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Caspian: Iran Facing Hard Choices At Summit

  • Michael Lelyveld

Caspian countries are preparing bilateral border agreements, even though they see little hope for a summit meeting to reach an overall division accord later this month. Negotiations have continued despite Iran's protests that separate pacts are illegal, raising questions about what other steps it will take.

Boston, 2 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Iran may face hard choices in preparing for a Caspian Sea summit this month, while its neighbors are negotiating a series of bilateral pacts.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has agreed to attend the two-day summit of the five shoreline nations in Ashgabat starting on 23 April, after 13 months of postponements and diplomatic delays.

Reports in the past week suggest that all sides have already determined that the meeting will make no progress on a legal division of the Caspian. The problem has stumped the region since the Soviet breakup over a decade ago.

The summit is being held at Russia's urging to restore momentum to talks among deputy foreign ministers that have reached an impasse over how to draw maritime borders. The issue has blocked development of some offshore oil fields and raised fears of possible clashes over competing claims.

But instead of promising a breakthrough, the advance publicity for the summit seems to be aimed at avoiding any expectation of progress.

On 27 March, Interfax quoted unnamed "Moscow sources" as saying that the meeting "is unlikely to yield a final agreement on the Caspian Sea's status." The result would be only a final declaration outlining points of agreements and a commitment to more talks, the Russian news agency said.

One day later, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Urnov said that "no declaration defining a new legal status for the offshore will be signed," Platts news service reported. Urnov said that only "some form of interim memorandum" is anticipated.

On 26 March, Kazakhstan Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev also said the summit was unlikely to produce "any specific decisions" on the Caspian, although it would still be "very useful," according to the Caspian News Agency.

Such comments may have served two purposes. The first is to convey low expectations that would avert later accusations of failure. The second is to assure Iran that it will be safe to attend because there will be no settlement with which it would not agree.

As consensus grows on a division formula among the Caspian nations of the CIS, Iran has been struggling against isolation in its own approach.

Russia has already lined up Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to back its plan for dividing only the seabed into national sectors along a median line, keeping the waters in common. Iran insists on common control of the entire Caspian or a 20 percent share for itself, which is more than the 13 percent that it controls of the coast. Turkmenistan has wavered back and forth, perhaps for fear of offending either Russia or Iran.

But Iran has also defended its position by objecting to bilateral border agreements among its neighbors, which are slowly adding up to a Caspian division in practice, if not in principle. Most recently last November, Iran criticized a division accord between Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan as illegal, and protested the pact in a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Tehran has kept silent over similar agreements involving Russia with both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, preferring to gloss over its differences with Moscow. Iran's strategy of protesting Russia's formula by proxy with complaints against weaker neighbors has conveyed its message without publicly confronting Moscow.

But in the past week, the Caspian countries have announced plans to add to the list of bilateral pacts, posing a further challenge to Iran.

On 29 March, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said after meeting with Toqaev that Moscow was close to signing a protocol on drawing a "modified" median line with Kazakhstan, the RIA-Novosti news agency reported. The more detailed border agreement is needed because of valuable oil fields on Kazakhstan's Caspian shelf.

Last week, Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliyev also said he was preparing to sign a border delimitation agreement with Russia during a visit to St. Petersburg on 9 June, according to ITAR-TASS. The document will build on the division accord reached with President Vladimir Putin during his trip to Baku in January of last year.

The announcements before the upcoming summit leave Iran with the choice of either renewing its protests or keeping its peace. But Tehran may soon find that its policy of condemning bilateral pacts as illegal has little use.

Iran must eventually settle its own border disagreement with Azerbaijan, which nearly erupted in violence last July when an Iranian gunboat chased two Azerbaijani survey ships from a contested oil field. Negotiations to end the dispute are, by their very nature, bilateral, violating the principle that Iran has espoused.

The official Iranian news agency IRNA also reported last week that Khatami plans to sign documents of an undisclosed nature with Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov during his visit to Ashgabat. It is unclear whether they will deal with the Caspian, but their border relations may also require a bilateral accord.

Iran may keep delaying Russia's plan for the Caspian by other means. But last week's announcements suggest that its objections to agreements among its neighbors will be ignored.