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Analysis From Washington: Caucasus--Iran Reenters Caspian Fray

Washington, 14 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- An Iranian protest to the United Nations concerning Azerbaijani exploitation of Caspian Sea oil appears likely to send shock waves throughout the southern Caucasus and beyond.

On Thursday, Iran's permanent mission to the United Nations sent a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to protest Baku's "claim of sovereignty and unilateral exploitation of resources" under the Caspian Sea.

The proximate cause for the letter was the start of production at the Azerbaijani offshore field in Chirag by an international consortium of British and American oil companies. Oil from this and two other offshore fields is ultimately to flow to the West.

And the protest reflects Iran's longstanding legal position, one shared by Moscow, that the Caspian Sea is a lake rather than a sea and that any exploitation of resources under its surface must take place only by mutual agreement of all states along its shores.

But in fact, the Iranian protest is actually about three larger issues that Tehran also cares very much about.

First, it represents Iran's response to reports that the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is close to securing an agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Because Iran is not a member of the OSCE, it has been excluded from this process. But because it is one of the largest and most influential countries in this region, it has very real interests in the outcome.

By choosing to make a protest to the United Nations, Tehran is signaling its belief that any process in the Caucasus should take place under U.N. auspices and that Iran should be involved.

More than that, this Iranian protest is an indication that Tehran may seek to torpedo any agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan to which Iran is not a party.

Second, the Iranian note also reflects Tehran's unhappiness about the Western and especially American efforts to ensure that oil and gas from the Caspian Sea flow through Georgia or Russia rather than across Iran.

By restating its legal position that the Caspian must be exploited only on the basis of mutual agreement, Iran is also insisting that it have a voice over pipeline routes.

Indeed, by raising the visibility of the sea-versus-lake argument, Iran is implicitly suggesting that it can and will take measures to prevent any oil from flowing unless it has a seat at the table.

At the very least, that will slow the flow of oil out of the region still further. But it could mean that one or more of the Western firms will decide that Iran's capacity for troublemaking might threaten their broader interests.

And third, and perhaps most intriguingly, Iran with its note to Kofi Annan has laid down a new marker in its evolving relationship with Moscow.

Since 1991, the Russian government has generally pushed the same legal argument about the Caspian that the Iranians have. Indeed, Moscow and Tehran have sought to put pressure on the other states of the region to follow their line.

But more recently, Russian firms and some parts of the Russian government in the rush to profit from the oil and gas wealth of the Caspian basin have shifted position.

By lodging a protest at the United Nations, the Iranian government is forcing the Russian government to take a position, something in recent months the latter has sought to avoid.

If Moscow backs Iran on this, such a step could cost Russian firms enormous wealth and possibly political influence in the region. But if the Russian government does not, Iran would then be free to pursue a more independent line, one that could threaten Moscow's interests in other ways.

Tehran might even seek to make special deals with Turkmenistan as against Azerbaijan and to open its pipelines to Central Asian states even more than it has done in the past.

These are only possibilities, of course. But the protest at the United Nations yesterday could easily change the geopolitics of an entire region and hence of the entire world.