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Iran: Tehran Seems To Be Blocking Caspian Summit

  • Michael Lelyveld

Reports from Iran suggest that the country is trying to head off a Caspian summit next month by backing a meeting in the fall instead. The delay is one of many that Tehran has orchestrated, but even some Iranian papers are now calling for the government to negotiate.

Boston, 12 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Iran seems to be blocking a plan to hold a summit of Caspian leaders next month in Turkmenistan while offering support for the meeting at a later date.

Last week, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov floated the idea of holding the long-stalled summit in April to discuss a legal division of the Caspian. The meeting to be hosted by Niyazov has been delayed by Iran's diplomatic moves for over a year. The division issue has been tied up far longer than that. Attempts to settle post-Soviet borders date back over a decade.

A glimmer of hope emerged last week following an informal summit of CIS leaders near Almaty on 1 March, when Niyazov was apparently cajoled into putting the initiative back on track. Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev quickly took up the proposal for an April meeting in Ashgabat, saying, "There is no time to lose," according to Kazakhstan's Khabar Television and Russia's RIA-Novosti news service.

Although Turkmenistan has frequently frustrated its CIS neighbors by changing its stand, Toqaev declared that the "four Caspian states of the Commonwealth of Independent States have achieved a certain rapprochement in their positions, as far as the status of the Caspian is concerned." The other CIS shoreline nations are Russia and Azerbaijan.

Russia's formula for splitting the sea bottom and sharing the waters has driven the negotiations for the past two years. Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have agreed with Moscow on the approach. Iran has opposed it, seeking either joint control or a 20 percent share of the Caspian, far more than its 13 percent of the coast. Turkmenistan has stayed in the middle, seeking to balance both sides as it pursues a long feud with Azerbaijan over disputed oil fields.

In the meantime, many offshore resources remain undeveloped or under a legal cloud, awaiting resolution of the tangled issue.

At a Caspian conference late last month, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kalyuzhny expressed frustration with the process, saying a summit is now needed because a working group of envoys "has reached the limit of its possibilities."

On 8 March, Iran seemed to endorse the summit plan. In a telephone call to Niyazov, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami "welcomed the initiative by Turkmenistan in holding a summit" and "voiced Iran's readiness to take part," the officials Iranian news agency IRNA said.

On 10 March, the English-language "Tehran Times" said Khatami had conveyed what was called "Iran's delight over the Turkmen initiative to host the summit." But what was missing from both reports was support for holding the summit next month, as Niyazov had proposed.

Instead, the "Tehran Times" spoke of a summit "next fall." The meeting in Ashgabat would be only another working group gathering of deputy foreign ministers, the paper said.

The reports appear to signal that Iran has once again prevailed on Niyazov to delay the summit until some uncertain future date. The cycle of events is sadly familiar.

In late November, a CIS summit in Moscow led to similar temporary progress among the four former Soviet states of the Caspian, threatening to present Iran with a united front.

Tehran has long feared that its CIS neighbors could simply settle matters among themselves and leave Iran with the unclaimed area as its share.

Iran blasted an announcement at the November CIS summit of an accord between Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, agreeing to Russia's plan for a division along a median line. Tehran called the bilateral pact "provocative" and illegal. It soon won assurance from Russia that no settlement could be reached without Iran's concurrence, and negotiations again slowed to a crawl.

Last week, Tehran continued to protest the agreement between Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan in a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, according to Iranian television and the BBC.

Although tensions with Azerbaijan have recently eased, Iran has yet to resolve a Caspian dispute that began last July when one of its gunboats threatened two Azerbaijani survey ships in waters claimed by both countries.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan's press has turned critical of Iran. The newspaper "MN Novosti Nedeli" argued last week that Tehran is trying to keep oil prices high by blocking Caspian projects. The report said that "Iranian diplomacy is aimed not at the division of the sea under the most profitable conditions for Tehran, but at creating a situation where prospecting and extracting Caspian oil are impossible."

The Kazakhstan weekly "Karavan" also alleged that despite its pledges of aid, Iran is secretly seeking instability in Afghanistan. The report said the strategy is to make it "impossible to transport Caspian oil through Afghanistan," allowing Iran to compete with its export routes. Such charges may be signs of the damage that the Caspian standoff has done.

Last week, the English-language "Iran Daily" argued in an unusual commentary that the country is facing security and competitive risks as a result of the impasse. The paper said, "The undeniable fact is that Iran today is alone with regard to the issue of a Caspian Sea legal regime."

The daily said Iran must choose between ignoring the situation, giving in to pressure, or negotiating to remove misunderstandings. The paper urged the government to follow the third course.