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Caspian: Impasse On Setting Sea Borders Continues

  • Michael Lelyveld

Moscow seems less hopeful for the convening of a Caspian summit after a visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi in early April. Tehran's position on dividing resources remains entrenched, though the standoff has kept Caspian countries from knowing whether disputed areas contain oil or not.

Boston, 9 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Iran and Russia failed again to mend their rift over Caspian Sea borders during Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi's visit to Moscow 4-5 April, raising doubts about a five-nation summit in late April.

The question of legally dividing the Caspian was ranked low on the list of agenda items in official statements following Kharrazi's meetings. The placement is likely to reflect the lack of progress rather than the importance to Tehran and Moscow.

The Russian official news agency RIA-Novosti said at the start of Kharrazi's two-day visit on 4 April that "special attention" would be paid to the Caspian problem. Presidents of the five littoral states are due to meet in Ashgabat on 23 April in an attempt to break the impasse, which has lasted since the Soviet breakup.

But scant notice was given to the issue after Kharrazi stated at the outset that Iran's stance was unalterable. Iran seeks joint control of the oil-rich Caspian or a minimum of 20 percent for itself. Iran's coastline covers only 13 percent.

Russia has argued for national sectors, but only on the sea bottom, a formula backed by Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Turkmenistan has not made a firm commitment to either side.

The freezing of positions could be felt by comparing statements before and after Kharrazi's meetings with President Vladimir Putin and others. In an official commentary two days before the visit, RIA-Novosti wrote that "at last, there are signals that an accord on the development of Caspian resources can be achieved."

Afterwards, the Kremlin was less certain that a summit would take place at all. On 6 April, RIA-Novosti quoted a Kremlin source as saying, "We are not absolutely sure, but the summit is likely to be held." The Kremlin had previously announced on 23 March that Putin would attend.

Russian diplomats have apparently played a game of expectations with the summit, initially saying that no breakthrough was anticipated and then pushing for one before Kharrazi's trip. Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov has also prepared a "surprise" plan to break the deadlock at the summit, his ambassador to Uzbekistan told a press conference on 3 April. But it is unclear that Iranian President Mohammed Khatami will want to be surprised.

Whether the Caspian was meant to be high on the agenda in Moscow or not, the other announcements coming out of the trip were drab and routine. Both sides pledged defiance of U.S. wishes regarding construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant. Similar statements have been made countless times before.

The two sides signed protocols on previous treaties covering cooperation and dual taxation. They discussed terrorism and drug trafficking. Little qualified as news.

Neither country explained the last-minute postponement of Kharrazi's visit in March, which was first planned for 19 February. Iranian newspapers pointed to differences over Bushehr. Russia's Interfax cited "the need for additional coordination of some aspects of bilateral cooperation." The official Iranian news agency IRNA said it was "due to coordination problems in his visit's agenda."

But the Caspian may be a prime suspect in the case of the cancellation. During last week's visit, Iran and Russia agreed only that the Caspian "should become a zone of peace and stability, sustainable economic growth and prosperity, good [neighborliness], and equal cooperation [among] the littoral states."

It was precisely the sort of bland statement that has been predicted as a summit declaration, showing no progress on the division issue. Yet, far more is needed for development and security. Tensions have persisted since last July, when an Iranian gunboat chased two Azerbaijani survey ships out of a disputed oil field. The Caspian is now dotted with areas that are off-limits for exploration due to competing claims.

Diplomatic positions have become so entrenched that they seem to have missed a major problem. While the countries keep arguing, there has been no new commercial discovery of oil in the southern Caspian for several years. Many deposits have turned into "dry holes." The last major find off Azerbaijan's coast in 1999 turned out to be gas rather than oil. While Kazakhstan has many offshore oil fields in the north, Iran so far has none.

The standstill over both division and new discoveries means that the Caspian states may be feuding not over oil and gas, but water and mud. While Iran's dispute with Azerbaijan has raised security fears throughout the region, no one knows whether the contested area contains oil or not.

A similar disagreement between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan has blocked exploration in the middle of the Caspian since 1997.

One possible solution could be an agreement to guarantee the safety of exploration and investment, with all disputes to be settled in the future through arbitration. Such an approach might ease tensions by narrowing the number of oilfields over which it is worth arguing.

But the Caspian impasse may permit no progress at all, and even partial solutions may be too much to expect.

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