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Iran: Legislators Challenge Foreign Minister On Oil Policy

  • Michael Lelyveld

Iran's parliament, the Majlis, has put Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi on the spot about the country's policy on Caspian Sea negotiations. Some deputies say the government has made too many concessions on borders, while others say it has been too inflexible, leaving it little room for an effective response.

Boston, 3 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's foreign minister has come under heavy fire in the past week for what critics say is a passive policy on the Caspian Sea.

On 29 December, Kamal Kharrazi defended his record on protecting Iran's interests in the oil-rich Caspian under blistering attack from parliamentary deputies. Agence France-Presse reports that the 40-minute open session amounted to a "grilling," which was broadcast live on state radio.

Majlis member Abdullah Sohrabi quizzed Kharrazi aggressively, saying, "Explain why your diplomacy has not been active." The soft-spoken minister was peppered with prepared questions from a group of 86 lawmakers, who had summoned him to appear.

Kharrazi, who suffered a similar tongue-lashing about the Caspian from the Majlis last May, tried to calm the criticism. The minister said, "Despite all the concerns voiced by some friends over the Caspian Sea negotiations, I have no worry and believe that our negotiations so far have been going on very smoothly."

The members did not agree.

The issue is the slow pace of talks on dividing the Caspian among the five shoreline states. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, there has been no legal basis for how to draw up new borders.

The problem has led to endless shuttles between Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Iran without a consensus. Tehran's concern has grown as Russia has signed border pacts with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan based on a median line, implying that Iran could effectively be left with a share by elimination.

For the record, Kharrazi repeated Iran's rejection of all bilateral deals between its neighbors, although for the past year it has been trying to settle a border dispute with Azerbaijan over an oil field. Unlike its neighbors, Iran has lagged in developing offshore areas, raising more worries about staking its claim.

Iran has resisted Russia's efforts to assign it a 13 percent share of the seabed, based on its coastline, citing Soviet treaties as a basis for arguing that its consent is required for any new accord. Tehran has sought either common control of the Caspian or an equal 20 percent share. Critics fear that the government would settle for less.

But aside from its fears, the Majlis criticisms have been difficult to fathom. Kharrazi has been harshly accused of being both too flexible and not flexible enough.

Speaking at Isfahan University one day before the session, Kharrazi's chief detractor, Tehran representative Elaheh Koulaie, addressed the government's Caspian failures in the vaguest of terms. In comments reported by the newspaper "Tehran Times," Koulaie said, "In evaluating and starting international relations, we should not rely on fantasy, and we should consider the realities." She also said, "Regarding the Caspian Sea, we should try to discover the remaining opportunities, making logical calculations in order to secure the rights of the nation and country in the Caspian Sea."

Other statements were similarly short on specifics. Koulaie was absent from the Majlis chamber and missed her chance to question Kharrazi directly, but reports suggest that there were no practical alternatives offered to the government's approach.

Kharrazi was severely criticized during and after the session for not seeking 50 percent of the Caspian as the only other bordering nation before the Soviet collapse.

In an editorial, the English-language publication "Iran News" said Kharrazi should have been censured for disclosing "some key vital information and percentages" in open session. The paper adds, "Publicly declaring that Iran will not get a 50 percent share of the Caspian Sea's resources is detrimental to our national interests and weakens our bargaining position when it comes to direct negotiations with the other four Caspian Sea littoral states." It did not explain how the claim would strengthen Iran's hand.

Deputies also raised the question of whether Iran was depending on Russia to further its interests, while others complained that bad relations with the United States had placed Iran at a disadvantage, Agence France-Presse reported. Kharrazi was again forced to respond.

The official Iranian news agency IRNA quotes him as saying, "Some wrongly think that we have to rely on world powers in order to ascertain our rights in the Caspian Sea, but this thinking is totally wrong and simple-minded and [does] not comply with the philosophy of our revolution and the country's independence."

Deputies appeared to be reacting to two recent proposals by Russia's Caspian envoy, Viktor Kalyuzhnyi. The first is that Iran should consider a "resource-allocation approach" to border issues, Russia's RIA-Novosti news agency reports. The plan would weigh the value of border resources instead of simply territorial claims.

Last month, Kalyuzhnyi also proposed that Iran should take part in developing the offshore resources of Turkmenistan, where Russia has been granted joint-venture status. Kalyuzhnyi said Iran was considering the idea and indicated that it might have competing claims in the Turkmen sector. So far, Tehran and Ashgabat have made no mention of a border dispute.

Kalyuzhnyi's comments may have stirred calls for greater accountability in the negotiations. But it appears that the main function of the Majlis session was to put the government under pressure without giving it a way out. The criticism is likely to make it even more cautious about changing its positions, slowing the negotiations with Iran's neighbors even more.