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Caspian: Tempers Flare In Iran-Azerbaijan Border Incident

In a show of Caspian Sea naval power, Iran has ejected two oil company survey ships from an area also claimed by Azerbaijan. The incident appears to be the most serious so far in a region where concern is rising over unsettled borders and militarization. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 25 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Tempers flared on 24 July as Azerbaijan and Iran traded words over a border incident that may mark the first armed threat to oil projects in the Caspian Sea.

On Monday (23 July) night, Azerbaijan's Prime Minister Artur Rasizade summoned Tehran's ambassador to protest the action of an Iranian gunboat, which ordered two research vessels out of Caspian waters that both countries claim.

The Azerbaijan state press agency Azertaj reported that the confrontation came after an Iranian jet overflew the survey ships for two hours earlier in the day.

The account was verified by Britain's BP oil company, which has been using the ships under an Azerbaijani contract to explore an oil field about 150 kilometers southeast of Baku, the Reuters news agency said.

Rasizade called Iran's move a "gross violation of international norms" that could cause "serious damage" to relations, the "Financial Times" said. The Iranian navy boat reportedly threatened to use force unless the ships withdrew five miles to the north.

In Baku, BP spokeswoman Tamam Bayatly said, "The decision to leave was taken in the best interests of the safety of the vessels and the crew."

On Tuesday (24 July), Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi responded, saying, "We are deeply astonished with (the) Azerbiajani hue and cry against measures taken by the Islamic Republic to defend its legitimate rights."

Azerbaijan was equally adamant. Foreign Minister Vilayat Quliev said, "We will not get into a war but we will stand up for our rights," Agence France Presse reported.

The dispute came after warnings from Iran that started Saturday (21 July), when Azerbaijan's charge d'affairs in Tehran was summoned to the Iranian Foreign Ministry for a "strong objection" to exploration in an area that Iran called its "Alborz oil region." The name is also given to the mountain range that rings Iran's Caspian shore.

Iran's Oil Ministry then warned that the country would stop any incursions and bar oil companies from business with Iran if they carried out contracts with Azerbaijan in the contested area.

At first, Azerbaijan voiced confusion over the protest and uncertainty about what fields were in dispute. The BP vessels were engaged in surveys of what Azerbaijan calls its Araz-Sharg-Alov oil fields under a 1998 contract.

Other firms in the consortium for the deposit include Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR, Statoil of Norway, Turkey's TPAO, Alberta Energy of Canada and U.S.-based ExxonMobil, Reuters reported last year. Projected investment in the field is $9 billion to $10 billion.

One obvious cause of the conflict is the failure of the five Caspian shoreline nations to agree on where their borders are. A summit meeting to resolve the issue has been postponed until October amid little hope. The division issue has been simmering for years.

As an equal partner to past treaties with the Soviet Union, Iran wants 20 percent of the Caspian, although its coastline takes up only 13 percent. It is unclear whether the disputed oil field lies within the larger area that Iran claims.

But Iran can hardly have been surprised by the Azerbaijani contract, which was signed at a public ceremony in London three years ago. Last year, 3-D seismic work on the field was reportedly completed to a depth of 100 meters without a protest from Tehran.

Iran's military move may be less about borders and more about halting any attempt to ease relations with Azerbaijan. Last Friday (20 July), one day before the objections to the oil work began, the two countries signed a low-level security accord, covering terrorism, drug smuggling, and organized crime.

Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev had reportedly promised to pay a long-delayed visit to Tehran next month, as soon as Iranian President Mohammed Khatami named his new cabinet. The sudden flare-up could kill chances for the trip again.

It is unclear whether the confrontation was manufactured to keep relations on their historically distrustful footing or perhaps as a rebuke to the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Hassan Rowhani, who signed the accord with Baku last week.

On 24 July, Elahe Koulaie, the rapporteur of Iran's Majlis Foreign Policy and National Security Commission, warned Azerbaijan to "pay more attention to regional interests which also affects its own interests," the official IRNA news agency said. Koulaie accused Azerbaijan of violating Caspian treaties and opening the door to foreign influences.

This week's dispute appears to be by far the most serious in the Caspian, although Iran has repeatedly cautioned against militarization of the waterway.

In the last known Caspian border incident one year ago, Iran reportedly sailed into Azerabaijan's waters and removed some signaling buoys.

The matter was smoothed over with a memorandum of understanding to jointly conduct mineral research in border areas. No work is known to have taken place under the cooperation pact.