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Iran: Russian Naval Power In Caspian Causes Concerns

  • Michael Lelyveld

A report explaining Iran's views on dividing the Caspian Sea cites deep security concerns about the threat of Russian naval power. The paper may offer a rare glimpse into relations between Russia and Iran, as Moscow presses for a speedy solution to the Caspian problem. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 6 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's security advisers are concerned that Russian naval power in the Caspian Sea may pose a serious threat to the country, according to a report attributed to a former senior Iranian diplomatic aide.

The report on Iranian approaches to the division of the Caspian Sea says that the advisers to Iran's High National Security Council have urged a solution that would bar passage for Russian warships near Iranian shores.

The paper attributed to Abbas Maleki, a former deputy foreign minister, said the Iranian security view "considers the disappearances of Iran-Russian borders due to the collapse of (the) former Soviet Union as the most significant event in Iran's foreign affairs history, and regards the presence of the Russian naval forces in the Caspian as a potential threat."

Maleki is now chairman of the International Institute for Caspian Studies, a non-governmental think tank in Tehran that includes current officials on its academic board.

The report, which was circulated in English in the West last week, cites suspicions that Russia's plan for dividing the Caspian is aimed at helping it to project its naval power and to dominate its neighbors. Moscow has proposed a "dual regime" that would divide the Caspian seabed into national sectors, while keeping the water and its surface in common.

The study said that "some experts believe that the reason for Russia's emphasis on a dual regime for the Caspian surface and seabed indicates a Russian desire for hegemony in the Caspian. Other Caspian states do not have any significant naval forces in the Caspian, while Russia has about 100 warships in the port of Astrakhan, many of which were transferred there via the Volga-Don canal following a dispute between Ukraine and Russia," the report said.

The statement echoes the objections that Iran raised last month after Russia staged naval war games in the Caspian during President Vladimir Putin's visit to Azerbaijan.

At the time, the official news agency IRNA quoted an "informed source" at the Iranian Foreign Ministry as saying, "Iran believes that there is no threat in the Caspian Sea to justify the war games and military presence, and such measures will harm the confidence-building efforts of the littoral states in the region."

Both the statement and the report offer a rare glimpse of Iran's security concerns about Russia, which Iranian officials usually express only privately.

The question about Russia's motives comes amid intense diplomatic activity in the days before meetings of the five shoreline states to resolve the issue of a legal division of the Caspian. A presidential summit in Turkmenistan's port city of Turkmenbashi is expected by early March, while a working group of deputy foreign ministers may meet in Tehran later this month.

So far, Russia appears to have lined up Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to endorse the outline of its proposals, while Putin has hinted that Turkmenistan may soon agree. Iran has insisted that it is entitled to at least a 20 percent share of the entire Caspian, including both the seabed and the surface. Other formulas based on land borders would give it far less. Turkmenistan has publicly stated its support for Iran, affirming that no solution can be binding without its consent.

The report focuses on the reasons behind Iran's stand, without necessarily embracing the security point of view. It also outlines an "economic approach" to the division question, which it says was the dominant view during the administration of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Under the economic approach, Iran concentrated on its relationship with Russia as "the most important player in the region" and "a source of high tech equipment, military technology and scientific know-how," the report said. The position also backed the condominium principle of keeping the Caspian in common, arguing it would "serve the best interests of Iran."

Tehran's current position that it should have at least 20 percent of the Caspian is apparently a sign that the security view has prevailed.

The report explained the advantage of drawing national sectors on the water's surface, saying, "the avoidance of water boundaries with Russia will immunize Iran from any potential threat posed by Russia because the Central Asian and trans-Caucasian states can act as buffer zones between the two nations." Under a sectoral division, Russia's waters would be bounded by those of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

The paper is of interest because it portrays the deep lingering concerns about Russian power, which are rooted in the Anglo-Russian control of Persia in 1907, and the British and Soviet occupation of Iran in 1941. The memories have been stirred by Moscow's pressure on the Caspian issue, and they have not been calmed by Russia's recent pledges of friendship, cooperation, and arms sales.

An Iranian diplomat contacted by RFE on Friday said he had no knowledge of the report and was not immediately able to confirm its authenticity. The diplomat said Maleki "doesn't necessarily reflect the official position of the country," but he added that "he has good sources."

As a government official, Maleki was instrumental in establishing early contacts with American scholars on Iran. The International Institute for Caspian Studies was founded in 1998.

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