L'Europe centrale et orientale : The politics of oil routes

La décolonisation n’a pas fondamentalement changé les données géostratégiques pour les pays producteurs de pétrole. Elle a simplement déplacé le problème du contrôle des zones d’exploitation vers le contrôle des routes d’exportation. Si le Moyen-Orient et le golfe Persique sont aujourd’hui une Mare nostrum américaine, les récentes velléités russes sur le Caucase et la mer Caspienne considérés comme son "étranger proche" obéissent à la même logique et aux mêmes objectifs. Seule l’Europe, à cause de son manque d’unité et de vision à long terme, fait figure d’absent dans cette lutte d'influence pour le partage des voies de communication entre les deux Grands.

Who Shut the Gates of the Sea? - Book of Job

In the eighteenth century, at a time when the Ottoman Turks and the Safavid Persians were fighting over control of Mesopotamia, the ruler of Gilan in North-West Persia, although himself a Persian and a vassal of the Shah, constantly sided with the Ottoman Sultan against his Safavid suzerain. The reason for this unholy alliance between a Persian provincial lord and the Turkish Sultan against the Persian Shah was quite simple. Gilan being a silk-producing region, the lord of Gilan needed to get his silk safely to the Mediterranean ports, whence it could be shipped to the European markets, and the routes used by the Gilan silk caravans to reach the Mediterranean coast were under Ottoman control. This eighteenth century story of Gilani Realpolitik highlights the inescapable truth that controlling export routes can be at least as essential as controlling production zones.

From “oil zones” to “oil routes”

In the aftermath of World War II, the waste oil and gas producing zones of the Moslem world began to escape the direct control of the industrialized countries. As Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa sought to master their own destiny and to control their natural resources through nationalization of the oil industry, former colonial powers and oil majors which had hit her to exercised direct and often absolute control over oil and gas production zones gradually turned into mere customers — or at best junior partners — of the nascent indigenous national oil companies. This process of re-appropriation by Moslem countries of their hydrocarbon wealth, which had started in the Middle East and North Africa in the fifties with the launch of the decolonisation process, finally reached the Caspian in the early nineties when, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was compelled to relinquish control of oil and gas production zones in and around the Caspian Sead to Moslem Azerbaijan, Kazakstan an Turkmenistan.

With the colonial politics of oil production zones becoming increasingly difficult to sustain and to justify, the emphasis started shifting to the politics of oil routes. Yet whereas the locus and the modus operandi of the struggle may have changed, the stakes have nonetheless remained the same.

Recent events in the Gulf and in the Caspian highlightthis shift away from the politics of oil production zones towards the politics of oil routes, and help identify the major players in this game. In the Gulf, the massive US reflagging operation of Kuwaiti tankers in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war in the eighties paved the way for the ensuing US military domination of the Gulf oil maritime route at the expense of regional powers such as Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. A few years later, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait allowed the US both to strengthen its militarydomination over the Gulf oil maritime route still further, and to extend it to the Gulf oil land route, notably through Operation Provide Comfort in Northern Iraq. In the Caspian, the removal of pro-Turkish President Abulfazel Elchibey of Azerbaijan in the early nineties strengthened Russia in the face of Turkey, and the ensuing decision by Elchibey's successor in Baku, Gaydar Aliyev, to give precedence to the Russian pipeline route for the shipping of early Azeri oil to the world markets kept alive Moscow's hopes of exerting influence in — and even extending its control over — its "near abroad".

Two major players

Recent events in the Gulf and in the Caspian indeed highlight the importance of oil route politicsin shaping the geostrategy of the coming century, as they help identify the US and Russia as the two major players in this game — the US in the Gulf, and Russia in the Caspian. Yet they also suggest that superpower oil route politics feed on conflicts and tension amongst regional states : US reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers in the eighties was made possible by the Iran-Iraq war, US military control over the Gulf oil maritime route was made possible by GCC fears of Iran and Iraq; US military control over the Gulf oil land route through Northern Iraq was made possible by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait ; and Russia's dominant position over the shipping of Azeri oil to the world markets cannot be separated from the Azeri-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Routes and planned routes for shipping oil from Moslem countries in the Gulf and in the Caspian to the world markets are in fact rife with conflicts and dormant crises between regional countries which are so many time-bombs that nurture superpower oil route politics. This instability indeed reduces the control which Moslem countries can hope to exercise over their oil exports, and contributes to weaken the control they had hitherto — as a result of the decolonisation process and of the collapse of the Soviet Union – exercised over their hydrocarbon resources.

