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Russia: Russian, Iranian Presidents Fail To Agree On Caspian Sea Division

  • Michael Lelyveld

Iran and Russia have issued a joint statement on the Caspian Sea that falls far short of a promised agreement. The two sides are stressing cooperation during President Mohammed Khatami's visit, but negotiations over Caspian division seem to have suffered a serious setback.

Boston, 13 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iran and Russia were supposed to agree this week on how to divide the Caspian Sea. Instead, they acknowledged that the question will continue to divide them indefinitely.

The discord over the Caspian was hard to hide Monday at the start of President Mohammed Khatami's three-day visit to Moscow. Emerging from talks with President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin, Khatami declared that his visit would usher in a "new spring" in Iran's relations with Russia.

But a joint statement made clear that the winter has been a cold one, as far as the Caspian issue is concerned. The statement, which took the place of a hoped-for agreement that was publicized for weeks, suggested that no progress has been made. In fact, the terms may be a setback for all five of the shoreline states.

The document stated that "Until the legal regime of the Caspian Sea is finalized, the parties do not officially acknowledge any boundaries on this sea." It continued, saying, "Any decision and agreements referring to the legal status and use of the Caspian Sea will only have force if they are approved on general consent of the five littoral states."

If taken literally, the language could mean that any one of the five littoral states could veto an oil project undertaken by any other. And no bilateral agreement on Caspian borders would be considered to have the force of law.

Those terms largely repeat statements that have been made previously in the past decade since the Soviet breakup. But even the repetition may be damaging in light of the goals of a Caspian summit, which was put off from last week until April pending Khatami's visit to Moscow. The refusal to allow for bilateral agreements also calls into question much of the diplomacy that has already taken place.

While the Caspian nations hoped for a breakthrough, it is now clear how little Russia and Iran have in common on the legal problem. They agreed only to oppose any trans-Caspian pipelines on environmental grounds and to hold several meetings of experts before a Caspian summit. That requirement makes it unlikely that the summit will take place in Ashgabat early next month as planned.

Khatami's appearance with Putin highlighted areas of cooperation, such as on arms sales, drugs and Afghanistan. But the outlines of the Caspian dispute remained the same as they have been for months, dashing an accord that was to have been a centerpiece of Khatami's trip.

Russia has sought to split the Caspian seabed into national sectors along a modified median line, while keeping the waters and surface in common. Iran has insisted on 20 percent of the entire Caspian, which is more than its share of the shore. The statement in Moscow showed no sign of compromise on either side.

Oil companies have been waiting for a settlement before signing contracts for any oilfields that might be disputed. The impasse has already stalled development on the Turkmen- Azerbaijani border for several years.

But in their statement, Russia and Iran were unable to settle even on an approach for advancing toward agreement, such as dealing first with the seabed or bilateral lines.

The language of the statement also seems to serve both parties poorly. Since no boundaries will be recognized officially until a final settlement, Russia may keep its right to send naval vessels wherever it wants, a key security concern for Iran.

Although Russia and Iran have agreed that trans-Caspian pipelines should be banned, they have also said that all decisions on the Caspian's use must be by consensus. In other words, the ban on pipelines could also require unanimous consent. Even raising such questions makes the division issue harder to solve.

Tehran has already effectively ignored the consensus agreement on Caspian use within the past week by signing a deal with a Swedish firm to build an oil rig for exploring the sector it claims for itself.

The lack of progress was underscored by two other events. First, Russia's Caspian envoy, Viktor Kalyuzhny, was dispatched to Kazakhstan without explanation for talks starting Tuesday. The move at the start of Khatami's visit with the Iranian delegation seemed to signal that no further Caspian discussions would take place during the trip.

On Monday, Turkmenistan also announced that unpredictable President Saparmurat Niyazov had dismissed that country's Caspian representative, Boris Shikhmuradov. The former foreign minister has long been regarded as one of Turkmenistan's most able officials. But Shikhmuradov has now been named ambassador to China, leaving Caspian negotiations up in the air.

It is unclear whether Niyazov has reacted in anger to the problems facing his planned Caspian summit in Ashgabat. But prospects for a settlement may be even worse than before Khatami's meeting in Moscow.