Boston, 29 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Iran pressed its case for an equal share of Caspian Sea oil resources at an international conference in Tehran last week, gaining a wider audience but only limited support for its claims.
On the surface, there was little that was new in Iran's position on the legal division of the Caspian. Officials largely echoed the same formula that Tehran has followed for several years, saying that a solution for sharing the Caspian must have the approval of all five littoral states.
As the diplomatic host, Iran showed relative restraint in President Mohammad Khatami's message to the conference and reported statements by Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. The tone seemed more moderate than the angry denunciations that Iran has issued after each bilateral deal announced by its Caspian neighbors in the past.
The country has insisted that all Western oil contracts with Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are illegal without Iran's assent. Tehran has repeatedly said that the countries will bear responsibility for the consequences, which remain unspecified. The same condemnations have been aimed at Western pipeline plans.
The new development from the conference seems to be that Iran's neighbors are at least listening to its complaints. The meeting was reportedly attended by participants from 25 countries and is believed to be the largest Caspian gathering so far in Tehran.
In his remarks, Kharrazi appeared to be seeking a balance between insisting that there be no "extraterritorial" interference in the Caspian and leaving the door open to foreign participation, even from the United States, although specifically not from Israel.
Carter Page, a visiting fellow at Columbia University in New York who attended the conference, said the contacts on the sidelines were cooperative and positive.
Iran is also seeking recognition of its role through the establishment of a "Caspian Sea littoral states cooperation council," which was proposed by Kharrazi. Iran's neighbors have yet to endorse the idea of a formal grouping, presumably because it could challenge the legal basis of unilateral deals. Because Iran has the fewest contracts and the least offshore exploration, it may have the most to gain by winning equal representation in such a group.
Azerbaijan in particular has been careful in the past two months to highlight the importance of its relations with Iran, at a time when Baku is also pressing for a closer relationship with NATO. Both Iran and Azerbaijan appear to be sensitive about avoiding a full-scale rift that could damage Caspian interests for both countries.
As a measure of Azerbaijan's concern, President Aliyev has promised to visit Iran despite his recent illness. In his message to the conference, President Khatami urged the littoral states to bar foreign military bases in the region, the Iranian official news agency IRNA said.
Iran used the conference to repeat its legal and environmental objections to U.S.-backed pipelines from the Caspian that would avoid Iranian territory. That case was backed Saturday by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Proshin during a visit to Tehran.
The public agreement of Russia and Iran on the division issue has always appeared to hold true in theory, but not in practice. In fact, Russia's Lukoil has been one of the largest foreign partners in Azerbaijan's projects, despite the lack of a legal agreement with Iran. Last July, Moscow also signed a pact with Kazakhstan on dividing the northern sector of the Caspian without Iranian approval.
But even if the division issue is largely symbolic, its meaning may have changed. Policy experts interpret Iran's position as a demand that it not be shut out of all the benefits of Caspian development rather than an insistence on a precise formula for sharing revenues. At the least, the Caspian conference may be meant to serve as a reminder that Iran will not sit still if its interests are totally ignored.
If Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan reach a border agreement that allows trans-Caspian pipelines to proceed, for example, Iran would be unable to punish the United States, because there is no U.S.-Iranian trade. But Tehran could rule out cooperation with its northern neighbors unless it wins additional pipeline routes on its territory or interests in Caspian oilfields.
Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan appear to be giving more careful consideration to Iran's positions as they draw closer to agreements on the Baku-Ceyhan and trans-Caspian pipelines. Both countries realize that it will be years before either pipeline is built. In the meantime, they may see the wisdom of paying close attention to Iran.