in the Caspian, Russia and the other countries agreed that “no country without Caspian shoreline can deploy military vessels into the sea.[30] An agreement to divide the north seabed between Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan has been reached.[31] However, Iran, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan still dispute each other’s claims to the southern petroleum deposits.[32]


Future Impact:


Although this pact is an attempt to help resolve an almost three-decade long feud, it is evident that there is still a lot to negotiate, including the division of resources.[33] Opening the Caspian could have a large impact on both of the oil and gas markets worldwide.[34] Originally, gas pipelines could not be built in the Caspian because of the Caspian’s legal status and Russia stern opposition.[35] Withstanding environmental concerns, under the new agreement only the countries whose territories the pipeline will cross have to agree to build the pipeline.[36] A trans-Caspian oil pipeline could help open up central Asia trade and help build the economy for the near countries.  In addition to oil and gas, both the sturgeon fishing in the Caspian and the cultivation of caviar could see benefits. The Caspian provides the world between “80-90% of the world’s caviar” these numbers have been decreasing because of unregulated fishing.[37] The recently signed pact allows for the countries to determine a national quota on sturgeon fishing.[38] While the countries have not reached an agreement regarding all facets of the Caspian Sea, the pact signed at the “Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea,” isa positive sign and will likely lead to more negotiations.

[1] Caspian Sea: Five countries sign deal to end dispute, BBC (Aug. 12, 2018),

[2] Catherine Putz, Caspian Sea Dispute Settled on the Surface, The Diplomat (Aug. 13, 2018),

[3] Id.

[4] BBC, supra note 1.

[5] Id.

[6] Olzhas Auyezov, Russia, Iran and three others agree Caspian status, but not borders, Reuters (Aug. 12, 2018),

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9]  Putz, supra note 2.

[10] BBC, supra note 1.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Andrew E. Kramer, Russia and 4 other Nations Settle Decades-long Dispute over Caspian Sea, N.Y. Times (Aug. 12, 2018),

[15] BBC, supra note 1.

[16] Id.


[18] BBC, supra note 1.

[19] Kramer, supra note 14.

[20] BBC, supra note 1.

[21] Kramer, supra note 14.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Putz, supra note 2.

[25] Id.; see also Auyezov, supra note 6.

[26] Putz, supra note 2.

[27] Kramer, supra note 14.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.; see also Putz, supra note 2.

[31] Kramer, supra note 14.

[32] Id.; see also BBC, supra note 1.

[33] Auyezov, supra note 6.

[34] BBC, supra note 1; see also Kramer, supra note 14.

[35] Bbc ny times

[36] Kramer, supra note 14; see also BBC, supra note 1.

[37] BBC, supra note 1.

[38] Id.