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Caspian: Iran Defends Actions Against Azerbaijan

  • Michael Lelyveld

In a new account released this week, Iran details a history of its competing claims with Azerbaijan to a Caspian oil field. The chronology makes the case that an armed encounter on 23 July was justified as the only way to protect Tehran's interests. RFE/RL correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 29 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iran has provided a history of the dispute with Azerbaijan over a Caspian oil field that led to an armed confrontation between the two countries last month.

The analysis -- distributed this week by Abbas Maleki, a former Iranian deputy foreign minister and Caspian envoy -- makes the case that Iran has been objecting to Azerbaijan's plans for developing the area for more than two years.

The chronology suggests that trouble was brewing long before 23 July, when an Iranian gunboat threatened to fire on two Azerbaijani survey ships unless they withdrew from the contested field, which Azerbaijan calls Alov.

The event marked the most serious incident in the Caspian among the five shoreline states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- who have yet to reach agreement on how to divide the inland sea's huge oil and gas reserves.

Britain's BP oil company has suspended work in the disputed tract, which Iran calls Alborz, until the disagreement is resolved.

In July 1998, BP signed a contract to explore and develop the deposit in a London ceremony witnessed by Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev.

According to Maleki's account, Iran first sent a letter to the Azerbaijani government in December 1998, making clear its concerns over Azerbaijan's activities before a Caspian border agreement was reached.

Maleki, who now chairs the International Institute for Caspian Studies, an independent think tank in Tehran, says that a BP-led consortium started conducting seismology studies on the oil fields in 1999.

But at the end of 1998, the National Iranian Oil Company had already formed another consortium with Royal Dutch/Shell and other Western firms to perform an 18-month study of the southern Caspian. Although it is not completely clear that the two operations overlapped, Maleki says that Baku protested Tehran's activities.

In September 1999, Iran awarded a contract to an offshore-registered Iranian company to develop the Alborz fields. The firm then hired a Norwegian company to conduct seismology studies with a Russian ship, which sailed into the Caspian the following month.

According to Maleki, the Norwegian company was then threatened by Ilham Aliev, the president's son, who is vice president of the Azerbaijani state oil company SOCAR. An exchange of letters between Iran and Azerbaijan ensued, in which Tehran vowed to protect its interests.

The standoff continued until last month, when BP planned to do more work in preparation for developing the disputed area. The Iranian Foreign Ministry then summoned Azerbaijan's ambassador on 21 July to object. The Oil Ministry issued a warning the following day. The next day the incident with the gunboat took place.

Maleki writes that "the Azerbaijani government apparently thought that the Islamic Republic of Iran would only resort (to) verbal warnings." He adds, "It appears that Azerbaijan left no options for the Islamic Republic of Iran but to defend its interests."

The account appears to be aimed at providing justification for an action that has been portrayed as unnecessarily abrupt. The history may help to portray Iran as a more reasonable neighbor, rather than an unpredictable provocateur.

That theme was sounded yesterday (28 August) during a visit to Baku by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani. After meeting with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliyev, the RIA-Novosti news agency quotes Ahani as saying, "The important thing is that both sides are interested in removing existing contradictions through political consultations."

But hopes for an overall border solution dimmed with an announcement by Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov that a Caspian summit planned for October will be put off at least until November or December.

While Maleki's history is valuable as an explanation of Iran's reasoning, it leaves several questions open.

First, why did Iran object to the Azerbaijani contract only in December 1998, five months after it was signed? The answer still appears to be that Iran had not yet formulated its claim to a 20 percent share of the Caspian, raising doubts about its case for the field. The extent of its shoreline would give it only about 12 percent.

Second, considering the history of warnings, why did the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Hassan Rowhani, travel to Baku to sign a security accord with Azerbaijan on 20 July, a day before the Azerbaijani ambassador was summoned in Tehran? The timing suggests a lack of coordination, rather than a series of events that provoked and justified an armed incident.

Finally, who ordered and approved the action by the Iranian gunboat, and did Iran calculate the amount of diplomatic damage that would follow?

That question may be the most important in a region that remains tense and volatile. So far, the answers have been just as elusive as a solution to the Caspian claims.