Accessibility links

Iran: Azerbaijan-Kazakhstan Caspian Accord Irks Tehran

  • Michael Lelyveld

Iran has protested a Caspian accord between Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan reached at a late-November CIS summit in Moscow. The border agreement is one of two among the CIS nations, raising the risk that Iran's neighbors may settle the division issue among themselves.

Boston, 5 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Presidents of CIS nations have made sudden progress on settling their Caspian borders, raising an outcry from Iran, which was the only shoreline state not invited to a 30 November Moscow summit.

As a non-CIS country, Iran played no part in the 10th anniversary of Soviet successors and was left on the sidelines as its northern neighbors on the Caspian struck at least two bilateral border deals.

The first was an agreement between Presidents Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan on dividing the Caspian seabed along a median line.

Aliyev said, "I believe this is a very important step, and it demonstrates the strengthening of the principle that we have adopted as the basis for the division of the Caspian bed," the Interfax news agency reported.

The agreement appears to be a matter of principle rather than a precise border demarcation. The accord may be seen as an inevitable formality, since Azerbaijan agreed with Russia on the median line concept last January, and Kazakhstan has agreed with Russia in principle since 1998.

But press reports of the pact drew a stern statement from Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi, who said that bilateral deals would only serve to "prolong the process of adopting a comprehensive legal regime for the Caspian Sea." The five littoral states have been deadlocked on the division issue since the Soviet breakup.

The Iranian official news agency IRNA said Asefi "called on the Caspian states to avoid unilateral and provocative actions on matters relating to the legal regime of the Caspian Sea."

Iran has previously avoided using the word "provocative" after efforts to cool a dispute last July, when an Iranian gunboat threatened two Azerbaijani vessels in contested waters being explored by Britain's BP oil company.

Tehran has since stressed cooperation in a series of contacts with Baku and Moscow. It has largely dropped its repeated public demands for a 20 percent share of the Caspian in recent months, but it is not clear that it has abandoned claims to more than the 13 percent covered by the Iranian coast.

Iran continues to insist that its consent is needed for any bilateral deals to be valid, although Kazakhstan shares no border with Iran.

Asefi said, "The working groups of deputy foreign ministers of the five Caspian States are proceeding with talks on a comprehensive legal regime, and the Islamic Republic of Iran views the treaties 1921 and 1940 between Iran and [the] former Soviet Union as the basis for formulating the legal regime for the Caspian Sea."

The English-language "Tehran Times" also cautioned that without a consensus, "no bilateral agreement can be binding to other countries," IRNA reported.

So far, Iran has not commented on a second border accord reached between Kazakhstan and Russia to split their interests in disputed oil fields of the northern Caspian. The agreement places the offshore Kurmangazy field under Kazakhstan's jurisdiction with joint development by Russian companies. In exchange, the Khvalynskoye field will be under Russian jurisdiction with Kazakhstan's participation, Nazarbaev said.

In yet a third sign of progress at the CIS summit, Aliyev said he had been asked by Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov to reopen talks on their competing oil-field claims, which have stalled a Caspian summit for the past year.

Aliyev said, "I think this can be deemed one of the key positive results of our Moscow visit," the Azerbaijani publication "Xalq Qazeti" reported.

Although much of this harmony may be for show, Iran's discomfort may grow with the concern that the four CIS nations could settle their Caspian issues among themselves. The result would be a de facto Caspian regime, leaving Iran with whatever is left.

Tehran's discomfort may turn to dismay when it realizes that Moscow has completely ignored an accord signed with President Mohammad Khatami during his historic visit last March.

That agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that, "Until the legal regime of the Caspian Sea is finalized, the parties do not officially acknowledge any boundaries on this sea."

It also stated that, "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."

It seems clear that Iran's concerns will have to be taken into account. As in previous instances, a series of shuttle visits between Tehran and Moscow is likely to follow with attempts to explain away the latest signs that Iran has been ignored.

But if Putin has decided to pursue a Caspian solution through the CIS, the question is what will Iran do about it and how will it respond? The new agreements suggest that it will have to bargain under increasing pressure.