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What the Tehran summit was really about

AFP/Getty Images Most of the press on Vladimir Putin’s historic trip to Tehran has focused on his warning to the U.S. not to attack Iran and the possibility of some sort of strategic partnership between the Kremlin and the ayatollahs. One could almost be forgiven for thinking that the meeting that Putin attended was some ...

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AFP/Getty Images

Most of the press on Vladimir Putin's historic trip to Tehran has focused on his warning to the U.S. not to attack Iran and the possibility of some sort of strategic partnership between the Kremlin and the ayatollahs. One could almost be forgiven for thinking that the meeting that Putin attended was some sort of trans-Caspian "death to America" summit. In fact, the real substance of the meeting was about the distribution of the Caspian Sea region's energy resources. On this front, almost no progress was made and more was revealed about Russia and Iran's differences than their agreements.

The Kremlin still views the Caspian as Russia's "near-abroad," and Iran's growth as a regional power is troubling to the Russians as well. The two countries didn't really see eye to eye at the summit, as the AP explained:

AFP/Getty Images

Most of the press on Vladimir Putin’s historic trip to Tehran has focused on his warning to the U.S. not to attack Iran and the possibility of some sort of strategic partnership between the Kremlin and the ayatollahs. One could almost be forgiven for thinking that the meeting that Putin attended was some sort of trans-Caspian “death to America” summit. In fact, the real substance of the meeting was about the distribution of the Caspian Sea region’s energy resources. On this front, almost no progress was made and more was revealed about Russia and Iran’s differences than their agreements.

The Kremlin still views the Caspian as Russia’s “near-abroad,” and Iran’s growth as a regional power is troubling to the Russians as well. The two countries didn’t really see eye to eye at the summit, as the AP explained:

Iran, which shared the Caspian’s resources equally with the Soviet Union, insists that each coastal nation receive an equal portion of the seabed. Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan want the division based on the length of each nation’s shore, which would give Iran a smaller share.

Another back story behind the summit is CIA Director Michael Hayden’s unexplained recent visit to Baku, Azerbaijan where he met with President Ilham Aliyev. Azerbaijani analysts have speculated that the U.S. is preparing to use the country as a staging ground for a war on Iran, though the Azeris and the Iranians continue to enjoy strong cultural and economic ties. But Hayden’s visit might also have had something to do with the construction of a trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline to bypass Russia, a deal the Russians have wanted to scuttle from the beginning. Witness Putin channeling Al Gore here:

Projects that may inflict serious environmental damage to the region cannot be implemented without prior discussion by all five Caspian nations,” Putin said, apparently suggesting each capital should have a virtual veto on energy transport.

The governments of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan are somewhat wary about that proposal as they seek to navigate a middle ground between Russia and the West. In the end, the five countries failed to come up with a formula for sharing the Caspian’s resources—which was supposed to be the point of the whole summit—and could agree only on a resolution banning foreign military action from the region. That doesn’t look like success to me.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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