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Caspian: No Breakthrough Seen In Division Of Inland Sea

Despite long preparations for a summit, the five shoreline nations of the Caspian Sea still seem to be seeking a formula for a legal division of the waterway. Deputy foreign ministers who met in Tehran last week (20-21 February) appear to have made little headway, agreeing only to meet again in Baku. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 26 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A long-awaited meeting in Tehran of deputy foreign ministers from five neighboring nations appears to have produced no breakthrough on a legal division of the Caspian Sea.

Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency reported Thursday that the Caspian working group agreed to convene again in Baku. But no date was announced, and it was unclear that the officials would be able to draft an accord in time for a scheduled summit of the five nations' presidents in Turkmenistan on 8 and 9 March.

Reports during the two-day gathering in Tehran were sketchy, at best. Iranian officials had little of substance to say at the close of the session, which was only the third such meeting since the controversy over Caspian dividing lines began with the Soviet breakup nearly a decade ago.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani hailed the group's decision that any future agreement on the Caspian's status must be unanimous among the shoreline countries, which include Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.

Ahani claimed that the declaration was a precedent, although there was nothing new in it. All five countries were previously committed verbally to reaching consensus on the division issue. The only alternative would be a legal dispute.

Ahani also said the littoral states pledged to treat two pacts between the Soviet Union and Iran in 1921 and 1940 as the basis for future accords. The announcement appeared to break no new ground. The only real agreement seemed to be that the parties should meet again in the port of Turkmenbashi, perhaps in a last effort to keep the summit on track.

A long standoff in positions taken by Russia and Iran seems to have diminished chances for any significant progress and could renew concerns about holding the meeting of the five presidents at all.

Last Tuesday, Ahani praised his visiting Russian counterpart, Viktor Kalyuzhny, despite his earlier complaints that Tehran had stalled the meeting of the working group for months.

Ahani said, "I think that our fruitful and constructive consultations will help us hold our next session. And if we find common ground, it will help us move towards holding a general meeting on the Caspian Sea." One interpretation is that no common ground had been found, and the next meeting was not yet assured.

So far, the Russian and Iranian views have been hard to reconcile. Russia wants to split the Caspian seabed into national sectors, while keeping the water and its surface in common. Moscow's proposal has won the support of Kazakhstan and, more recently, Azerbaijan.

Iran has sought a complete division, claiming an equal 20 percent share. One reason is that a line based on Iran's land borders would give it far less. Another is Iran's concern that the Russian navy could sail too close to its shore. Turkmenistan has backed Iran's stands on national sectors and demilitarization as "the only acceptable approach."

Despite the difficulty of bridging the differences, hope had risen in recent weeks with increased diplomacy. Foreign oil companies have said they will not invest in any disputed Caspian deposits until a settlement is reached.

Azerbaijani officials raised expectations that the working group would produce accords in Tehran that the five presidents could sign. Reports suggested that Iranian President Mohammed Khatami would also conclude a settlement with Russia during a visit to Moscow on 19 March.

So far, there are only hints that a partial pact could be possible, based on the few principles that might not prompt an open clash.

Before the Tehran meeting, Kalyuzhny suggested a phased approach that might allow work on a sectoral division of the sea bottom, even though a deal on the water has yet to be reached. Turkmenistan's envoy, Boris Shikhmuradov, also said that there was no basic argument about demilitarization.

But even those formulas might have to be watered down. Iran may not agree to a split of the sea floor on a median line, even in a preliminary way. Complete demilitarization may also be difficult, because of the reported presence of some 100 Russian naval vessels in the Caspian.

In the absence of progress, the countries could hark back to an earlier warning given by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov that the summit in Turkmenbashi is not necessarily assured.

Losyukov said the summit would take place only if the working group produced an agreement. In other words, there is no point in bringing five presidents together unless they have something to sign. An accord that breaks no new ground and codifies no compromise would have little value, other than show. On the other hand, a cancellation would be seen as a setback. Either way, there may be little to gain.

There is still a temptation to think that summits can settle everything, particularly in a region where presidents wield great power. But in this case, the summit desperately needs a pre-arranged agreement.

While leaders like Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov have absolute authority to negotiate, the same cannot be said of Khatami on a matter of foreign policy, where Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, has the last word. Any settlement involving four neighbors would have to be fully reviewed and approved.

If the working group fails to make significant progress, it could doom the upcoming summit to a meaningless meeting, or perhaps none at all. The five countries may have only a few days to revise their positions, or they may have good reason to call the whole thing off.