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Caspian: Turkmenistan, Iran Appear To Agree On Approach For Dividing Sea

Turkmenistan says it has agreed with Iran on establishing wide offshore zones in the Caspian Sea, raising new doubts about the progress of five-nation division talks and the development of disputed oil fields. Russia wants open waters for shipping and its navy, but Ashgabat said it will try to reach agreement with Moscow, as well.

Boston, 2 April 2003 (RFE/RL) - Turkmenistan and Iran appear to have agreed on an approach for dividing the Caspian Sea that could slow progress toward a five-nation settlement instead of speeding it up.

Last week's talks on Caspian borders suggests that bargaining over the oil-rich waters will drag on and on, despite new hopes for energy sources outside the Middle East as a result of the Iraq war.

On 27 March, the countries ended two days of negotiations in Ashgabat with positive statements from the Turkmen side. A source in the administration of President Saparmurat Niyazov told Interfax that the delegations had agreed to start drawing the bilateral border and had reached understanding on economic zones that could be up to 45 nautical miles (over 83 kilometers) wide.

The ITAR-TASS news agency quoted Turkmenistan's head of Caspian development, Khozhgeldy Babaev, as saying, "The views of the sides have coincided towards determining such zones within 35-40 nautical miles."

Interfax also reported a preliminary agreement to develop resources in the southern Caspian jointly. The official daily "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" said the border marking "will allow both states to start active realization of oil-and-gas-exploration projects in the sea border area," Agence France-Presse reported.

Comments from Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari were less specific. Speaking to the official IRNA news agency, Safari said he was satisfied with the talks and that the next round will be held in Tehran.

The sessions may solidify Iran's stance with Turkmenistan in the southern Caspian, which has been generally resistant to a Russian-sponsored plan, backed by Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Iran has claimed 20 percent of the Caspian area, although its coast would cover only around 13 percent. Years of talks on the post-Soviet split have brought only glimmers of progress.

Although Iran may welcome Niyazov's support against Moscow's median-line mapping, it still seems wary of signing a bilateral pact with Turkmenistan. IRNA quoted Safari as stressing that "the signing of [a] bilateral agreement will only delay a more comprehensive agreement between all the landlocked sea's littoral states."

Niyazov also said he would sign a Caspian agreement during his visit to Tehran two weeks earlier, but no such document emerged. Iran may find itself in a rhetorical trap over two-sided pacts, having attacked such accords among Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, which could effectively fix its remaining share.

The outlook for progress after the latest meeting may be mixed. On the one hand, any border understanding may be better than none. The delay in developing bordering oil fields has been the biggest drawback in the lack of an overall settlement. Many offshore operations have gone forward without a five-way agreement. But several giant fields remain undeveloped because of disputes among Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan.

Ashgabat's push for 45-mile national zones also appears at odds with what little progress has been made in five-nation negotiations.

Last year, Russia proposed a slight fattening of the national offshore zones recognized in old Soviet treaties from 10 to 15 miles (16 to 24 kilometers). The plan was included in a draft convention for a Caspian settlement, according to a Turan news agency report in February.

But Turkmenistan has proposed two tiers of national jurisdiction and "economic" zones for fishing and other rights, stretching up to 50 miles (80 kilometers). Niyazov wants a 20-mile-wide passage for open shipping in the middle of the Caspian, which is about 110 kilometers (70 miles) at its narrowest point. The big reason for the buffers is that the Russian Navy is larger than those of all the other Caspian countries combined.

Russia's plan calls for dividing only the sea floor into sectors while keeping the waters in common, a concept that would be hemmed in by various limits of the offshore zones. Hammering out a compromise has been an agonizing process, guided by various degrees of Russian pressure.

Last week, Niyazov warned against viewing the Iran talks as forming a southern Caspian bloc, saying, "We are striving to reach agreement with Russia and other nations as well," the Persian-language daily "Hamshari" reported.

But it may be hard to see the bilateral talks as more than banding together until Iran and Turkmenistan return to the table with Russia and settle their oil-field disputes with Azerbaijan.