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Russia: Iran Disputes Legal Status Of Caspian Sea Oil

Russian President Vladimir Putin's effort to end the debate over a legal division of Caspian resources has led to an open disagreement with Iran. So far, Putin has enjoyed remarkable success in his initiatives, but the Caspian problem appears to be a bigger challenge than he anticipated. RFE/RL's Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 9 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Open disputes over Russia's attempts to resolve the issue of the Caspian Sea's legal status may be a sign that President Vladimir Putin has tried to stretch his new role as a regional leader too far.

Putin's solutions for the nagging problem of how to divide the Caspian's oil riches among the five shoreline nations have been the subject of a series of missions by Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kaluzhny since last month.

The responses to the diplomatic offensive have ranged from cool to decidedly negative, culminating in Iran's frank rejection following a visit by Putin's newly named Caspian envoy last week. The outcome of Kaluzhny's meetings suggested that he may be poorly equipped to deal with the low-key but determined style of Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi.

Summing up the negotiations, Kharrazi flatly restated Iran's long-held positions that it is entitled to either joint ownership of the Caspian or one-fifth of the waterway. Some reports claimed to see some new concessions in the statement, but there was scant evidence.

Russia's new Caspian plan is based mainly on its 2-year-old formula for allowing a sectoral division of the seabed but not the water or its surface. To this framework, Moscow has now added the proposition that any disputed resource on a bilateral border should be shared.

Some reports suggested that Iran reacted positively to the idea of border sharing, a concept that could give it a stronger claim to assets in the offshore sector of Azerbaijan. Iran has done almost no Caspian exploration of its own. Tehran also reportedly did not object to Russia's idea of creating a Caspian center for strategic cooperation, presumably since it would do little more than existing discussion groups.

But the Interfax news agency reported that Kaluzhny rejected the concept of national sectors as "unacceptable," exposing a rift with Iran that may now be more open than ever before.

In the past, Moscow has largely cloaked its objections to avoid direct conflict with Iran over its claim to 20 percent of the Caspian. The maneuvers have been in keeping with Russia's attempts since 1994 to isolate Azerbaijan, with its extensive offshore development, by maintaining the illusion of an understanding with Iran.

But Iran's position on the Caspian has been carefully calibrated and left intentionally vague, largely because it still has little reliable data on the resources near its shores. Russia's timetable is more pressing because of development in the northern and central parts of the Caspian. Given the results, Moscow may now regret its decision to raise the legal issue in 1994.

The current friction has lowered expectations for a planned meeting of Caspian experts in Moscow on August 15. Another proposal for a meeting in Russia's Caspian port of Astrakhan appears to have gone by the boards. The attempt to bring the issue onto Russian territory in order to exert leadership may raise doubts under the circumstances. In a rare show of independence from Moscow, Turkmenistan has already said that it will not attend a meeting without Iran.

Putin's initiative in the Caspian follows a string of seeming successes of his leadership. Since becoming president, Putin moved quickly to bring most of the Central Asian nations of the CIS under his wing by stressing Islamic fundamentalist threats. He has also exploited concerns about the proposed U.S. national missile defense system by making a series of whirlwind trips to Europe, North Korea, and China.

But his effort to extend his influence over the Caspian and all its states by the sea could prove to be a step too far. Interactions among the five states may be too complex to simply fall into line with Moscow's plans. With his proposal for sharing border resources, Putin has tried to solve all of the bilateral and multilateral disagreements at the same time. The goal is likely to be too ambitious to succeed.

Putin also seems to have calculated that he could use his power within the CIS to line up agreements with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan before sending Kaluzhny to Iran. The strategy was apparently to present Tehran with a unified front. But none of the understandings was complete, and the discord only became more obvious as Kaluzhny proceeded from Baku to Ashgabat.

In retrospect, Kaluzhny might well have started by visiting Iran first to deal with the differences that Moscow has never acknowledged until now.