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Azerbaijan: Tension Subsiding In Iranian Gunboat Incident

  • Michael Lelyveld

After threatening Azerbaijan over Caspian oil development, Iran may be trying to keep the incident from spinning out of control. Tehran insists that the action by a navy ship was needed to defend its rights, but the results could prove harmful to its interests, as well. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 27 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian anger appears to be mixed with moves toward moderation following an armed encounter with Azerbaijan in the Caspian Sea.

Reactions of Iran's top Caspian experts and its media have seemed divided three days after an Iranian gunboat expelled two survey ships working under an Azerbaijani contract from waters claimed by both sides.

The incident on 23 July involving vessels used by Britain's BP oil company 150 kilometers southeast of Baku prompted further threats from hard-line dailies like the English-language "Tehran Times."

On 25 July, the paper blamed Azerbaijan for ignoring warnings and provoking the dispute in a fiery editorial entitled "Catch the Thief." The column hailed Iran's navy for training guns on the research vessels and defending the country's interests, saying, "If they still fail to understand this simple point, the next incident will surely put the message through."

But unpredictably on 26 July, the paper accused BP of "a mischievous act" by announcing that it was suspending activities in the area that Azerbaijan calls its Araz-Sharg-Alov oil fields. Iran refers to it as the "Alborz oil region."

But most Iranian papers did not carry the story as a main headline on the second day, according to a press summary by the official news agency IRNA, which also toned down the flap.

The daily "Afarinesh" quoted an unnamed diplomatic source as saying that the dispute "has subsided." The online version of "Iran News" omitted second-day coverage of the controversy on 26 July.

Iranian authorities on the Caspian were also divided in their comments. Abbas Maleki, a former deputy foreign minister who now heads the independent Caspian Sea Research Institute, cited Azerbaijan's "hasty actions" in exploring the area and called the Iranian navy's actions "logical and sound."

But Deputy Oil Minister Hossein Kazempour Ardebili recommended that oil companies "should engage in exploration activities in areas which are not disputed," according to IRNA. He added that "escalation of tension in the Caspian Sea will serve the interests of none of the neighboring states," the news agency said.

Both Kazempour and Maleki have served as Iran's top officials on Caspian issues. Kazempour holds several posts including adviser to the Foreign Ministry and Iran's member of the OPEC board of governors.

The range of responses seems to reflect a recognition that the dispute could get out of hand and prove costly for Iran.

Both Azerbaijan and Iran have insisted that they will pursue their national interests. Some reactions in Azerbaijan have also shown willingness to escalate the affair.

Vafa Guluzade, the former security aide to President Heidar Aliev, told the Turan news agency that the incident is a reason to establish a NATO base in Azerbaijan. Such a move would be just the opposite of what Iran wants.

In an interview with Aliyev adviser Rustam Mammadov, Azerbaijan's "Ekho" newspaper also posed the question of why Iran should have any role in negotiations to divide the Caspian Sea at all, since it had already signed treaties with the Soviet Union. In an apparent aside to the interview, "Ekho" asked: "What does Iran have to do with this? Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan are the successors of the USSR."

Such reactions are likely to make the results of Iran's move in the Caspian unpredictable. If tensions rise, the next steps could prove hard to control.

A call by Iranian hard-liners to exclude all oil companies with interests in Azerbaijan, for example, would ruin competition for Iranian contracts. Iran also has a 10 percent interest in Azerbaijan's giant Shah Deniz gas field in the Caspian, making it a partner of BP.

But there could be equally troubling consequences for all the shoreline states.

As a result of border disputes, the Caspian in shrinking as an economic resource. A long feud between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan has kept both countries from exploiting the center of the Caspian. In 1997, Russia cancelled a contract for oil fields in the area because of competing claims.

A similar fate may now be in store for the southern Caspian because of the Iranian confrontation, turning valuable prospects into a virtual no-man's land.

The problem also comes in the same week that U.S.-based Chevron oil company has announced the failure to find commercial deposits at Azerbaijan's Absheron field. The area, which was supposed to be rich in both oil and gas, has turned into a dry hole and another blow for Caspian investment.

In light of the past week's events, Iran's threat may have succeeded in damaging all interests in the Caspian and defending none.