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Caspian: On And Off Summit Appears To Be On Again

  • Michael Lelyveld

The presidents of Russia and Iran have agreed to meet at a Caspian Sea summit in Turkmenistan next month after more than a year of delay. Hopes seem to be rising for a general document that the five shoreline nations can sign, but there is no end in sight to specific disputes.

Boston, 26 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A Caspian Sea summit, which has been repeatedly put off, has been put on again after Iranian President Mohammed Khatami agreed to attend a five-nation meeting in Ashgabat on 23 April.

The maneuvers around a summit date have been going on since last month, when Russia's Caspian envoy Viktor Kalyuzhny declared that a working group of deputy foreign ministers "has reached the limit of its possibilities." Only the presidents of the Caspian nations can restore momentum to the talks on a legal division of resources, which have dragged on for over a decade, Kalyuzhny said.

The deadlock over how to divide the Caspian among the shoreline states has left Iran increasingly alone as a consensus has spread among the CIS nations of Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan on Moscow's division formula. Iran has stalled a summit for over a year while insisting on its own approach and seeking support from Turkmenistan to avoid total isolation.

It might seem appropriate, then, that Iran announced Khatami's acceptance of a summit invitation from Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov first on 16 March, days before statements that any other leaders would attend. Russian President Vladimir Putin declared his acceptance a week later on 23 March, the RIA-Novosti news agency said.

The process leading up to the summit has been curious, however. Iran's Caspian representative Mehdi Safari paved the way during meetings in Turkmenistan on 12 March. But the immediate announcement after Safari's talks was that Khatami would embark on a series of visits to Central Asian countries in April. It now seems that the two-day summit will be only one of his stops on a Central Asian tour.

Safari said Khatami plans to visit Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan "to seek ways of further strengthening and developing mutual relations with these countries," the Iranian official news agency IRNA reported. It is unclear whether the tour is meant to downplay Iran's concern with a Caspian solution as an issue critical to Tehran.

So far, Khatami's travel plan has attracted little attention in Kazakhstan, where media coverage has been negative since Iran objected to Astana's accord with Azerbaijan on the division formula at a CIS summit in Moscow last November. Iran called the agreement illegal and repeated its protest in a recent letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Relations since then have seemed less than warm.

Last week, Kazakhstan commercial television suggested that the new government of Prime Minister Imangaliy Tasmaghambetov had taken offense at what it called an "unexpected congratulation" from Iran, more than two months after his inauguration.

The report transcribed by the BBC said, "The decision by Tehran to be the last to send congratulations, moreover, in two and a half months, is regarded as another sign of a considerable complication in the relations between the two countries." It then noted the friction over the Caspian pact.

Iran's differences with the CIS countries have remained largely constant for the past year. Russia's formula calls for splitting the seabed into national sectors while keeping the waters in common. Kalyuzhny suggested recently that a 10-mile national coastal zone for fishing could be extended, if it did destroy the common-water principle.

Iran argues instead for either common control over the entire Caspian or a 20 percent share, which is more than the 13 percent covered by its coast. As recently as 14 March , the government-sponsored paper "Iran Daily" reported no change in the position.

The English-language daily quoted a member of a parliamentary energy commission as saying that Iran had already calculated its share of Caspian resources at 33 billion barrels of oil. The member, Hossein Afarideh, also urged the Oil Ministry to proceed with activities "even in some of the disputed areas."

The statement was a reminder of a dangerous incident last July, when an Iranian gunboat confronted two Azerbaijani research ships in disputed waters under contract to Britain's BP oil company.

The continuing rifts raise the question of what a summit, even after a year of delays, can accomplish. Kalyuzhny's hope is that it will at least produce a document setting out the various positions and "key principles of the sea's new status," Interfax reported last month. This may be expected to include a symbolic but unenforceable declaration that the Caspian is to be an area of peace and friendship. Much of the work on the document is reportedly done.

Kalyuzhny is also seeking a pact on protecting the Caspian's biological resources. Such non-controversial accords may be confidence-builders that will produce some positive coverage.

But the diplomatic niceties could also be seen as a step back toward irrelevance if they fail to address the real-world disputes on nearly all sides. Iran's tension with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan is matched by five years of discord between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan over their overlapping oil-field claims.

In addition, Iran rarely acknowledges that its biggest difference is with Russia over the entire division formula, preferring instead to lodge proxy protests against neighbors like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Earlier this month, the Iranian paper "Entekhab" broached the subject, saying that Russia's position "is totally against the views of Iran and Turkmenistan" and "is pushing the region into further tension."

Unless the presidents can deal with such conflicts, their task next month may be to prove that summits matter at all.