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Kazakhstan: Is Iran Signaling Change In Its Caspian Sea Demands?

A meeting of Caspian Sea countries in Kazakhstan seems to have made little progress on the issue of settling borders. But official statements suggest that Iran could be ready to compromise on its claim to a 20 percent share. RFE/RL correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports from Almaty.

Almaty, 22 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iran seems to be downplaying its demands for a 20 percent share of the Caspian Sea, calling for common control by the five shoreline states instead.

Tehran's public statements provide one of the few clues to its strategy since July 23, when an Iranian gunboat threatened two Azerbaijani survey ships in disputed waters, sparking the most serious Caspian incident since the Soviet collapse.

Yesterday (Sept 21), a two-day meeting of envoys from the Caspian nations in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, produced few obvious results.

Speaking to the Iranian official news agency IRNA, Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani repeated Tehran's earlier stand against developing offshore oilfields before a five-way agreement on Caspian division is reached with Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Ahani said that none of the "littoral states can unilaterally and without an agreement with others conduct prospecting in the sea."

Ahani failed to mention that Iran has already signed what it calls "prospecting contracts" with the Royal Dutch/Shell and Lasmo oil companies. Last January, IRNA quoted Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh as saying, "We cannot wait forever until the Caspian Sea legal status is resolved. Iran has considered a share for itself."

That contradiction has been followed by a gradual shift in Iran's public position on the division issue since the July 23 incident. Immediately after the confrontation, Iran argued that the Azerbaijani ships working under contract to Britain's BP oil company were sailing into the 20 percent share of the Caspian that Iran claims. The share is in dispute because Iran holds only about 12 percent of the Caspian coast.

But Tehran has since changed its public statements on the issue. On its English-language web site, the official Iranian news agency IRNA last referred to the 20 percent figure on August 4, seven weeks ago.

Following the change, officials statements urged "a common sovereignty" over the Caspian among the five littoral nations. The terms of Tehran's policy then evolved into a formula that has been repeated at least a dozen times without variation since August 16.

The formula reads, "Iran calls for a condominium or common sovereignty over the sea and has made it known that it considers any unilateral deals for energy explorations in the Caspian Sea as null and void, before the issue of legal regime of the inland waters is settled."

Although Western news agencies have continued to cite Iran's bid for 20 percent of the Caspian, its recent statements have made no mention of the claim.

The condominium principle represents a return to one of Iran's earlier Caspian policies. Iran promoted the condominium idea before 1997, according to Abbas Maleki, a former deputy foreign minister, who outlined the evolution of positions in an interview with Iran Focus magazine last March.

Maleki, who is now chairman of the International Institute for Caspian Studies in Tehran, said the 20 percent formula dates back to a speech given by President Mohammed Khatami in the summer of 2000. At the time, Khatami voiced willingness to support a Caspian split into national sectors, as long as Iran was guaranteed at least 20 percent.

Unlike Russia, Iran sought to divide both the Caspian seabed and its waters, in part to keep the Russian navy away from its shores.

Iran's latest change in official language may be a sign of flexibility in the wake of the July 23 episode, which prompted fears of open conflict in the Caspian. But so far, it is hard to tell whether any new formula will emerge.

In the meantime, Iran appears to have gone back to the safety of an old one.