The Caspian is important not only because of the natural resources of the world's largest 'lake', the Caspian 'Sea', (natural gas, oil, pipelines and caviar from sturgeon), but after the collapse of the USSR, Iran had to share the Caspian with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, thus seeing its share drop from 50% down to 20%, a percentage the other countries want to reduce further and Iran is resisting. In November 2010, Iran's president Ahmadinejad met in Baku, Azerbaijan capital, for a Caspian Sea conference to discuss the percentages issue.
Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan view natural resources as leverage for greater economic and political power. Iran sees the 20% percent demand not as bargaining position but as a floor, but it is just as concerned about western economic and strategic influence in the region. Multinational corporations for energy and pipeline contracts, an regional competition, the larger question with regard to the Caspian and the countries that have a claim on it is strategic. The small countries bordering the Caspian claim that because they have longer coastline, that entitles them to more resources and Iran just 11%. On the other hand, Russia is going back to the Tsarist period basing its economic development and political leverage during the 21st century mainly on raw materials, especially energy. Moscow wants to impose its energy hegemony, thus relegating the former Soviet republics to 'clientist' roles for Russia.
The concern for Moscow and Tehran is that the US has been using the extraordinarily corrupt government of Kazakhstan to establish an economic and strategic foothold. Wikileaks revealed that British millionaire Robert Kissin provided a $4m secret payment (bribe) to Kazakhstan government on behalf of Texas company Baker Hughes that wanted a $219 million oil services contract. The SEC imposed a $44 million fine on Hughes in April 2007. That was the highest penalty ever imposed by DoJ.
If a regional conflict arises, it probably will not be because Iran uses 'gunboat diplomacy', for this is not uncommon among other countries, including Turkey for example that has staked a claim in the Aegean against both Greece and Cyprus claims. The conflict may arise if Iran perceives a threat from Kazakhstan as a US satellite under President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbaev who has ruled the country unchallenged since 1991, and he and a few other oligarchs have used the country in order to amass billions in personal wealth.
In spring 2010 he requested that the US set up a military base in Kazakhstan instead of the Transit Center Manas in Bishkek, and he offered Obama use of air space for flights to Afghanistan. In January 2011, the Voice of America noted that in 2010 the US solidified relations with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, five nations that border Afghanistan, Russia, China and Iran. This is indeed ironic considering that historically Russia and Iran posed a threat to the trans-Caucasus region.
The former Soviet republics in the Caucasus-Central Asia have few options in order to counter not just Russian, but Iranian economic power and potential nuclear power (and weapons at some point). The best option is greater economic cooperation with the EU - using the natural gas resources and military cooperation with NATO. For its part, Iran is concerned about 'encirclement' by US allies that could potentially become cause for conflict. However, as long as Russia and China are counter-balancing the pro-US allies in Central Asia, and as long as China and Russia are counter-balancing each other militarily, Iran would need a very serious excuse for preemptive regional conflict. The people in the Caucasus-Central Asian countries are hardly satisfied with very corrupt and repressive regimes, thus Iran does not need to worry as much because the regimes are unpopular and use nationalism as a rallying cry. After two decades, however, the broad masses of the population demand more from their governments.