Recent events in and around Iraq offer a vivid example of this process whereby an Arab Moslem country which was in full control of its oil productionand oil export mechanisms gradually ceded this control to extra-national bodies and institutions. Prior to the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq had used its oil to assert itself on the regional and international scene, and its oil revenues to build a substantial state apparatus and industrial base as well as a formidable war machine. However, as a result of the August1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and of the ensuing Gulf War, sanctions imposed on Iraq by the UN coupled with the no-fly zones in the South and the exclusion zones to the North robbed Baghdad of all control over the export (and hence over the production) of its oil. In the summer of 1996, as the application of UN SC Resolution 986 drew nearer, Iraq found itself with no say whatsoever over the shipping, export and sale of the oil which the UN was allowing it to produce. From previously being a major power broker and trend-setter on the oil market, SOMO, the Iraqi national oil company, found itself confined to a mere rubber-stamping role, its influence stopping just North and just South of Baghdad. The Iraqi-backed KDP offensive against the PUK in Iraqi Kurdistan, coupled with Baghdad's concurrent rapprochement with Ankara, was obviously intended to give Iraq some element of control over the shipping of its oil through the Northern land route to Turkey. No doubt the Iraqis would have succeeded in going beyond the rubber-stamping role in terms of short-term gains and encouraging the PUK to recapture territory in Iraqi Kurdistan previously lost to the KDP, Iran in effect crippled the Iraqis and allowed the US back in the game. That much became evident when, despite the US hostility towards Iran, the State Department saw fit to commend Iran for showing restraint in Iraqi Kurdistan — a clear illustration of the way in which regional conflicts nurture superpower oil route politics.

An American Mare nostrum

Further South, along the Gulf oil maritime route, two territorial conflicts pitting neighboring countries against each other are potential time-bombs: the conflict between Qatar and Bahrain over the Hawar islands in which Saudi Arabia backs Bahrain; and the conflict between Iran and the UAE over the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs.

Whereas the former conflict between two member states of the GCC has hitherto remained confined to the diplomatic and legal arena and ought not —barring a severe deterioration in Saudi-Qatari relations — to provide a pretext for external powers to interfere, the latter has already attracted considerable attention from the US, which has been keen both to assert that the Gulf is an American Mare nostrumand to strengthen its hand in the Abu Dhabi military establishment where the French still hold sway.

Hence, earlier this year Washington took the opportunity of a visit to the US by UAE Chief of Staff Shaikh Muhammad Ben Zayed Al Nahyan to stage for him a beach-landing exercise which smacked of a rehearsal for a landing in the island of Abu Musa. More recently, at the end of the first week of August, USAF aircraft flew over the disputedisland of Abu Musa, drawing accusations from Iran of a violation of Iranian air space. Washington immediately seized the opportunity of denying that Abu Musa constituted Iranian territory and therefore that any such violation had taken place. With the US carrying out massive manœuvres in the Gulf throughout the month of August, Iran put its troops on maximum alert, moved heavy weapons South to bases on the Gulf, and reportedly deployed anti-ship missiles on Abu Musa. As Tehran threatened to take the US to the International Court of Justice over American plans to destabilise the Iranian régime,and as the American press began once more to talk darkly of Iranian involvement in the TWA explosion, the scene appeared to be set for a military confrontation betweenthe US and the Iran in the Gulf when events in Iraqi Kurdistan diverted US attention away from Tehran and towards Baghdad. This last minute diversion notwithstanding, the whole episode again illustrates ways in which regional conflicts nurture superpower oil route politics.

