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Caspian: Baku Expects Iran To Try to Block Agreement At Summit

  • Richard Greene

The leaders of the five states that border the Caspian Sea are meeting in Ashgabat tomorrow and Wednesday (23-24 April) to try to hammer out a deal to divide the sea's resources. The stakes are high. The Caspian Sea is believed by some experts to hold the third-largest oil and gas deposits in the world. But in Azerbaijan, there is doubt that Iran will back down from its position that each state that shares a part of the Caspian coastline should get an equal share of its riches.

Baku, 22 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Going into this week's Caspian Sea summit in Ashgabat, the public positions of most of the players are clear.

Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan argue that each country should get a share of the Caspian Sea's riches based on the length of their respective coastlines.

Iran, which has a smaller coastline than most of the other states, counters that the sea should be split equally, or that it should be granted, at minimum, a 20 percent share.

Turkmenistan has wavered between the two positions.

Russia and Azerbaijan, meanwhile, have reached bilateral agreement on the delineation of the sea and plan to sign a protocol in St. Petersburg in June.

But Iran insists that only a multilateral agreement will resolve the issue and dismisses the deal between Moscow and Baku. And although Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi has visited both Moscow and Baku in the last month, experts say it is unlikely that a deal will be reached in Ashgabat.

Brenda Shaffer is director of the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard University in the U.S. She says Iran has strong reasons for not compromising.

"The main problem with Iran is that, for them, the Caspian isn't about two more percentage [points] this way or two more percentage [points] that way. It's basically about obstructing the flow of Caspian oil in order to keep Azerbaijan in a weak position."

Shaffer points out that tens of millions of ethnic Azeris live in Iran -- far more than in Azerbaijan itself. She says Tehran believes a strong Azerbaijan could be a threat to Iran's stability.

"[Iran] would like to make sure that Azerbaijan can't get rich and be prosperous and thus be a source of attraction for its own Azeri population. You know, a third of the population of Iran is Azeri, and they are very concerned that an attractive Azerbaijan could create some ethnic issues and affect stability in Iran."

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency estimates that 25 percent of Iran's population is of Azeri ethnicity.

Shaffer says Tehran is also concerned about how the massive new oil reserves that the Caspian is believed to contain could affect OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

"As an OPEC producer, they are very concerned with the development of non-OPEC oil sources, which ruin the OPEC monopoly and thus their ability to manipulate prices and use oil in a political way."

Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have not been warm recently, despite delegations of parliamentarians and businessmen making a number of bilateral visits.

Baku has frequently accused Tehran of border violations in the past year, both by air and sea. After a particularly tense standoff last summer, Azerbaijan's ally Turkey staged a show of air power to send the message that Ankara will stand by Baku if the need should arise.

Azerbaijani analyst Vafa Guluzade, a former foreign policy adviser to President Heidar Aliev, says Iran is mistaken if it believes it can delay development of Caspian oil and gas reserves by stalling an agreement on the sea.

Guluzade argues that too many countries have business and strategic interests in bringing Caspian hydrocarbons to market. The United States, in particular, is eager to have an alternative to Middle Eastern oil. Although a number of oil majors have recently been disappointed by unsuccessful exploratory drilling in the Caspian, the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline is going ahead and promises to deliver Caspian oil and gas to the West exclusively through friendly countries.

Because there is such a broad range of interests in the Caspian, Guluzade says development will go forward whether Iran wants it to or not, and whether a deal is reached in Ashgabat or not.

"Talking about status of Caspian Sea, we must take to our consideration all possibilities of all players here. First, United States of America. Second, Great Britain. Third, Russia. Fourth, Caspian Sea countries. And then European countries. It's not only Iran. Iran is thinking that it's only Azerbaijan Iran is talking with. No, no, no."

Turkey and the United States have made it clear they will stand by Azerbaijan if there is a serious military threat from Iran, so Guluzade says Baku has nothing to fear from Tehran. He thinks Iran may be overreaching itself by trying to obstruct agreement on the status of the sea.

"Iran must understand that Iran is not the United States, so strong and powerful to urge others to redivide their sectors."

Harvard University's Shaffer says Iran may, in fact, be preparing to compromise. Foreign Minister Kharrazi's recent trips to Moscow and Baku have prompted domestic concerns -- both in parliament and in the press -- that Iran may be willing to settle for a smaller area. Iranian legislators have criticized Kharrazi's trips, saying they are not in line with Iran's interests.

"Hearing these voices coming out of Tehran, coming out of the parliament, criticizing the government's policies as if they smell a deal, I tend to trust them. They smell the deal probably better than we do."

But she and Guluzade both suggest that there is another possibility: That the summit will be canceled at the last minute, or that junior representatives will attend instead of heads of state.

Few world leaders, least of all Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, want to be seen coming away from a summit with nothing to show for it. Their failure to go to Ashgabat, Shaffer and Guluzade agree, would be a clear indication that the Caspian issue remains as intransigent as ever.