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Iran: Maneuvering Said To Have Blocked Caspian Sea Meeting

Iran has headed off a Caspian meeting of deputy foreign ministers in Moscow amid signs that its CIS neighbors were preparing a solution to the vexing issue of legal division on their own. But the success of the maneuver has not kept frustration from rising as some shoreline nations grow weary of the stalling tactics.

Boston, 21 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iran has apparently brought the issue of Caspian Sea division to a halt by blocking a meeting of deputy ministers that was due to take place in Moscow this week.

The Caspian talks scheduled for 18 and 19 December were called off at the last minute. Diplomatic sources told the Interfax news agency last week that its purpose was "to complete the final statement on the status of the Caspian that should be approved at the summit of the five Caspian states."

This week, Interfax reported that no reason was given for the postponement. Azerbaijan's AssA-Irada news agency said it was the result of a Russian request. But Agence France-Presse cited the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying that "Iran and Turkmenistan saw no need for talks."

Before the cancellation, there were signs that Russia might try to override objections to a long-delayed summit of Caspian leaders in Ashgabat. Interfax quoted a diplomatic source in Moscow as saying, "if the document is not coordinated at the upcoming expert meeting, it will be possible to insist on the speedy organization of the Caspian Five summit."

The delay of the meeting of deputy foreign ministers follows diplomatic maneuvers by Iran since a CIS summit in Moscow suggested that the border-marking issue might be settled separately among the Caspian's four post-Soviet states.

At the Moscow summit last month, Presidents Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan signed a bilateral accord to divide the seabed along a modified median line. The agreement embraced Russia's formula for a legal split of the Caspian, which has eluded the five shoreline states since the Soviet breakup.

Tehran opposes the formula, in part because it leaves Iran with only the 13 percent of the Caspian that is covered by its coast. The other main reason is that it would keep the Caspian waters in common, giving free range to Russia's powerful Caspian fleet.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry lodged a strong objection to the pact between Astana and Baku, calling on its neighbors "to avoid unilateral and provocative actions" on the Caspian issue. Tehran's fears were heightened by reports that Aliyev and Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov had agreed to restart talks on a disputed oil field that has stalemated progress since 1997.

On 11 December, Iran's Caspian envoy Mehdi Safari launched a shuttle mission to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan aimed at preserving Iran's right to reject the division formula, demanding that all parties repeat their pledges to pursue a consensus among the littoral states.

In Baku, Safari met with Aliyev and other top officials without apparent progress. Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry issued a bland statement reported by AFP, saying the meetings would "give an impetus for achieving mutual understanding and resolution of the Caspian question."

Azerbaijan seemed careful to keep relations on an even keel following a dangerous incident last July, when an Iranian gunboat threatened two of its research vessels in a disputed oil field. Aliyev also has tentative plans to visit Tehran early next year after countless delays due to bilateral rows.

In Ashgabat, Safari may have been more successful. After meeting with Niyazov, the Turkmen president "declared his opposition to unilateral or bilateral moves by littoral states to exploit the sea's resources," the Iranian official news agency IRNA said.

Turkmenistan's ambassador to Kazakhstan, Muhammet Abalakow, also flatly called the approach of Russia and Kazakhstan "wrong," according to the "Almaty Herald." In upholding the consensus requirement, Turkmenistan seems to have put aside its consideration of another bilateral pact on Caspian borders with Kazakhstan to placate Iran.

The move may save Tehran from isolation on the border-division issue. By canceling the Moscow meeting, it may also succeed briefly in keeping pressure in check. But the moves also seem to have sparked anger on all sides.

On 19 December, Aliev's adviser on the Caspian, Rustam Mamedov, told AFP, "In the 10 years of negotiations to settle the status of the Caspian, Iran has not taken a single constructive step."

Mamedov said, "That position is designed to undermine the development of new states like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, whose only means of survival in difficult conditions is to exploit their energy resources."

The remarks were similar in tone to those of Darigha Nazarbaeva, reported by ITAR-TASS a week earlier and carried by the independent newspaper "Ekho" and "RFE/RL Newsline." President Nazarbaev's powerful daughter, who controls a media empire in Kazakhstan, called Iran's stand "the main brake on the negotiating process." She also criticized Turkmenistan for changing its position "too often."

Anger is also evident in Iran at the country's minority position. In a snipe at Aliev, a column in the "Tehran Times," carried by IRNA, charged that "some Caspian leaders prefer short-term interests to long-term advantages or are prepared to undermine regional unity to serve foreign powers."

Although the Moscow talks were called off, some form of discussion may still take place on Iran's terms. This week, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said that deputy foreign ministers will meet on the sidelines at an annual Caspian conference in Tehran that starts tomorrow (22 December).

They will need extreme patience to pursue a solution to the division problem, which has kept the Caspian countries at odds for the past 10 years.