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Iran: Khamenei Critical Of Turkmen-Azerbaijani Rapprochement

  • Michael Lelyveld

Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan have been meeting in an attempt to end their Caspian border dispute. But the possibility of a settlement has drawn criticism from Iran. Correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 7 May 2001 (RF/RF) -- Iran issued a warning last week against bilateral pacts on the Caspian Sea as two of its neighbors met in an effort to resolve their differences.

Speaking in the port of Bandar-e Anzali, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei repeated that no division of the Caspian would be legal without the consent of all five shoreline states.

Khamenei said, "The legal status of the Caspian must be determined by all the five. Bilateral accords cannot bind other states as far as determining the legal status of the sea is concerned."

The Iranian leader seemed to be directing his comments both toward the Caspian countries and the nations beyond. He said that "on the basis of international law, the Caspian Sea should be shared by all the five littoral states, and no foreign power can interfere in affairs related to the sea." He added, "The Islamic Republic will not allow any power to trample on its rights."

The statement sounded a policy position that has been heard many times before. But the timing suggested that it was aimed at neighboring Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan as they held a rare bilateral meeting in Ashgabat to deal with one of the Caspian's toughest disputes.

The gathering of experts came about suddenly following the Turkic summit in Istanbul late last month, when presidents Heidar Aliyev and Saparmurat Niyazov reportedly resolved to end a long-standing feud between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.

The argument is over the Caspian oil field that Azerbaijan calls Kyapaz. In Turkmenistan, which also claims it, the field is known as Serdar. In 1997, Russia cancelled a contract with Baku to develop the deposit after Ashgabat objected. The disagreement has stalled cooperation between the two countries for years.

Since Kyapaz/Serdar lies in the middle of the Caspian, it has been a central problem for the entire demarcation issue and the principles of division. Last month, a Caspian summit in Ashgabat was called off for six months after Niyazov claimed that Turkmenistan was about to sign $10 billion of foreign contracts, including one for Serdar. Western oil firms have so far refused to sign deals until a settlement is reached.

The dispute has also produced a procedural dilemma. Only a bilateral agreement can resolve the competing claims. Yet, as Iran argues, a consensus of the five Caspian states will be needed before it is legally recognized.

Russia has proposed a broader rule that calls for parties to share contested fields. Moscow's formula would also divide the seabed into national sectors while keeping the waters in common. The position has won partial backing from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.

Iran prefers a condominium principle of joint control except for a coastal strip, although it has said it will settle for an even 20 percent share of both the sea floor and the waters. Other countries have balked because Iran's coastline would give it only about 13 percent.

Speaking at Harvard University last week, Doug Blum, a Caspian expert and professor at Providence College in the eastern U.S. state of Rhode Island, said the Iranian claim was "clearly an aggrandizement that doesn't correspond with their geographic position."

The counter-argument was given by an Iranian legal expert last month at a Columbia University conference. Saeid Mirzaee Yengejeh, legal adviser to Iran's UN Mission, said the country was actually entitled to 50 percent of the Caspian because it had signed treaties with the Soviet Union.

He said, "In the new era, Iran no longer claims 50 percent ownership in the Caspian Sea." Yengejeh added that by seeking only a 20 percent equal share with the four successor states, Iran "has indeed adapted its position with the new situation in the region." In other words, Iran has already shown flexibility.

One effect of the impasse over Kyapaz/Serdar is that it makes it impossible to determine what Iran's final position really is. In the same way, Russia may be able to delay saying what it will settle for. As a result, the dispute may help to keep negotiations at a preliminary stage indefinitely.

Khamenei may have worried that a settlement between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan would have forced Iran to take a new bargaining stand. But reports on the talks suggest there may be little reason for concern.

News agencies reported on 4 May that the talks had collapsed in failure, with Turkmenistan accusing Azerbaijan of pumping oil from other fields which it claims. Azerbaijan is now asking the United Nations to intervene. As long as the deadlock between the two sides goes on, there may be little chance that the real bargaining between Russia and Iran will begin.