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Iran: Official Denies Tehran's Softening Of Caspian Position

  • Michael Lelyveld

Following questions about intentions toward Tehran, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has assured Caspian Sea neighbors that his country's naval exercises pose no threat to other countries. But Iranian opposition to both diplomacy and pressure seem to be growing, prompting doubts about the effects of the Russian war games.

Boston, 13 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- An Iranian security official has denied that Tehran is softening its stand on the Caspian Sea amid concerns over a Russian show of naval power.

The statement on 10 August by Elahe Koulaei, a Majlis deputy and rapporteur of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, seems to mark a struggle for control of Caspian strategy in Iran. It also comes as Russia is staging the biggest war games in Caspian waters since the Soviet breakup, sparking mixed reactions in Iran.

Koulaei disputed suggestions that Iran is easing demands for shared control of the Caspian, according to the official news agency IRNA. She cited foreign reports quoting an Iranian official as calling for a revision of treaties signed with the Soviet Union. The pacts of 1921 and 1940 have formed the basis of Iran's territorial claims.

Koulaei did not name the Iranian official, but on 8 August, Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari as saying that the treaties "stand in need of revision." ITAR-TASS said the statement "came as a signal of shift" in Iran's long-held position that the accords remain binding until it agrees on a formula for dividing the Caspian with the post-Soviet shoreline states.

Koulaei said the statement meant only that the treaties need to be revised because they did not foresee the independence of Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.

But the IRNA report also became an occasion for repeating Iran's hard line on the division of resources in the decade-old border dispute. IRNA said Iran "considers any unilateral deal to explore such resources before a legal regime is established as null and void." In recent months, Tehran has downplayed that position, which puts it in conflict with its neighbors that have signed offshore oil contracts.

Koulaei's statement may reflect discord on several levels. The first is within Iran, where the conduct of Caspian policy has been a matter of debate.

Earlier this month, 91 deputies asked Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi to answer questions on the Caspian before the Majlis. Koulaei and other members also sponsored an urgent bill after she complained that the Foreign Ministry had excluded her from Caspian negotiations, which were conducted by Safari. Under pressure, Kharrazi agreed to admit Koulaei as an observer in future talks, although she has previously criticized Iran's Caspian diplomacy as "weak."

Hard-line deputies appear to be wary that Iran may become too compliant in bargaining with both Russia and Azerbaijan behind closed doors. In the case of Azerbaijan, Tehran has been negotiating an agreement on a contested oil field that was the scene of an armed confrontation between an Iranian gunboat and two Azerbaijani research vessels in July 2001.

Tensions have eased markedly since Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev visited Tehran in May. But Iranian deputies seem concerned that the government will compromise its claims. Iran has sought either common control of the Caspian or a 20 percent share, which is more than its part of the shore. Russia has urged a split of the seafloor that would give Iran 13 percent. Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have taken Russia's side.

Russia's maneuvers have given rise to even greater Iranian worries. Although Moscow has said repeatedly that its two-week naval exercises with some 60 ships and 10,000 personnel do not pose a threat, it has let slip with a series of troubling hints.

President Vladimir Putin ordered the maneuvers immediately after a Caspian summit in April collapsed over the division impasse with Iran. Putin's message seemed to be that Moscow would not be stalemated by Tehran.

But any subtlety was lost late last month when the official Russian news agency RIA-Novosti said Iranian vessels had been barred from the exercises, which were initially said to be open. The reason given was a 1924 treaty with Iran, which was cited as saying that, "there could not be any other but Soviet combat ships on the Caspian Sea."

The provision means that any Iranian naval presence, even in defense, could be seen as illegal. Moscow made no mention of the treaty when the Iranian gunboat threatened the Azerbaijani vessels in the southern Caspian last year.

Last week, RIA-Novosti also noted that the maneuvers were being held on the 280th anniversary of the "Persian maritime campaign" of Peter the Great in 1722, when the tsar gained control over the coast that is now part of Iran.

The insensitive reference may have been dropped by the heavy hand of the Russian military. On 8 August, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov tried to soften the blow, telling a press conference in Astrakhan that, "Russia does not intend to threaten anyone," Interfax reported.

On 10 August, Ivanov seemed to backtrack further from the line laid down by RIA-Novosti, saying, "I do not rule out the establishment of a military group comprising Russia, Kazakhstan, and other Caspian countries." The question of the ban on Iranian warships was not addressed.

RIA-Novosti quoted the Iranian observer at the war games, Rear Admiral Mohammed Abrahim Dekhani, as saying that Iran might join in future exercises if Iranian leaders "consider it appropriate." But he also warned that maneuvers "might be conducive to militarization of the Caspian Sea, which all the littoral states should avoid." Koulaei has also criticized the Russian exercises, arguing that they would not enhance security.

Internal and external pressures may now be pushing Iran toward a harder line in the Caspian after a diplomatic interlude that was all too brief. If Putin hoped to force a breakthrough, he may have overplayed his hand by arousing the opponents of accommodation in Iran.