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Iran: New Flexibility On Caspian Sea Division Signaled

  • Michael Lelyveld

Iran may be signaling new flexibility on Caspian Sea division following a wide-ranging visit by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov. Iran's change in language about treaties reached with the Soviet Union comes before border negotiations next week and Russian naval exercises in the Caspian next month.

Boston, 24 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russia has gone to great lengths to assure Iran of its peaceful intent as it prepares to launch naval exercises in the Caspian Sea, and there is at least one sign that diplomacy may be having an effect.

On a visit to Tehran over the weekend, First Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov discussed the entire range of issues in Russia's relations with Iran, including the Bushehr nuclear-power plant and policy positions on Afghanistan and Iraq.

The meetings gave Iranian officials a chance to seek renewed commitments that Russia would not abandon its ties, despite its growing closeness to the United States.

The official English-language paper "Iran Daily" gave prominent play to Trubnikov's statement on 20 July that Russia "is ready to receive and accept new proposals to build new nuclear-power plants in Iran." So far, the challenge has been in completing Bushehr, which is years behind schedule.

The report paid less notice to the Caspian question, although it appears to have been a major motive for the visit. Iran has been uneasy about Russia's pending show of naval strength since April, when President Vladimir Putin ordered the exercises immediately after a Caspian summit in Ashgabat failed to make progress on the decade-old division dispute.

The maneuvers, involving some 60 Russian vessels, including Moscow's newly commissioned "Tatarstan" warship, are set for 8 August. According to ITAR-TASS, the 102-meter "Tatarstan" carries a crew of more than 100 and travels at a speed of 28 knots with modern antiaircraft, surface, and submarine weapons systems.

In May, the official Russian defense daily "Krasnaya zvezda" said, "In the next few years, the domestic shipbuilding program foresees outfitting specially designated formations for operation in the Caspian with corvettes, assault ships, and gunboats."

In reports by the official Russia RIA-Novosti news agency and ITAR-TASS, Trubnikov stressed that the exercises would help to enhance regional security and fight terrorism. He argued that the issues are "especially topical" in light of the creation of a north-south transport corridor, which is a regional goal for Iran.

The comforting context of larger Russian-Iranian interests may help soothe some of Tehran's trepidation, but it is not clear how far the easing will go.

RIA-Novosti quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Mohsen Eminzade as saying that Iran had "initially misunderstood" the aims of the exercises and had now decided to "take part in the event as an observer." But the change was apparently not reported in the Iranian press.

In May, "Iran Daily" said the war games were "proof that the Russians are trying to reclaim their political and military domination over the region." In another May commentary, the paper said that, "it seems President Vladimir Putin's decision to hold the maneuvers is in part related to efforts to finalize the sea's legal regime." The link between the maneuvers and negotiations on Caspian borders has been a deliberately gray area, but it is notable that Putin ordered the exercises only after all efforts at bargaining were blocked.

Iran has been the major holdout from Russia's plan to settle the division problem among the five shoreline states following accords on splitting the sea floor with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Turkmenistan is believed to be waiting for a nod from Iran, as well as agreement on a disputed oil field with Azerbaijan.

Russia's big obstacle has been Iran's claim to either common control of the Caspian or an equal 20 percent share. A division by coastline would give it 13 percent. Iran sees the demand as only fair, considering that it was an equal partner with the Soviet Union in Caspian treaties of 1921 and 1940.

For years, Iranian officials have rigidly described the two treaties as the only legal basis for dividing the Caspian or devising new agreements. But the language used on 21 July by Iran's secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Hassan Rowhani, may reflect a new flexibility.

In remarks reported by the Iranian official news agency IRNA, Rowhani said the 1921 and 1940 treaties "would be helpful in drawing up a legal regime for the Caspian Sea." The use of the word "helpful" seems to suggest that the pacts may be used, rather than must be used, as a guide for future agreements. If so, it would be the first such statement by a high-ranking Iranian official.

The possible shift comes as a Caspian working group of deputy foreign ministers prepares to meet in Tehran on 29 July. Trubnikov said the result would "define prospects for the next Caspian summit." Caspian leaders are likely to be determined that any such meeting will not be as big a flop as the last.

If Iran seems more willing, it is because Putin has pursued a two-track strategy to make it so, displaying the benefits of broad relations on the one hand and power on the other. But it is still unclear whether Iran is ready to join the Caspian club that Russia is trying to form.

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