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Iran: Another Caspian Row In The Making?

  • Michael Lelyveld

A series of reports suggest that Iran may be resuming its assertive stance in the Caspian at a time of diplomatic uncertainty. Russia and Azerbaijan have already registered opposition, putting relations in the region under strain.

Boston, 26 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Concern is rising once again over Caspian Sea borders after reports that Iran may be moving to develop disputed oil fields.

Both Russia and Azerbaijan reacted warily to a recently reported statement by Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh that his country will protect its claims in the Caspian, even before international borders are drawn.

In remarks reported by Russia's Itar-TASS news agency, Zanganeh was quoted as saying on 20 February: "Our stand is perfectly clear: We will not wait for deciding the matter on the legal regime in the Caspian Sea. We begin acting, relying on our own understanding of law, and we will not permit anybody's actions in the part of the sea we regard our own."

The statement sparked fears that Iran might be returning to an assertive stance in the Caspian. The region has been watchful since a tense incident in July when an Iranian gunboat expelled two Azerbaijani research vessels from a disputed oil field.

Calm gradually returned after Turkey indicated it would back Azerbaijan militarily, while Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled political support for Baku by calling the use of force "impermissible."

On 22 February, Russia's Caspian envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kalyuzhny, used the same word to describe the Zanganeh statement, the RIA-Novosti news service reported. Kalyuzhny recalled the July incident, saying that "one should not create supremacy of some countries over others. Everything should be decided on the basis of consensus."

Interfax also quoted Kalyuzhny as saying that Iran's announcement "can be considered to be pressure on the neighboring states and an unconstructive method of holding negotiations."

Talks among the five Caspian shoreline states have dragged on for years without a settlement on a post-Soviet division. Iran has generally sought a larger share than is covered by its coastline.

Itar-TASS reported equivocal comments by Kalyuzhny, who said he hoped "it is not a matter of Iran taking a tougher stand." He then added, "Iran is not taking a tough stand on the Caspian Sea and is searching for compromises."

"Russia is doing the same and we are maintaining permanent contact with Tehran," he said. According to Interfax, Kalyuzhny also tried to reassure Tehran that Russia would not seek a "four-plus-one" formula for a Caspian split that would impose the will of the four former Soviet neighbors on Iran.

Azerbaijan also took note of Zanganeh's remarks. In a report relayed by the BBC, the country's Bilik Dunyasi news agency said, "[W]e could assess the said statement as a signal that Iran's position towards Azerbaijan has become more aggressive, and a feeling that Azerbaijan's rights are being ignored is in the air."

Iran seemed to add another ominous sign with a report that Iranian coast guard ships had approached an Azerbaijani patrol boat on 19 February in what the daily newspaper "Iran" called "the fishing ground of Iran's territorial waters in the Caspian Sea" near Astara. The Azerbaijani boat retreated, an unnamed Iranian security official said.

According to the paper, there have been "repeated instances of confrontation between the two countries' coast guard vessels" in the past several weeks.

While the reports may be a warning of more incidents to come, the situation is far from clear, making it uncertain how much worry is warranted. After several days, there appeared to be no independent verification of either the Zanganeh statement or the reported coast guard encounters.

The oil minister's remarks were reported by Itar-TASS as coming on the eve of a two-day trip to Pakistan, and they apparently were not carried by the official Iranian news agency IRNA until after Zanganeh's return. IRNA then referred to the statement reported by the Russian news service but did not get it directly from Zanganeh.

The report also differed little from a Zanganeh statement in January 2001, six months before the episode with the Azerbaijani research vessels. At the time, Zanganeh said: "We cannot wait forever until the Caspian Sea legal status is resolved. Iran has considered a share for itself."

The meaning is still open to debate, considering that Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan have all conducted offshore work and surveys in sectors they consider their own, even though no division pact has been reached.

Iran's official policy was stated by Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani, who apparently ignored Zanganeh's position when he said in June that "any move to unilaterally exploit the seabed resources of the Caspian Sea is illegitimate." Iran has contracted for survey work but has yet to develop any offshore field.

The latest reports may come to nothing, but they have compounded uncertainties at a time when diplomacy has been adrift. A Caspian conference in Moscow, scheduled for 26-27 February, may help close the rift. But Iran's relations with Russia and Azerbaijan are at an uneasy stage.

Months of planning for a fence-mending visit to Tehran by Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliyev were dashed when the 78-year-old leader was recently hospitalized in the United States for prostate surgery.

Last week brought another unsettling surprise as Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi's trip to Moscow was called off at the last minute. The postponement led to many theories but no definite reason for the trouble between Iran and what it has called its "strategic neighbor." The daily "Iran News" said, "The delay has been received with unease in Tehran."

In addition to anxieties about Russia's closer relations with the United States since the terror attacks of September, Iran has been deeply aggrieved by recent accidents involving Russian aircraft in its fleet. On 12 February, a Tupolev airliner belonging to Iran Air crashed shortly after takeoff, killing 119 passengers and crew.

Last May, the crash of another Russian plane killed 30 on board, including Iran's transport minister. Iran Air reportedly plans to discontinue use of Tupolev aircraft, which may also be barred from European service due to noise restrictions.

Given the sensitivities, this may be no time for another Caspian row.