Further down the Gulf route, Iran's recent decision to apply its 1993 law on territorial water has increased regional tension, with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar protesting to the UN that this Iranian law infringes the freedom of shipping in the Straits of Hormuz in contravention of international law. It is of note that some 100 ships enter and leave the Gulf through the Straits of Hormuz every day. The US immediately seized this opportunity to launch a public controversy over Iran's missile capacity, with "revelations"that Iranian missile sites on the island of Qeshm in the Straits of Hormuz pose a potential threat to Qatar, the UAE and Oman as well as to shipping in the Gulf, together with US intelligence reports that Iran holds "the largest stock of chemical weapons in the Third World".


Having at last cleared the Straits of Hormuz, Gulf oil tankers heading for Europe through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean may be in for a rough ride in the Red Sea, where a number of potential time-bombs awaits them.

The first such time-bombs lie near the Bab Al-Mandeb in the Hanish Archipelago over which Yemen and Eritrea have been locked in a struggle over sovereignty since Eritrea occupied the island of Greater Hanish in December of last year. On August 10, Eritran forces occupied the island of Lesser Hanish after three days of clashes with Yemeni forces there and on the island of Zuqur, North of Greater Hanish. Concurrently, Asmara, backed by Israel that has vested interests in the Red Sea, picked a quarrel with another of its neighbors, Djibouti, by publishing maps identifying stretches of Djibouti's territory as lying within Eritrea.

Following mediation by France, Yemen and Eritrea finally announced on October 1 that they had reached agreement on the modalities of negotiating a settlement to this territorial dispute. Yet the time-bomb effect remains, and there was a stark reminder that the importance of the archipelago does not derive solely from its strategic position on the Red Sea oil route, when it was announced that Houston-based Anadarko is to begin seismic studies of the Zula region, just South of the Hanish islands, on behalf of Eritrea as of the month of November.

Further up the Red Sea, yet another territorial conflict is already hindering oil production and may well one day affect shipping. Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdulkarim Al- Iryani stated recently that the joint Yemeni-Saudi border delimitation committees had reached "a dead-end". Although Al-Iryani was keen to describe bilateral Saudi-Yemeni relations as being "better than ever", continued lack of progress in land boundary delimitation between the two sides is nonetheless still hindering offshore oil production in disputed territorial waters in the Red Sea and does not augur well for stability along this route that is further affected by Sudan's uneasy relations with most of its Red Sea neighbors, and notably with Eritrea and with Egypt.

Hitherto, and contrary to the situation along the Gulf oil maritime route, the predominantly Mediterranean and European destination of Red Sea oil shipping has encouraged the US to take a back seat. As a result, regional powers such as Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and European powers such as France, have had a relatively free hand in the Red Sea (hence the French mediation in the Yemeni-Eritrean conflict, the recent joint maneuvers stages in the Red Sea by the Egyptian and Saudi navies, and Egypt's half-hearted yet repeated efforts at proving that the Red Sea is its back yard). However, increased involvement by American oil companies (hence, Anadarko in Eritrea, Hunt in Yemen), and Israel's growing assertiveness in the Red Sea, herald a more assertive US role in the region at the expense of regional powers, as well as of France that may soon find itself at odds with Asmara and whose role as a mediator between Yemen and Eritrea could eventually be undermined by the Eritrea- Djibouti territorial dispute.

Russia “near abroad”

What is true for the US in the Gulf applies to Russia in the Caspian, another Moslem region rich in hydrocarbons. Around the Caspian, where Russia rather than the US is the main player, oil route politics come in a cruder and far more violent form than in and around the Gulf. The reason for this has to do both with the hasty decolonisation that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with the Kremlin's rather peculiar methods.

Having had to relinquish control over most of the Caspian Sea's oil and gas resources as a result of the demise of the Soviet Union, Moscow has since been striving to control shipping operations of Caspian oil to the international markets as a way of asserting its influence in — and hopefully regaining control of — its "near abroad". In so doing, Russia has found itself at odds with some of its neighbors, and notably with Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

There are at present four envisaged main routes for the shipping of Caspian oil to the international markets, along each of which there are a number of conflicts that threaten the safety and security of oil shipping operations.

