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Iran: Tehran Reacts With Mild Criticism To Russian-Azerbaijani Caspian Pact

  • Michael Lelyveld

Iran has reacted to this week's Caspian Sea border pact between Russia and Azerbaijan by calling bilateral agreements "invalid" before a five-country settlement on resources is signed. But Moscow seems to be pushing the border process with its neighbors as part of a strategy that could eventually leave Iran with an effective share of the Caspian, whether it agrees or not.

Boston, 25 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian officials have reacted with a mix of disapproval and restraint to a Caspian Sea border agreement signed Monday between Russia and Azerbaijan.

Speaking in Tehran, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi appeared to offer relatively mild criticism of the bilateral border accord signed by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Heidar Aliyev in Moscow, according to official Iranian reports.

Asefi argued that such pacts are no substitute for an overall legal division of the Caspian among the five shoreline states. An agreement to split the oil-rich Caspian has eluded Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran for over a decade since the Soviet breakup. Iran's position is that no bilateral agreements should be signed or recognized without a five-country pact, but Russia has pursued them as a way to break the deadlock over oil-development rights.

In a statement broadcast in Persian by Iranian radio and translated by the BBC, Asefi said: "Bilateral agreements cannot supplant the process of determining the Caspian Sea legal regime on the basis of unanimity among the five countries. The Caspian Sea can have a lasting, confidence-inspiring, and long-term legal regime, only if the five countries agree on it unanimously."

The official Iranian news agency IRNA said Asefi "welcomed any agreement based on mutual understanding and respect by all of the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea." The two reports made no specific reference to the document signed by Russia and Azerbaijan.

The responses stood in contrast to Iran's previous denunciations of bilateral border deals, which it has repeatedly blasted as illegal.

Iran has often shown anger at the initiatives. In June 2001, for example, Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani called the unilateral development of any Caspian resource by a shoreline state "illegitimate" in the absence of a five-country solution. IRNA quoted him as saying that such states "would be legally responsible for their actions."

Last year, Asefi condemned another bilateral Caspian accord between Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan as "provocative" after it was signed in November. In a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Iran charged that the countries had no right to sign the agreement and sought to have it annulled. But Russia has continued to pursue the accords individually because an overall settlement has been stalled.

Russia's formula for the Caspian, which is now embraced by Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, would divide the seabed into national sectors based on a median line. Iran objects because it would wind up with 13 percent rather than an equal 20 percent share, while Russian warships would be free to sail through common waters near its shores.

Although Iran's reaction was milder than in the past, some reports this week conveyed a calibrated rancor.

The Agence France-Presse news agency quoted Asefi as telling reporters, "This type of accord signed on a bilateral basis is invalid in our eyes."

A commentary on Iranian television said, "it seems that the principle of reaching consensus among the five littoral states on the issue of the division of the Caspian Sea resources has been ignored." It also cautioned against failing to follow the drawn-out process of five-way consultations and negotiations, saying, "If this is not done and if bilateral agreements are concluded, then the Caspian Sea will face legal, environmental, and security crises."

On Tuesday, IRNA summarized an opinion column in the "Tehran Times," which took a harsher line against Aliev's remark that three of the five countries now agree. The English-language daily said, "The tripartite camp must consider the fact that Iran regards its security as closely linked with its interests in the Caspian Sea and will never give up its rights in the oil-rich inland sea."

The paper added that "Tehran's moderate approach in dealing with Caspian issues must never be misunderstood as a sign of weakness or indifference to the fact that other nations are ignoring its rights."

The agreement between Russia and Azerbaijan is ambiguous on whether its terms could be superseded by a five-way settlement. Article 5 states, "The present agreement shall not come as an obstacle to a general accord of the Caspian littoral states concerning the legal status of the Caspian Sea, and shall be regarded by the parties as part of general understandings thereof."

Article 6 says, "The parties shall promote a general accord of the Caspian littoral states concerning the legal status of the Caspian Sea with due consideration for the premises of the present agreement." It does not say that the agreement would be set aside.

The danger for Iran is that the bilateral deals are gradually advancing toward its presumed national sector, threatening to define it, with or without its consent. If a similar Russian accord is reached with Turkmenistan, it would leave Tehran in an untenable spot.

But so far, Iran seems to be taking special care in crafting its warnings. One reason is that it has usually avoided direct criticism of Russia, which it regards as a strategic partner on other issues, such as the Bushehr nuclear-power plant. Iran largely stifled its concerns when Russia staged the Caspian's largest-ever naval exercises six weeks ago.

Iran has also worked for over a year to mend the damage caused by a confrontation with Azerbaijan in July 2001, when an Iranian warship chased two Azerbaijani vessels out of a disputed oil field. The two sides have been negotiating the issue and trying to improve ties.

Putin also seems to be calibrating how far he can push Tehran toward a solution with aggressive diplomacy and displays of military power. This week, Russia and Kazakhstan are continuing their activity in the Caspian with more air and sea exercises along their agreed-upon border, Interfax reported Tuesday. It is unclear whether Iran will be driven toward tougher resistance or compromise.

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