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Iran: Economic Summit Achieves Little Success

Leaders at the Tehran summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization called for greater progress in implementing past agreements, but last week's meeting of 10 nations also appears to have produced few results. RFE/RL correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 14 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Despite fanfare and public pronouncements, last week's meeting of the Economic Cooperation Organization in Tehran appears to have accomplished little in the way of trade agreements or energy deals.

In one sense, the sixth summit of the ECO grouping may be seen as an achievement in itself. The gathering succeeded in bringing Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliyev to Tehran after his planned visits were put off several times since last year. Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov also attended, marking his first known trip outside his country in more than six months.

But there were also notable absences among the leaders of the 10 member nations of the ECO. Turkey's new president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, declined an invitation, citing a crowded schedule. His decision may be taken as a sign that bilateral tensions with Iran are continuing, despite official denials.

Iran made special efforts to attract a visit from Sezer, sending an envoy to Ankara and downplaying disputes over Turkish reports that Iran played a part in a series of killings in the past decade. The setback could be doubly damaging because Turkey is one of the three ECO founders, along with Iran and Pakistan.

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev stayed away after Astana hosted a meeting of the Central Asian Economic Council with four prime ministers from the region last week. Nazarbaev may now find economic integration with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan preferable to the Tehran-based ECO, which also includes Central Asian states and Afghanistan.

Although the presidents of other nations voiced vows of friendship and cooperation, there were few agreements of substance. ECO forums have often found it hard to distinguish between hyperbole and hope, leaving observers to sift through details such as which leaders were received with the greatest ceremonial pomp.

Last week's summit did produce a "Tehran Declaration," calling for completion of work on an ECO Trade and Development Bank and an ECO Reinsurance Company. While the facilities could prove useful, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi noted that the similarly-constituted ECO Shipping Company is at risk because member nations have not paid their shares.

Much of the declaration was general in nature, reflecting the trouble of reaching agreements in a diverse group. There were predictions that a two-year-old pact on travel and transport will lead to free passage for trucks through the region. But one of ECO's earliest goals of ending tariff and non-tariff barriers still has a long way to go.

Iranian President Mohammed Khatami was frank about the problems.

President Khatami said, "From its earliest years, ECO has tried to apply numerous measures to expand commercial contacts among members. Unfortunately, these efforts have fallen short of our expectations due to the swift changes in the patterns of (the) world economy and the incompatibility of members' economies on the one hand, and the failure to carry out the relevant agreements, on the other."

Khatami called for activation of a "Caspian Cooperation Council" to negotiate a legal division of Caspian resources, but the goal did not find its way into the ECO resolution.

Although Iran has long tried to promote its Caspian interests through the ECO, it has so far had little success. Officials used last week's summit to make their case once again that Iran is the best route for Caspian exports.

Tehran may be making progress in convincing Kazakhstan that an oil export line should be built through Iranian territory. On Monday, Kazakhstan Prime Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev told Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem that he supports multiple routes, including one through Iran. But questions of who would build or finance an Iranian line through Turkmenistan are still unclear.

Iran has also been working to persuade Azerbaijan that some of its oil should move south for export through swaps. But in reports on his public appearances, President Aliyev gave no sign of a commitment.

Similarly, Turkmenistan President Niyazov said at a meeting with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that agreements on oil and gas projects "are expected to be finalized shortly." But there was no mention of Iran's decision in April to cut gas imports from Turkmenistan by half, nor any sign that the move has been reversed. Niyazov sent officials to Tehran three weeks ago to finalize a new deal in time for the ECO summit, but neither side has claimed success.

Real achievements in international meetings are often hard to discern in the smokescreen of official statements, but from all appearances, the ECO summit fell far short of its goals.