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Iran: Caspian Sea Policy Comes Into Question

  • Michael Lelyveld

Internal opposition to Iran's policy on the Caspian Sea is rising at a time when officials are reporting progress in border negotiations for the first time in more than a year. Diplomatic activity has again raised hopes for a legal division of resources among shoreline states, but critics say Iran should return to earlier efforts aimed at common control.

Boston, 22 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Domestic critics have stepped up their attacks on Iran's Caspian Sea policy at a time when reports suggest tentative progress in border talks with Azerbaijan.

In an interview last week with the English-language "Iran News," former Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Maleki blasted the current foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, for his handling of Caspian talks with Iran's four shoreline neighbors. The countries have been trying to determine their shares of the oil-rich waters since the Soviet breakup more than a decade ago.

Maleki, who now directs the independent Caspian Sea Institute in Tehran, said, "The foreign minister [Kharrazi] is inexperienced in dealing with the Caucasus, Russia, and Central Asia." Maleki added, "The Foreign Ministry and specifically Kamal Kharrazi do not even fully comprehend the Caspian issue."

The charge was perhaps the toughest criticism yet from Maleki, who covered Caspian affairs as an official during the previous government of Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, before Mohammad Khatami's election as president in 1997. Since then, he has regularly criticized the government's approach, although it is unclear whether he also speaks for Rafsanjani, who now heads the powerful Expediency Council.

Maleki accused the Foreign Ministry of being in a "state of disarray and a daze in dealing with the Caspian Sea issue," because it has concentrated on improving ties with European and Arab countries. Maleki said he agrees with critics in the parliament, who have called the government's Caspian policy "feckless."

The Caspian countries have been deadlocked on the division issue. While Tehran has sought either common control or a 20 percent share of the Caspian, Russia has joined with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan on a median-line formula that would give Iran only 13 percent. Turkmenistan has been courted by both sides. In the meantime, nearly all investment has taken place in the sectors where Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan have agreed on borders among themselves. Iran has yet to develop a single offshore field.

But Maleki's unbridled condemnations of the government on Caspian policy stand in stark contrast to the restraints on free speech that are enforced against those who criticize Iran's theocracy, the judiciary, or policy toward the United States. It is hard to say whether the remarks constitute protected speech because they are considered fair comment or because they reflect the views of powerful Khatami foes.

Either way, the timing of the attack appears calculated on at least two counts.

Maleki's interview was published on the eve of a government-sponsored conference on Central Asia and the Caucasus, forcing Kharrazi and others to respond publicly, point by point.

Maleki blamed the government's security-obsessed stance toward the former Soviet republics for its failure in dealing with them. He said, "When diplomacy's focal point becomes security instead of political-economic matters, then you should expect the other littoral states to sidestep you and make deals with each other, leaving you out [in the] cold."

At the conference, Kharrazi responded by stressing "the importance of the economic factor in regional stability," the official Russian news agency RIA-Novosti reported.

While Maleki called Iran's plan to split the Caspian into five equal shares a "big mistake," the government's Caspian envoy, Mehdi Safari, defended this stand at the conference, according to the official Iranian news agency, IRNA. Safari said: "We never said to divide the Caspian into five equal parts and that the share of every state should be 20 percent. What we meant was that our share is 20 percent." Maleki has called for a return to the "condominium" approach of joint control instead.

The timing also suggests a struggle over the conduct of Caspian diplomacy, which has been taking place almost entirely behind the scenes. Last week, Safari met in Baku with top Azerbaijani officials in an effort to strike a deal on a disputed oil field that nearly led to hostilities in 2001.

Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov said the positions of the two countries are "coming closer." Officials held out hope that a previously postponed "expert-level" meeting of the five countries would take place next month in Baku. A meeting that could lead to the signing of an accord on Caspian environmental regulation is also set for 25-29 January in Tehran.

But the basis of a compromise with Azerbaijan remains mysterious. Maleki may have been trying to minimize the impact of any agreement in advance, saying the disputed field, which Azerbaijan calls Alov and Iran calls Alborz, "is not all it is cracked up to be." Some Western experts have disagreed, saying it could be the only significant oil field left in the southern Caspian after many others have turned up gas. An agreement could also be a major breakthrough after years of stalemate.

Aside from political opposition, Maleki also offered some substantive, if quizzical, criticism that could have far-reaching consequences. He urged closer cooperation with Russia, even though it has opposed Iran's current Caspian policy. At the same time, Maleki surprisingly praised Russia for observing U.S. interests, saying: "Moscow is pursuing the most logical and rational policy on this issue. They are actively seeking foreign investment and advanced Western technology and, at the same time, they have wisely realized that they should respect American interests in the region."

It was not clear from the statement whether the government's critics are also calling for accommodation with U.S. aims.