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Caspian: Azerbaijan, Iran Seek New Phase In Border Dispute

  • Michael Lelyveld

Talks between Azerbaijan and Iran ended in Baku last week without a breakthrough on a Caspian border dispute. But more expert-level meetings are expected in Tehran later this month in an atmosphere that seems to have improved since a dangerous confrontation last July and a failed Caspian summit in April.

Boston, 18 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- After months of tension and the risk of confrontation, talks between Azerbaijan and Iran may be opening a new phase in Caspian affairs.

Last week, an Iranian delegation led by envoy Mehdi Safari held three days of talks in Baku, aimed at settling the Caspian Sea border with Azerbaijan. The reports of progress on the issue have been mixed.

At the conclusion of negotiations, the Interfax news agency quoted a spokesman for the Iranian Embassy in Baku as saying: "There are no problems between the parties, and technical issues are currently being resolved. Experts are to prepare a document that would meet the interests of the two countries for years to come."

Iran's "Asia Daily Economic News" was less optimistic. The paper reported that the talks had reached a "stalemate," quoting Azerbaijan's Caspian representative Khalaf Khalafov as saying that no progress was made.

But the meetings, coming almost a year after a confrontation on the maritime border, may still offer hope for progress. Relations with Baku have slowly recovered since an Iranian gunboat threatened two Azerbaijani research ships in a disputed oil field last July.

The two sides have recently been working to establish the boundary line in the southern Caspian since the incident in the oil field that Azerbaijan calls Alov and Iran calls Alborz.

With the talks in Baku, saber rattling now seems to have given way at least temporarily to diplomacy. The Iranian official predicted that another round of expert-level meetings would take place in Tehran by the end of the month. Britain's BP oil company has suspended work under a contract with Azerbaijan until the dispute is resolved.

The issue is only one of several that has stalled an overall agreement on how to divide the Caspian among the five shoreline states, which also include Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. While Ashgabat and Baku have had conflicting claims since at least 1997, the disagreement between Iran and Azerbaijan is the only one that has involved military force.

The drive for an overall settlement has now taken a back seat to bilateral dispute resolutions, but the connection between the two tracks of diplomacy has become vague. A summit meeting of presidents in Ashgabat came to an awkward end in April without a joint declaration, stalling the drive for a five-way initiative.

The event turned into little more than a power struggle as Russia again pressed its solution for splitting the sea floor into national sectors along a median line. Moscow has sold Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan on the approach, but Iran has been strongly opposed, as it seeks more than the 13 percent of the Caspian covered by its shore.

On 13 May, Russia pursued its goal through a process of elimination, signing a bilateral division agreement with Kazakhstan. Azerbaijan's ratified a similar treaty with Kazakhstan on the same day, effectively completing a triangle in the northern and western Caspian.

As it has many times, Iran objected to the bilateral approach as illegal. But its protests in the case of Azerbaijan this time have been muted as it tries to reach a bilateral pact of its own. The bilateral track seems to have made headway with Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliev's long-delayed visit to Tehran last month.

Iran now appears careful not to disrupt whatever progress has been made. There are also suggestions that Azerbaijan has been careful by postponing a division agreement during Aliev's visit to Moscow on 9 June. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov cited unspecified "technical issues" with the documents, while Aliyev referred to "two or three little nuances," the Reuters news agency said.

The Azerbaijani newspaper "Ekho" speculated that the signing may have been put off because it would not have been tactful toward Iran just before Safari's visit to Baku. Whether the explanation is valid or not, the postponement may have saved Tehran from the trap of having to condemn another bilateral accord by its neighbors in the midst of its own negotiations.

Russia's real role in this sensitive process is also difficult to discern. Russia's biggest oil company Lukoil has let it be known that it has held talks with Azerbaijan about acquiring a share in the Alov oil field, making it unclear whether Moscow is trying to play part of the solution or part of the problem in the dispute with Iran. The talks also raise the possibility that Aliev's unsigned accord with Russia may refer to both the northern and southern bounds of Azerbaijan's sector, which could pressure Iran.

Russia may see some pressure as productive in spurring a settlement between Iran and Azerbaijan. But encouraging a partially state-owned oil company to raise the stakes for a solution may not be subtle, since it raises the prospect of Russian involvement on Iran's border.

The signs so far seem encouraging because the rhetoric has cooled and talks are continuing. But the outcome remains as uncertain as the strategy.