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Caspian: Iran Warns Azerbaijan Over Exploration

  • Michael Lelyveld

Iran has warned Azerbaijan that it must stop oil exploration in a Caspian area that Tehran believes is part of its sector. The latest dispute follows months without progress toward settling the Caspian division issue. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 24 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iran issued warnings to Azerbaijan and foreign companies about Caspian Sea contracts over the weekend, damaging progress made with Baku only a day before.

On 21 July, Iran said that Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani had summoned Azerbaijan's charge d'affairs to lodge a "strong objection" to reported plans by his state oil company to explore a Caspian area that Tehran considers its own.

According to the official news agency IRNA, Iran received information that the Azerbaijani oil company SOCAR planned the work with foreign companies in what Iran calls the "Alborz oil region."

Ahani delivered a stern note, stressing Iran's "firm resolve" in barring activities "against its national interest." The message added, "Otherwise, Iran will hold Azerbaijan responsible for any such acts."

On 22 July, the Iranian Oil Ministry upgraded the protest to a warning, saying that any contracts for prospecting in the area would be considered "illegal."

The ministry said, "The authorities will stop the prospecting activities of any company in the mentioned [Iran-owned] sector, and the Oil Ministry will no more enter into a contract with such companies."

Although it is not yet clear what activity triggered Iran's reaction, the rhetorical blast may have wrecked a detente that was established on 20 July when the two countries signed a security accord in Baku.

The non-military pact, which covered international terrorism, drug-trafficking, and organized crime, was signed by the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Hassan Rouhani, and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ramiz Mehdiev.

Several reports also highlighted Iran's readiness to help mediate talks with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and to take further steps toward improving ties.

It is unclear how such goodwill measures will be affected. But attempts to ease differences over the Caspian seem to have suffered a blow.

The reason for the dispute seems to be the failure of the Caspian nations to agree on their post-Soviet borders. The southern Caspian has already been troubled by a long quarrel between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan over competing claims to offshore oil fields.

Iran's complaint may now be added to the squabbles that have stalled a division agreement among the five shoreline states.

Even without the latest flare-up, there has been little if any recent progress on the decade-old issue. A summit meeting of the five Caspian nations has been called off twice already this year.

The range of conflicts has so far made accommodation impossible, despite periodic bilateral contacts, like the one between Azerbaijan and Iran last week.

Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan have reached general agreement that the sea floor should be split into sectors that follow national shorelines. But Iran has refused to take less than 20 percent, although it occupies only 13 percent of the coast. Turkmenistan's formulas seem to be aimed at supporting its suit to the oil fields claimed by Azerbaijan.

Fears of militarization have become another hurdle for settling the borders. Iran has voiced concern about Russia's naval power, while charging that Azerbaijan is also increasing its diminutive force. Turkmenistan has responded by making a show of ordering new patrol boats. The issue of border patrols begs the question of exactly where the borders lie.

Earlier this month, Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliyev voiced a vague interest in negotiations. He suggested a gradual approach, addressing the resource issue first before dealing with matters of fishing and navigation.

But Aliyev also argued that there would be little use in trying to hold a summit in October as planned, saying that it "cannot be productive unless there is clarity on every issue," the Interfax news agency reported. But clarity is still a long way off.

In recent weeks, the Caspian issue appears to have fallen onto the heap of intractable conflicts. Russia, which has driven negotiations since last year, seems to have dropped its efforts abruptly.

Russia's Caspian envoy, Viktor Kalyuzhny, is believed to have made his last public statement on 15 June after a fruitless meeting of deputy foreign ministers in Baku. His round of shuttle visits to other Caspian capitals has long since ended.

With the warning from Iran, the Caspian issue may not only be stalled but may now be moving backwards, as two more neighbors come into conflict over disputed claims.