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Russia: Iran Seeks Assurances On Caspian Division

After an armed confrontation with Azerbaijan last month, Iran has sought assurances from Russia about negotiating a division of the Caspian Sea. But tough talk has mixed with conciliation, making it hard to craft an agreement. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 14 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A rapid round of Iranian diplomacy seems to have done little to repair the damage from last month's encounter with Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea.

The confrontation between an Iranian gunboat and two Azerbaijani survey ships in disputed waters on 23 July has sparked activity but no progress in the long negotiations on dividing the Caspian among the five shoreline states.

In a hastily arranged visit to Moscow, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani succeeded in reaffirming last week that Caspian treaties with the Soviet Union will remain in effect until a new border pact can be reached.

But Ahani was apparently unable to win a statement supporting the strongest provision of a joint Iranian-Russian declaration issued last March at a Moscow summit between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Mohammed Khatami.

That document barred recognition of any bilateral boundaries or agreements on use of the Caspian before an overall settlement is signed. By failing to cite the provision, Russia avoided the appearance of backing Iran's case against Azerbaijan.

Ahani met with Deputy Foreign Ministers Alexander Avdeev and Viktor Kalyuzhny but was not received by higher officials in Moscow.

The mission seems to have been prompted by reports from the informal CIS summit at the Black Sea resort of Sochi the week before.

In perhaps the most troubling statement for Iran, Russian President Putin called the use of force in the Caspian "impermissible," a term that seems to have made talks with Russia even more urgent than with Azerbaijan.

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev also said at the summit that his country was in general agreement with Russia and Azerbaijan on a division formula, which could be expanded to include Turkmenistan.

The comment raised the prospect that Iran would be even more isolated in its claim to a 20 percent share, while other nations would base their sectors on a "modified median line."

Fears were heightened after Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliyev was quoted as saying that the four CIS countries of the Caspian would start negotiations among themselves.

The official Iranian news agency IRNA said last week that Russian officials had assured Ahani that Moscow "opposed" a four-party meeting. Kalyuzhny further heartened Iran by supporting a previously announced five-nation October summit in Turkmenistan, for which no firm date has been set.

Ahani flew from Moscow to Ashgabat, where he made certain that Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov would not be drawn into an agreement against Iran.

The task proved relatively easy because of Turkmenistan's claims to Caspian oil fields being developed by Azerbaijan. Last week, Turkmenistan added a new claim to a deposit it called Geigel, which Baku said it does not recognize.

After meeting with Niyazov, Ahani was emboldened to take a tough line, saying, "Until a new legal status for the Caspian has been determined, it is unacceptable to unilaterally explore contested territory," Agence France Presse reported.

The use of the word "unacceptable" seemed to recall Putin's earlier rejection of the use of force as "inadmissible."

On the same day, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi expanded the bounds of objectionable activity in the Caspian, saying, "The bordering countries do not have the right to exploit its energy reserves before a legal status is established for the sea," the "Iran News" reported.

Iranian officials apparently had some anxious moments about the repercussions from the 23 July incident, driving them into a deferential stance in their consultations with Moscow.

In the past week, Iranian media have tried to minimize the dispute with Azerbaijan by referring to it repeatedly as a "short spat." Iran has said it expects Aliyev to pay a long-delayed visit to Tehran this month. By conferring with Moscow, Iran may have kept the spat from spreading.

But resentments of Russia's power were also evident on 11 August as the government-backed newspaper "Iran Daily" published a derisive cartoon, one day before the first anniversary of the sinking of the nuclear submarine "Kursk." The cartoon showed a whale spouting pieces of the vessel, including bombs, torpedoes, and broken missiles.

The mixed emotions are a sign that the dispute may remain hard to control, despite the best efforts of diplomacy.