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Caspian: An Informal Summit On Division Of Caspian

Caspian nations appear set to hold a summit meeting in Turkmenistan in early March, despite continuing questions on how to divide offshore resources. Although Russia and Iran still hold opposing views, they have been toning down their differences and raising hopes for a settlement. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 25 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Although prospects for an agreement seem far from certain, plans are proceeding for a summit meeting on the legal division of the Caspian Sea.

On Monday, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev accepted an invitation from Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov to attend the five-nation gathering at the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi in early March. Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan have endorsed the idea.

The informal summit of the five presidents is expected to be preceded by a meeting of a Caspian working group of deputy foreign ministers in Tehran next month. Russia's Caspian envoy Viktor Kalyuzhny has previously accused Iran of delaying such a meeting. But now, Tehran seems as eager as any of the shoreline states to move ahead with the talks.

Last week, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh showed impatience with the inability to establish Caspian borders, nearly a decade after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Zanganeh said, "We cannot wait forever until the Caspian Sea legal status is resolved. Iran has considered a share for itself." He noted that Iran has signed agreements with the Shell and Lasmo oil companies to explore the sector that it claims.

That motive for reaching a settlement was underscored Wednesday, when the daily newspaper "Iran" reported that the companies had discovered a large Caspian offshore field. The paper quoted Azerbaijani media, saying the deposit is estimated to contain 10,000 million barrels of oil and 560,000 million cubic meters of gas. If the report proves reliable, it would mark Iran's first major Caspian find.

Iran and Turkmenistan have been portrayed as holdouts to a division formula that has been largely negotiated on Moscow's terms. Russia has proposed dividing only the seabed into national sectors, while keeping the water and its surface in common.

Variations on the theme, including sharing of disputed oilfields, have been supported by Kazakhstan and, more recently, Azerbaijan. Iran, with backing from Turkmenistan, has insisted on an even 20 percent share of the Caspian, which is more than it could get in a territorial split.

Relations between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan may also be a sticking point for the summit. The two countries have been feuding for years over a contested oilfield in the middle of the Caspian. Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliev's visit would be his first meeting with Niyazov since 1999.

But Iran has seemed more willing to talk since Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Azerbaijan this month and the signing of a vague bilateral Caspian cooperation pact. Putin also hinted broadly that a similar deal with Turkmenistan was in the works, a possibility that could leave Tehran as the odd man out.

Although Tehran has announced no new position, it has toned down its statements since a visit by Kalyuzhny this month. After the meetings, Kalyuzhny declared that "We have never been so close to resolving the problem of the status of the Caspian," Agence France Presse said.

Kalyuzhny may be technically correct, even though the sides remain far apart. In the meantime, Iran appears to be responding to a series of Russian incentives, including an invitation to President Mohammed Khatami to visit Moscow on 19 March.

The Russian press has raised expectations that Iran and Russia will iron out a Caspian agreement that the two sides can sign by then. Kalyuzhny has stressed Russia's hopes to participate in Iranian oil projects. This week, Iran also announced that it will soon sign a deal for joint production of Russian wide-body passenger planes.

While Niyazov has played an active role in hosting the summit and proving his value to both sides, Nazarbayev has been engaging in his own oil diplomacy, perhaps to further a settlement. Kazakhstan has supported Russia's position on the Caspian and has simultaneously offered oil exports to both Iran and Azerbaijan in recent days.

On Tuesday, Iran announced the official opening of a pipeline from its port of Neka to its refining complex near Tehran for processing up to 50,000 barrels of Caspian oil per day. Kazakh oil is key to Iran's plan to create a competitive export route, using oil swaps through the Persian Gulf. This week, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry said that in two years, the country could commit 5.5 million tons a year to the route, or roughly 110,000 barrels of oil per day, the Interfax news agency said.

It is too soon to say whether Iran will consider such sweeteners as a package of interests that might persuade it to ease its position on a Caspian plan. For the time being, it apparently sees an advantage in engaging its northern neighbors in the Caspian contacts. At a minimum, a summit could produce a joint communiqu on respect for consensus in any future settlement.

But unless there are major changes in stated positions, the Caspian summit could be the first of many that bring the countries closer together without resolving issues that keep them apart