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Iran/Azerbaijan: Tehran Gains From Aliev's Visit

  • Michael Lelyveld

Despite failing to strike a deal on Caspian Sea borders, Iran may have improved its prospects with this week's visit by Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliev. Domestic response has been largely positive to an easing of tensions, raising hopes for negotiations over a disputed oil field.

Boston, 22 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Iran may have achieved several objectives with a long-awaited visit from President Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan this week, though the two countries failed to end their dispute over the Caspian Sea.

The most obvious goal was the visit itself, which had been postponed repeatedly since it was scheduled more than two years ago. Aliyev was first expected to sign a package of 12 tension-easing agreements in Tehran in February 2000. That trip was cancelled suddenly on short notice in favor of a visit to the United States.

Since then, delays and recriminations have largely ruled relations. Aliev's poor health has stalled his mission in at least one instance, but Caspian conflict has been a major cause of the cancellations for the past year.

The prepared agreements, which have no strategic value, also seem to have festered as a source of resentment. Although Aliyev came to Tehran in June 2000 for a meeting of the Economic Cooperation Organization, Iran did not count the occasion as fulfilling his commitment.

The eventual signing of 10 documents on issues including sports, culture, and science during the three-day visit that ended on 20 May have led to an unexpected outpouring of favorable comment, even without any tangible progress on the Caspian.

On 21 May, the hard-line Iranian daily "Kayhan International" called Aliev's visit "very positive and fruitful," while the English-language "Tehran Times" termed it a "turning point" in ties. The official "Iran Daily" carried comments of Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi, who called prospects for relations "bright."

The good reviews may revive faint hopes for a settlement of Caspian border issues, which have stalled for a decade as the five shoreline states slide toward militarization of the waterway.

Last July, an Iranian gunboat chased two Azerbaijani research vessels out of a disputed oil field, bringing the region to the brink of hostilities. No public mention was made of the episode during Aliev's visit, but the messages on both sides were about mending the breach.

Iran's defense minister, Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, conveniently left town Sunday for his own visit to Kuwait after making a series of threats to repel incursions by Azerbaijan in recent months.

Even with that apparent discretion, the 78-year-old Aliyev was made to sit through a lecture by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the dangers posed to the region by the United States and Israel, both of which have good relations with Baku.

On Sunday, the English-language "Iran News" editorialized darkly that Azerbaijan "has been dishonest in its dealings with Iran over the past decade" and has "blindly sacrificed its own national interests" to serve those of the United States.

Still, the aftereffects of the visit appear to have been largely positive in Iran.

President Mohammad Khatami called for a "friendly and brotherly" settlement of the Caspian question, while Aliyev cited a "broad understanding" on proceeding toward a Caspian legal regime. Khatami accepted an invitation to visit Baku, although no date has been set. Perhaps just as important, both sides held out hope for an "expert-level" meeting on 11 June, the first since the collapse of a Caspian summit in Ashgabat on 24 April.

The daily "Hambastegi" reported that Khatami and Aliyev held two hours of talks "behind closed doors" Saturday, apparently without a breakthrough on the oil field that Iran calls Alborz and Azerbaijan calls Alov.

But Iran has notably refrained from protesting Azerbaijan's announcement last week that it will soon sign a final Caspian border deal with Russia, similar to the one reached recently between Russia and Kazakhstan. That accord sparked an outburst from Iran, which considers all bilateral pacts for the Caspian illegal. The problem for Iran is that it now needs a bilateral pact of its own.

Iran has insisted on a 20 percent share of the Caspian, while its shoreline and the Russian division formula would give it about 13 percent. But whether or not it seeks a five-way settlement, Iran must negotiate with its neighbors in the southern Caspian to establish its border and end the insecurity of leaving it undefined.

The opening with Aliyev may have given Iran a new avenue for negotiations, making the visit a small step forward on an issue that has suffered only setbacks for months.