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Iran: Politicians Stake Out Territory Ahead Of Caspian Summit

  • Vahid Sepehri --> Caspian Sea shoreline (file) (Courtesy Photo) October 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Tehran is set to host a Caspian Sea summit at which the leaders of Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan will try to hammer out a legal framework for use of the sea and its resources, including significant energy deposits.

There was a flurry of diplomacy ahead of the October 16 meeting after unsourced reports claimed a plot had been uncovered to assassinate Russian President Vladimir Putin after his arrival in Tehran. That commotion, and Iran's official reaction to the reports, highlighted the potentially momentous nature of the summit.

The five states that border the Caspian are still seeking a framework to replace the 1921 treaty dividing the sea between Iran and the Soviet Union, and two subsequent agreements on fishing and trade.

This week's summit will be just the second conference to bring together those littoral countries' heads of state -- the first one took place five years ago in Turkmenistan.

Iranian government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham told reporters on October 14 that the leaders are expected to sign a joint declaration at the end of the summit.

Comments by Iranian politicians and commentators indicate concerns that Tehran might find it difficult -- at this and future conferences -- to hang on to what it regards as its fair share of the Caspian. Most estimates of what represents a "fair share" vary anywhere between one-fifth and one-half of the sea.

Distrust Of Russia

Broadly, the coverage appears to reflect a latent distrust of Russia, which is regarded as a key player on a number of international issues of crucial importance to Iran -- including its nuclear program. Iranians are not entirely convinced by Russia's official posture as Iran's friend and partner, given what some in Tehran perceive as surreptitious bargaining and last-minute agreements with the West against Iran, a history of diplomatic bullying and territorial encroachments under the tsars, and subversion through political proxies under the Soviets.

Independent observers in Iran have focused on the legal issues at stake, while virtually all have commented on the Caspian Sea's lamentable ecological state. A former diplomat and head of the private Caspian Studies Institute in Tehran, Abbas Maleki, set out certain legal issues. He said the Caspian legal framework has become a "wearisome" issue unlikely to be resolved at this week's summit. Maleki said Iran does not in principle oppose the shared use of the sea's surface and division of the seabed, which he said is the position favored by Russia. He said Iran is essentially willing to agree to a shared-use or a divided framework. But he also cited Iran's share as 20 percent in that case, which was the percentage for which Iran bargained under reformist President Mohammad Khatami earlier this decade.

Maleki also cited some of the potential disadvantages of a divided regime for Iran. Firstly, he said the absence of a cooperative management regime would harm the sea environmentally and added that the Caspian would soon be unfit for swimming. Maleki also observed a strategic danger to Iran in dividing up the Caspian. He said his country is "threatened by America" and needs access to the world's waters. A jointly administered lake would allow Iran to sail its ships north, into the Volga and beyond. A framework of division would separate Iran from the Russian side with the territorial waters of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Maleki said participants have "concluded" that an agreement is necessary, and he said Iran's current government appears able to take "difficult and revolutionary decisions."

Tehran-based analyst Rasul Musavi has said that to be effective in pursuit of a framework if they manage to agree at this summit -- or soon -- on issues like the environment, shipping, fishing, and underground resources. He told ISNA that he has seen increasing realism among participants, and he pointed out that a strict division or sharing framework does not meet the various states' interests. He said the 50 percent share that some Iranian politicians have touted applied to the Soviet period, and indicated that previous ministerial meetings on the Caspian have to some extent brought the countries' positions closer. Musavi cited some agreements that states have reached in principle -- on ships navigating only under the flag of a littoral state, on restricting military forces on the Caspian, or on exclusive territorial strips for each state although with no agreement yet on its width.

Iranian politicians have taken a broader view of the summit, citing its significance for their country. The head of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, said that the summit was important in raising Iran's international profile and providing a model of regional cooperation. Borujerdi expressed hope that the parties might reach a mutually satisfactory agreement.

A fellow committee member, Reza Talai-Nik, called the summit an opportunity to reach an agreement that is crucial to the Caspian environment and trade, and an occasion to hold consultations with the Russians on key issues like the nuclear issue and the stalled construction of the Bushehr power plant.

Another committee member, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, suggested that Tehran and Moscow can play a decisive role in shaping a framework for the Caspian. Falahatpisheh said Iran's share is "at least 20 percent," and added that Iran and Russia could agree to ensure that figure does not decrease. He also cited a need to demilitarize the Caspian and curb pollution.

An oil terminal at Mazandaran on Iran's Caspian coast (epa)

Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai said the summit would give Iran an opportunity to press its claims with Russia. Rezai told a gathering that President Putin's visit provides an opportunity for Tehran to state in a "friendly but firm manner" its claims of "several years," presumably on the nuclear issue, Bushehr, and the Caspian. Rezai said his country has to "make the Russians understand that we are not prepared to overlook our evident rights," adding that "if the Russians continue their friendship and cooperation with us, we too will continue."

Rezai's comments reflect the ongoing concerns of a number of Iranian politicians, although the candor with which those worries are expressed increases with the distance of those politicians from official posts. The concerns include Iran's need for allies in an increasingly hostile international environment, Russia's increasing significance in that context, and fears that Moscow will abuse its position to the detriment of Iran.

In contrast with the vigorous and polemical language that Iranian officials and even diplomats use when discussing domestic politics or Middle Eastern affairs, senior Iranian officials have been loathe to make dramatic statements concerning Russia. Moscow cuts a murky and sinister profile in the discourse of some Iranian politicians and papers. One daily, "Aftab-i Yazd," commented that Moscow's portrayal might lie at the heart of certain right-wing legislators' recent tendency to blame Khatami's former government for a purportedly soft approach to the Caspian. The daily suggested that reformists are regarded as an easier target than Russia, and it urged those same parliamentary critics to press the current government to defend Iran's rights -- if they are firm in their views. Beneath these exchanges, there could be a collective concern that there is little that Iran can do to impose its views on -- or even persuade -- increasingly assertive and seemingly unscrupulous states like Russia.

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