Eager to retain some element of control over the newly independent states of the Caspian and to keep alive its hopes of reconstituting the Russian empire in this part of the world, Moscow favors the shipping of Azeri andKazakh oil through Russian territory to the port of Novorossiisk on the Black Sea. Concerning Kazakh oil, whereas the best route does indeed appear to be through politically quiescent Russian have of late been considering the possibility of shipping oil by tanker to Baku and thence by rail to join the Western pipeline route towards Turkey through Georgia or Armenia. With respect to Azeri oil, although Moscow, Baku and the AOIC have reached agreement whereby early Azeri oil would take the Northern route through Russia to Novorossiisk, a major hazard lies ahead since this route crosses war-torn Chechnya. While endeavoring to stabilize the situation in this break-away republic in order to allow the safe shipping of early Azeri oil as of 1997, Moscow appears to be keeping its options open, and is reported to be drawing up plans for an alternative Baku-Mahajqala-Novorossiisk pipeline which would in effect avoid Chechnya.

Although the Russian Foreign Ministry and Transnett have since denied the existence of such plans and confirmed Moscow's intention to ship Azeri oil through Chechnya, these reports are bound to comfort the Chechens in their belief that Russia does not intend to share with them dividends ensuing from the shipping of Caspian oil. This, in turn, would not augur well for the security of oil shipping operations through Southern Russia. If and when it clears a further hurdle in the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, with Ankara threatening to limit Russian oil shipping in the straits on the basis that it constitutes a safety and environmental hazard. Eager to rob Ankara of this means of pressure, Moscow is threatening to bypass the Turkish straits and to ship Caspian oil from Novorossiisk to Bourgas in Bulgaria across the Black Sea, and thence by pipeline to Alexandrou-poli in Greece. This, however, would merely shift the Russian-Turkish tug-of-war over the shipping of Caspian oil from the Black Sea to the Aegean, with Greece acting as a proxy there to Russia.

Whereas Turkey undoubtedly holds interesting cards along the Russian northern route (notably Chechnya and the straits), Russia in fact holds even stronger cards along the two routes which are favored by Turkey, namely the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey route through Tbilisi to Ceyhan on the Turkish coast on the Mediterranean and the Azerbaijan-Armenia-Nakichevan-Turkey route, also to Ceyhan. Along the first route, Moscow holds a number of trump cards it is in a position to use in turn against Azerbaijan (the Nagono-Karabakh separatists), against Georgia (the Abkhazian, South Ossetian and Ajarian separatists) and against Turkey (the Moscow-based Kurdish parliament in exile on the one hand, and on the other Moscow's ally, Syria, which lies close to Ceyhan). Along the second route favoured by the Turks, Russia also holds strong cards it is in a position to use in turn against Azerbaijan (Armenia) and against Turkey (the PKK).

An alternative southern route

An alternative route, and one that would be relatively risk-free in comparison while being far more cost effective, is the southern route through Iran and thence to the island of Kargh in the Gulf. This would in effect spare shipping operations the traumas related to the Chechen-Russian, Azeri-Lesguin, Azeri-Armenian, Nagorno-Karabak, Georgian-Abkhazian, Georgian-South Ossetian, Georgian-Ajarian conflicts, as well as the Russian-Turkish tug-of-war in the straits, the Syrian-Turkish tug-of-war in the Mediterranean, and the Greek-Turkish tug-of-war in the Aegean. However, US sanctions against Iran now mean that this southern route is off bounds for Western oil operators in the Caspian. Two Caspian riparian states, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, having recently signed minor oil swap and oil shipping agreements with Tehran which to some extent undermine the US policy of containment of Iran, an American oil company operating in Turkmenistan aired a shipping route proposal calling for the export of Turkmen oil through Afghanistan and thence to Pakistan. This proposal, which coincided with the seizure of Kabul by the Pakistani-backed Taleban, was clearly intended to nip in the bud the nascent Iranian-Turkmen and Iranian-Kazakh oil cooperation and keep Iran out of Caspian oil shipping operations.

