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Iran/Azerbaijan: U.S. Rejects Military Involvement In Caspian Dispute

U.S. officials say there are no plans to send forces to the Caspian Sea, following a stern statement about Iranian border incidents with Azerbaijan. Despite efforts to ease tensions, the problem of a disputed oil field remains unresolved since an Iranian gunboat threatened an Azerbaijani survey ship in July.

Boston, 15 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials say a tough American statement on Iranian encroachments in the Caspian Sea is not a signal that Washington has plans to send forces in defense of Azerbaijan.

Speaking in March in Washington, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage took a strong stand against Iranian actions that have raised security concerns in the Caspian region.

In a speech to the U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce on 7 March, Armitage said, "We will not stand idly by and watch them pressure their neighbors," the "Oil and Gas Journal" reported. Armitage added, "Everyone must understand this."

The U.S. State Department's second-ranking official was referring to an incident in July, when an Iranian gunboat threatened two Azerbaijani survey vessels and chased them from an oil field which both countries claim. The ships were operated by Britain's BP oil company, which has a contract with Azerbaijan to explore what it calls the Araz-Alov-Sharg fields. Iran calls the disputed area Alborz.

The "Alov" episode was the most serious in the Caspian since the Soviet breakup over a decade ago. The United States condemned Iran's action as "provocative." Russian President Vladimir Putin also called the use of force "impermissible," while Turkey sent fighter planes to Baku in a show of support.

Since then, Iran and Azerbaijan have both tried to keep passions under control. But both sides have since reported border violations, including alleged incursions by Azerbaijani patrol boats and Iranian coast guard vessels near the port of Astara in late February.

The Armitage statement seems to have raised expectations that U.S. forces could become involved in the dispute between Iran and Azerbaijan, particularly following Washington's recent decision to send military trainers and advisers to Georgia.

Azerbaijan television quoted Armitage as saying that the United States will not allow Tehran to pressure Baku "under any circumstances." Azerbaijan's Media-Press also quoted remarks by the U.S. ambassador, Ross Wilson, under the headline "USA To Assist Azeris In Defending Offshore Fields -- Envoy," according to the BBC.

Speaking on 13 March at a Harvard University conference, Wilson told RFE/RL, "Deputy Secretary Armitage made very clear U.S. concerns about Iranian actions with respect to Azerbaijan and our determination to support Azerbaijan in dealing with Iran." Wilson spoke after a meeting of the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

But the statements have not spelled out what form the support would take. A U.S. official also told RFE/RL recently that there are no current plans for direct U.S. involvement. The official said flatly, "It's not a troop commitment," adding that Washington may consider supplying border control equipment such as radar or patrol boats, if the problems with Iran persist. The official noted that Azerbaijan is not a member of NATO, arguing that the Armitage speech did not go beyond the U.S. policy on Azerbaijan that has been in effect since 1992.

The U.S. adviser on the Caspian, Steven Mann, also stuck close to previous policy during early-March meetings in Kazakhstan, stressing that the United States is not pressing for any particular division formula in the Caspian but that any solution should facilitate energy exports.

The Alov oil-field issue has been unresolved in part because there has been no overall settlement on how to draw Caspian borders among the five shoreline states of Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Iran. Negotiations have also been slowed by the recent illness of Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, who was forced to postpone a long-stalled visit to Tehran in February.

The issue could change significantly if Russia's LUKoil agrees to acquire a share in the Alov venture from Azerbaijan's state oil company, Socar. The two companies have held talks on a possible sale.

Such a move would draw Russian interests closer to those of Azerbaijan, but the effect is uncertain. It is unclear whether Russia's investment would silence Iran or raise further tensions, making an overall Caspian settlement even more remote.

A Western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the presence of Russia in the southern Caspian would be seen as strengthening Azerbaijan in its dealings with Iran.

On 13 March, Wilson repeated U.S. policy toward Russia in the Caspian region, saying, "We have always said we welcome Russia's participation as a Caspian state in Caspian development, including pipelines." Russia's LUKoil has been negotiating with Socar over a possible investment in the Baku-Ceyhan oil line, which is supported by Washington.

From a technical standpoint, border incidents may be hard to stop, in part because Russia's formula for a Caspian settlement would divide the sea floor but keep the waters in common.

While all sides have called for demilitarization of the Caspian, it is unclear what kinds of vessels would be allowed free range or how surface activities would be treated if they are part of exploiting national sectors on the bottom.