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Azerbaijan/Iran: Tension Over Caspian, U.S.-Azerbaijani Ties Surfaces During Talks In Tehran

Prague, 20 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev today ended a visit to Iran that saw little progress in the dispute that pits Tehran against Baku over the dividing of the Caspian Sea's vast hydrocarbon reserves.

Anxious to promote bilateral ties despite their differences, the two neighbors nonetheless initialed a string of agreements and memoranda of understanding aimed at boosting trade and economic and cultural ties. Iran's IRNA state news agency reported that both sides also signed an "Agreement on the principles of cooperation and friendly relations" -- a document that had been earlier presented by Aliev's office as a new friendship-and-cooperation treaty aimed at replacing a similar pact signed in 1994.

During his three-day visit, the Azerbaijani head of state held successive talks with President Mohammad Khatami, Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The question on how to divide the Caspian oil and gas reserves, believed to be the world's third-largest, was among the dominant topics of the talks. Another prevailing theme was Azerbaijan's ties with the United States -- a particularly sensitive issue for Iran.

In remarks made during his meeting with Aliyev yesterday, Khamenei urged Baku to limit ties with the U.S. and blamed "big foreign powers" for not being in favor of solving regional problems, including the Caspian issue, through dialogue.

Whether the religious leader's comments were directed at Washington -- which both conservative and reformist circles in Iran have repeatedly accused of threatening peace and stability in the region by pursuing "war-mongering policies" -- is unclear.

Khamenei's remarks could also be heard as veiled criticisms of Russia, which insists on a dividing scheme for the bottom of the Caspian Sea that would leave Iran with the smallest share among all five littoral states.

Tehran, in turn, seeks a minimum 20 percent share of the seabed for itself and opposes any move to parcel it out until a comprehensive treaty on the division of the inner sea is reached with the four other Caspian countries: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan.

Still, Russia and Kazakhstan agreed on 13 May to divide the northern half of the sea, prompting angry reactions in Tehran, which said it will not recognize such bilateral accords as legal. By contrast, Washington praised the Russian-Kazakh deal and urged Moscow and Baku to proceed with plans to sign a similar agreement next month.

Aliev's visit, which had been postponed some half-dozen times in the past three years because of the Caspian dispute, produced no results on this main bilateral issue.

Both sides reiterated vague commitments to settle the maritime-borders difference through consensus and dialogue. And at a joint press conference held today in Tehran, Khatami claimed the two countries "have reached a broad understanding toward the search for a mutually acceptable Caspian legal regime."

Aliyev said experts from both countries will meet in Baku on 11 June to try to draft a maritime-borders agreement.

However, despite the Azerbaijani leader's claims that he hopes his visit will mark a turning point in bilateral relations, neither side indicated any willingness to yield ground on the Caspian dispute, which drove the two countries to a serious border incident last year.

Reuters today quoted one unidentified Iranian official as saying that Tehran has not altered its stance.

Handshakes and smiles failed to conceal latent tension, as when Aliyev angrily interrupted an Iranian reporter who was referring to the "Mazandaran Sea" -- a Persian name commonly used in Iran to designate the Caspian. Despite the presence of Khatami, the Azerbaijani leader reportedly blamed "those who, in Iran, are obstructing talks by giving new names to the Caspian Sea."

Yesterday, the English-language "Tehran News" set the tone of the visit, saying its success would depend "on how Aliyev would treat Iran's interests in the Caspian."

The daily went on to accuse Baku of being "dishonest" with its southern neighbor. It also described Aliev's visit as part of a "planned game" aimed at attempting to lower Tehran's objections to U.S.-sponsored regional oil projects, including the construction of a projected oil pipeline between Baku and the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

This, and another pipeline designed to pump Azerbaijani natural gas to Turkey, are part of Washington's containment policy toward Iran -- a country U.S. President George W. Bush recently accused of sponsoring international terrorism.

Before departing for Tehran, Aliyev said on 18 May that he would inform his Iranian hosts about the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process aimed at bringing a settlement to the Azerbaijani-Armenian territorial dispute.

Although Iran -- which borders both Armenia and Azerbaijan to the south -- is not part of the "Minsk Group" of countries mandated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the Karabakh peace process, it is being regularly briefed on the talks.

On 10 May, representatives of the Minsk Group co-chairs -- France, Russia, and the United States -- met with Iran's ambassador to Paris to inform him of their work to bring a settlement to the dispute.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Iran has developed warm ties with Armenia, much to the discontent of Azerbaijan, which suspects its southern neighbor of sponsoring and harboring alleged Armenian "terrorists."

On 5 March, Tehran and Yerevan initialed a military-cooperation agreement that sparked much concern in Baku.

Similarly, defense ties that exist between Azerbaijan and NATO member Turkey are frowned upon in Iran, which says it is worried about possible disturbances among its 30 million-strong Turkic-speaking minority.

Baku and Tehran have been at loggerheads over Azerbaijan's plans to open a consulate in Tabriz, a northern Iranian city with a vast ethnic Azerbaijani population. Reports issued before Aliev's departure to Tehran suggested that he had no plans to discuss this issue with Iranian officials.

Yet, despite ethnic sensitivities along the Azerbaijani-Iranian border -- both countries suspect each other of nurturing plans to stir domestic unrest among Iran's ethnic Azerbaijani minority for geopolitical purposes -- Aliyev and his hosts discussed a project to build a railroad link between Baku and the divided border town of Astara, on the Caspian shore.

Anxious not to let differences prevail over dialogue, the two Caspian states also decided to hold regular diplomatic exchanges at the highest level -- a new policy Khatami will initiate by paying an official visit to Baku in the near future.