As a result of US sanctions against Tehran, and of the continued policy of excluding Iran from the international trade system, Washington and Moscow can be expected to continue to dominate Caspian oil route politics. Although the US administration now strongly favors the western shipping route through Turkey, it is in fact very doubtful whether Washington will ultimately risk antagonizing the Russians by excluding them from main oil shipping operations in the region. In other words, whereas the US is now intent on exercising a certain measure of control over Caspian oil shipping operations by backing Turkey, they would not be averse to reaching a modus vivendi with Moscow on the subject should Russia prove that it is stable enough and assertive enough to play the role of a superpower again. As CISS expert Bulent Alireza puts it, the US government has staked much prestige on integrating Russia into the international free trade system and has a vested interest in ensuring that Caspian oil and gas are exported to foreign markets with Russia's consent. If successful, Alireza adds, this could set the stage for post-Soviet international relations and potentially help fashion the post-Cold War world.

With the US calling the shots along the Gulf oil routes, and the US or Russia calling the shots along the Caspian oil route, two remarks spring to mind. The first is that oil- producing Moslem countries in the Gulf as in the Caspian have little if no control over the shipping of their hydrocarbons to the international markets. The second is that Europe —which is the recipient of some of the Gulf oil and of most of the Caspian oil — is conspicuously absent from the scene.

How to bring Europe back ?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Europe has been obsessively looking East for future partners. This, at a time when a genuine partnership with Caucasian and Caspian countries such as Georgia and Iran would obviously turn Europe into a major player in Caspian oil route politics. A realistic European policy for Caspian oil shipping could consist of a proposal for the use of the two most cost-effective routes, being the southern route through Iran to the Gulf, and the western route through Georgia to Supsa on the Black Sea.

From Supsa, Caspian oil would then cross the Black Sea by tankers to the Turkish coast east of Skutari (thus avoiding the Bosphorus), and thence across the Sea of Marmara and through the Dardanelles to the Mediterranean. The first route, to the South, while being extremely cost effective, would also help reintegrate Iran into the international market and give Tehran a vested interest in contributing to Caspian and to Gulf security. The second route, to the West, while also being cost effective, would in effect satisfy Azerbaijan and Georgia, content Russia as long as a tanker shuttle service can be put in service between Supsa and Novorossiisk (otherwise Russia would need to invest $2bn in Novorossiisk), and also content the Turks who will get royalties from the shipping of oil through a pipeline which would be laid east of Scutari to link the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara.

Similarly, in the Gulf, European countries have hitherto lacked vision, entering into short-term commercially motivated partnerships with regional states (e.g., France and the UAE, Great Britain and Kuwait) instead of elaborating a global and long-term policy.

Pushing for an immediate lifting of US sanctions against Iran and for an immediate end to the present US "foreign policy McCarthysm" can help establish Europe's presence at the northern end of the Gulf. At the southern end, France at one point was on the verge of such a breakthrough, yet it quickly squandered its chances. In the early nineties, France indeed had the good fortune of backing the winning side in the Yemeni civil war, reaping as a result immediate diplomatic benefits in Saudi Arabia which was wary of a united Yemen and eager to woo the French (Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faysal visited Paris three times within a couple of weeks), as well as in Oman and in the UAE which were both eager to have good relations with Yemen. Yet France failed to pursue its advantagewhen, despite repeated pleas from its ambassador in Sanaa, it refused to finance Yemen's infrastructural projects on the basis that the country was not solvent. France was no doubt looking for a return on investment in Yemen itself, when it was obvious that investing in Yemen would reap dividends elsewhere in the Gulf and in the Red Sea. France had no doubt forgotten that British influence in the Gulf as of the nineteenth century owed a lot to British control over Aden.

As long as Europe continues to lack vision, and as long as oil-producing Moslem countries continue to squabble, the US will at leisure shut the gates of the Gulf, and the Russian and the Americans, together or separately, will at leisure shut the gates of the Caspian.

Publié dans la revue l'Année Européenne 1997, dans le dossier l'Europe centrale et orientale