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Iran: Hurdles Remain In Improving Ties With Azerbaijan

Iran and Azerbaijan have made tentative moves toward resolving their differences over the Caspian Sea. But the situation remains tense following reports that Turkish fighter planes will visit Baku this week. RFE/RL correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 21 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi is calling for measures to stop the militarization of the Caspian Sea. But he gave no assurance that Tehran would renounce the use of force after a confrontation with Azerbaijan in disputed waters last month.

In remarks reported by the official Iranian news agency IRNA, Kharrazi said on 19 August that he hoped that the Caspian would be recognized as "the sea of peace and friendship."

The restrained comments came in reaction to reports that a squadron of Turkish jets will fly to Baku this week, one month after an Iranian gunboat threatened two Azerbaijani survey ships on 23 July.

The F-16 fighters will accompany the Turkish army chief of staff, Hussein Kivrikoglu, who is scheduled to visit Azerbaijan starting on 23 August, the Azerpress news agency said.

A senior Azerbaijani government official said the presence of the Turkish planes is meant to send a message to Iran that Ankara will support Baku, according to Agence France Presse.

Last week, Turkey handed a diplomatic note to Iran's ambassador, expressing support for Azerbaijan, the Turkish daily "Hurriyet" reported. The message was magnified by Azerbaijan's ANS television, which called it a "Turkish threat" to Iran.

The reactions may make it difficult to restore calm, despite an apparent desire on both sides to do so.

On 17 August, IRNA reported that "some misunderstandings" were resolved during a phone call between Kharrazi and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliyev. Officials did not specify what those misunderstandings were.

Iran's deputy foreign minister, Ali Ahani, is also expected to lead a delegation to Baku later this month to discuss the 23 July incident and Iran's claim to an offshore area that Azerbaijan calls its Alov oil field.

During the encounter, the Iranian warship aimed guns at a ship hired by Britain's BP oil company to research the field under a contract signed with Azerbaijan in 1998. BP has suspended its work until the issue is resolved.

Iran's claim to the 1,400-square-kilometer area is part of its argument that it is entitled to an equal 20 percent share of the Caspian in a division among the five shoreline states, although its territory covers only 13 percent of the coastline.

The quarrel is the first in the Caspian to involve a military threat. Tehran is hoping to settle the matter during a long-delayed visit by Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev next month.

But even as diplomacy takes its first halting steps, there are signs that responses on both sides have become hard to control.

In its Monday (20 August) edition, the English-language "Iran News" criticized the planned visit by Turkish aircraft to Azerbaijan.

The daily said: "Turkey's recent actions are an unambiguous and blatant sign of interference and intervention in the affairs of its neighbors. Turkey has already disturbed and upset the security and stability of the region due to its extensive and unrelenting cooperation and alliance with Israel. Their recent provocative actions are totally unacceptable and without justification."

Other Iranian news outlets have pointed to Turkey's membership in NATO and alleged U.S. interference in the dispute. The U.S. State Department has said it is "particularly concerned" about reports of the episode.

While it seems clear that a line has been crossed in the Caspian, Iran has yet to focus on its own role in the trend toward militarization as a result of the 23 July incident. It has also yet to examine the other options it might have taken to stop BP's exploration of the area.

In 1997, Turkmenistan persuaded then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin to cancel a contract for developing a Caspian oil field, known in Azerbaijan as Kiapaz. Ashgabat claimed the field, which it calls Serdar, and protested the contract as illegal. But no military action followed.

In the case of the Alov field, which Iran calls its Alborz oil region, Tehran never protested the signing of the 1998 contract with BP. The apparent reason is that Iran's claim to 20 percent of the Caspian was formulated some time afterward as an alternative to its earlier position calling for joint control among the five littoral states.

Observers say Tehran may have felt compelled to stop the BP operation in order to maintain the integrity of its 20 percent proposal. But it seems likely that a strong protest to Azerbaijan and the company would have had much the same effect, they say.

The question now is whether the previous uneasy relations in the Caspian can be restored, now that the reality of an armed encounter has come to pass.

One way could be for both sides to renounce the use of force, but it is unclear if either is ready for that.