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Russia: A Rift Between Moscow And Tehran Over Caspian?

  • Michael Lelyveld

Russia has cancelled a meeting in Moscow this week on the legal division of the Caspian Sea following Iran's refusal to attend. RFE/RL correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports that the open rift over the Caspian issue marks a rare public dispute between the two countries, suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin has badly mishandled his relations with Tehran.

Boston, 17 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iran seems to have delivered a strong rebuff to Russia by refusing to attend a meeting in Moscow this week to discuss the legal status of the Caspian Sea.

The expert-level meeting, tentatively set for Tuesday, was called off at Iran's request, the Interfax news agency said, citing diplomatic sources. The report was not carried by the official Iranian news agency IRNA, suggesting that Tehran would rather not call attention to the row.

The cancellation was the second this month after Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kaluzhny also failed to organize Caspian talks at Russia's port of Astrakhan after traveling to Tehran two weeks ago.

Kaluzhny's visit produced no change in Iran's long-held position that it is entitled to either joint ownership or 20 percent of the Caspian. Instead, the Russian envoy offered a two-year-old formula for dividing only the seabed and a new proposal to share disputed oilfields. Kaluzhny presented Iran with a series of three draft agreements on the Caspian. None has been signed.

Iran's decision not to participate even in a meeting of experts may be seen as a sign of displeasure with Kaluzhny's approach. Tehran's public positions toward Moscow have habitually been cordial and cooperative, although Iranian officials have voiced suspicions privately. The cancellation of the Caspian meeting marks a rift that may have few parallels in Russian-Iranian relations in recent years.

There are likely to be several reasons for the friction.

First, an agreement now on Russia's terms might not be in Iran's interest. Russia has found oil near its Caspian shore and reached bilateral agreements with Kazakhstan, but Iran has yet to learn how much petroleum it has or may be able to claim. Western experts believe that the southern Caspian is likely to hold more gas, while the northern part has more oil. The composition could make settlement a better deal for Russia than Iran.

Secondly, Kaluzhny's mission lacked the diplomatic niceties that might have been accorded to Iran, which was an equal party with the Soviet Union in two previous Caspian treaties. As a relatively minor official who was recently demoted to Caspian envoy from the post of energy minister, Kaluzhny had little status and no power to negotiate.

Kaluzhny's limited role may have had the effect of confronting Iran with a position that it could only accept or reject. That view seems to be supported by the presentation of draft agreements in which Iran had no hand, followed by pressure to attend the two meetings on Russian soil.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov may have tried to address the problem of unequal status with a reported phone call to his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi, before the Kaluzhny visit. But a face-to-face meeting at a ministerial level may be needed before progress on the nearly six-year-old division question can be made. Iran had previously proposed such a Caspian meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York next month, but it is unclear now whether that meeting will take place.

To make matters worse, Kaluzhny left his Iranian trip for last after speaking with all the other Caspian states. He also made the mistake of predicting that the talks with Iran would be difficult. His hosts may have reciprocated by making his prediction come true.

But the most serious reason for the reaction may be the relatively low level of importance that Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have assigned to his policy toward Iran.

While Putin's travels have taken him to countries of the Far East, Western Europe and even neighboring Turkmenistan, he has allowed his diplomatic contacts with Iran to languish. The exception was a Russian general's trip to Tehran in June to discuss military cooperation, billed as the first visit by a high-ranking Defense Ministry official since 1991. In January, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council also met with Ivanov in Moscow.

Aside from those exchanges, there appears to have been little in the dialogue since Putin's rise to power that would have persuaded Iran to accept a compromise on the Caspian. None of the top officials in the Putin administration have pursued ties to Iran with the same focus as former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, a specialist on the Middle East.

After years of effort, Russia's work on the first reactor of the Bushehr nuclear power plant was still estimated to be only 30 to 40 percent complete in May. Russia's Gazprom is also believed to have contributed little if anything to development of Iran's South Pars gas field and has now reportedly been replaced by a German firm.

Putin's characteristic speed in dealing with problems has now led him into an abrupt approach toward the Iranians. They are unlikely to react well to Moscow's preconceived plans for their strategic Caspian assets, particularly when they are delivered by a new envoy on the last leg of his first regional tour. Putin may be able to undo the damage to Russia's relations with Iran, but the task may need more personal attention than he has given it so far.