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Caspian: Diplomacy Intensifies Ahead Of Summit On Oil Resources

Caspian Sea nations have stepped up their diplomatic activity in the days before a summit meeting on the question of dividing resources. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld says diplomats have been courting Iran, seeking a compromise to resolve the stubborn issue.

Boston, 12 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Diplomacy has intensified in the Caspian Sea region as the five shoreline states prepare positions on sharing the oil-rich waterway for a summit in Turkmenistan next month.

In the past few days, envoys from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan have all paid calls on Iran to smooth the way for a Caspian working group, which is expected to meet in Tehran in the middle of this month.

Deputy foreign ministers from the five nations hope to break their long deadlock on a formula for a legal division of Caspian resources, clearing the way for unchallenged investment in the post-Soviet period. A summit meeting of the five presidents is planned for the port city of Turkmenbashi to seal the results in the first week of March.

So far, the diplomatic process has produced a series of vague statements that mask frictions and make it hard to determine whether progress is being made or not.

After meeting with Kazakh Foreign Minister Yerlan Idrisov, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami shed little light on the question, saying the littoral states "should formulate the legal regime through negotiations and understanding in order to meet the security concerns of the countries in the region."

A Kazakh Foreign Ministry communiqu was equally opaque, saying only that the two countries were searching for a "mutually acceptable compromise." Diplomatic language is needed to put the best face on conflicts that have yet to be resolved.

Iran and Kazakhstan have been on opposite sides of the Caspian question for nearly three years. Kazakhstan was the first country to agree with Russia on a formula that would split the seabed into national sectors but keep the water and its surface in common. Iran has sought at least 20 percent of the entire Caspian.

Tehran is worried that open waters would allow Russian warships to roam too close to Iranian shores. The importance of that fear was reflected in Khatami's reference to "security concerns" rather than oil.

But a further problem is that Russia's plan for sectors based on a modified median line would give Kazakhstan the largest piece of the Caspian and Iran the least. Any increase in Iran's share would have to come at the expense of its neighbors. Such problems are difficult for even the most skillful diplomats to resolve.

But officials have tried by focusing on matters of mutual interest. Kazakh oil is key to Iran's plan to provide a Caspian export route that would compete with the U.S.-backed plan for a pipeline from Baku to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

Negotiators seem to be working toward an announcement that Kazakhstan has started shipping oil to Iran for exports through swaps, allowing Iran to use the crude at its refineries while moving an equal amount through the Persian Gulf. The Kazakhs have also backed the idea of a consortium to build an oil pipeline through Iran. The question is whether the deals could be part of a package to overcome Caspian sticking points.

Other countries have also been stressing their broader interests with Iran. On his visit to Tehran, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov called for expanding relations. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani reciprocated, calling the trend in ties with Russia "positive." In diplomatic parlance, such statements are often taken to mean that no real breakthroughs have occurred.

Ahani used identical terms to describe relations with Azerbaijan during a visit Wednesday by Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov. Tensions between the two neighbors have been particularly hard to camouflage. But new efforts are under way.

Iran's anger may be slowly subsiding after Baku reached its own agreement with Moscow in early January, siding with Russia on the division issue. The pact was followed by harsh recriminations in the Iranian press.

But there have been some signs of warming during the runup to the Caspian talks. Late last month, the two countries signed agreements on restoring Iranian electricity supplies to Azerbaijan's enclave of Nakhichevan and rescheduling its debts. In Tehran, Khalafov also raised the possibility that Iran may pipe gas to Nakhichevan.

Iran publicized a shipment of aid to Azerbaijan's poor last week and proposed that the two countries lift visa requirements to increase contacts and trade.

Azerbaijan's ANS television reacted with suspicion, saying that the opening "could also create wide opportunities for Iranian secret services, who could start using the Azeri youth for some reasons." The station also raised similar questions last week with a delegation of visiting Iranian businessmen, asking if they traded with Armenia.

Such responses may frustrate efforts to focus on the broader benefits of solving the Caspian problem. But better regional relations could be either the cause or the consequence of an agreement, if one is reached.