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In Iran, Official Spin Challenges Perceived Caspian Setback

At a cabinet meeting on August 15, Iranian President Hassan Rohani reportedly said the negotiations marked important "achievements" for Iran, particularly on the security front.

Senior Iranian officials found themselves in hot water after the recent signing of an eagerly anticipated, five-party deal on the Caspian Sea.

While the so-called Convention On The Legal Status Of The Caspian Sea that was signed on August 12 appeared to postpone some of the most intense disputes between Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Iran, it also appeared to ditch one of Tehran's strongest cards in any negotiations: the Soviet-era characterization, in multiple treaties, of the Caspian as a sea shared between two parties -- the Soviet Union and Iran.

That recognizes the de facto situation, which is that the breakup of the Soviet Union created five littoral states instead of two.

But it could also leave Tehran the biggest loser in the long run for Caspian resources, particularly oil and gas and other valuables on or below the seabed.

Due in part to Moscow's outsize role in shaping the Caspian negotiations, criticism of the deal also appears to illustrate Iranian mistrust of Russia despite recent cooperation that has included joint efforts in Syria to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power.

It even led some people to compare this Caspian Sea convention to the 1828 Turkmenchay Treaty between Persia and tsarist Russian, under which the Persians ceded control of territories in the South Caucasus.

After three days of back-and-forth in Iranian media and social media, Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif finally took the plunge themselves, describing the new deal reached in Aqtau, Kazakhstan, as a win for Iran.

At a cabinet meeting on August 15, Rohani reportedly said the negotiations marked important "achievements" for Iran, particularly on the security front.

"Under this agreement, creating military bases and the presence of foreign [ships] in the Caspian Sea has been banned," he said, suggesting that the United States and NATO had "plotted" to deploy troops to the sea.

Zarif, who is expected to brief the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee next week, said, "Iran's territorial integrity has been preserved."

"This agreement is an honor for Iran, and we shouldn't allow this honor to be turned into despair and frustration," Zarif was quoting as saying during an interview with state-run television.

'Halo Of Ambiguity'

While the agreement establishes rules for each country's territorial waters and fishing zones, the delimitation of the oil- and gas-rich seabed remains subject to further negotiations.

"Is it true that Iran's 50 percent share fell to 11 percent?" lawmaker Mahmud Sadeghi asked via Twitter on August 12, a reference to seemingly abandoning any appeals to the dual control ("Soviet and Iranian sea") argument. Sadeghi also suggested the deal was capped "in a halo of ambiguity."

"Is another Turkmenchay on the way?" Sadeghi asked, adding that lawmakers were not informed of "behind-the-scenes agreements."

The daily Ghanoon suggested that Iran could not trust Russia, which the daily alleged had demonstrated that it can "betray" Iran and "bail out" on the country. "For that matter, we have to be vigilant while signing an agreement with [Russia] so that future generations won't curse the signatories while reviewing it," it said.

Afshar Soleimani, a former Iranian ambassador to Azerbaijan, accused Russia of playing a "double game" with Iran. "On the one hand, Russians emphasize that any decision should be made by consensus, on the other hand, they have held negotiations and reached agreements with individual countries," Soleiman said in comments published by Iranian media.

Political scientist and former lawmaker Elahe Koulaei suggested that the timing of the deal -- following the Donald Trump administration's withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and the reimposition of U.S. sanctions -- was against Iran's interests.

"The important point is that Iran is under pressure from the U.S. and its allies in the region and such, a situation shows that it's not a suitable time for negotiations on the legal status of the Caspian Sea," Koulaei said in an interview with the semiofficial news agency ILNA.

High Sensitivity, Low Transparency

In an August 13 op-ed piece titled Foggy Caspian, the daily Ebtekar suggested a lack of transparency on the talks leading to the deal had resulted in ambiguity and a public backlash. "Public opinion's lack of information, on the one hand, and serious uncertainty about the legal regime of the [Caspian Sea], on the other hand, have created very negative analysis and reactions," the daily said.

In another report, Ebtekar said the majority of experts the daily had contacted to discuss the agreement declined to comment "because they didn't know what the convention was about."

The daily added that the government should explain the "decrease of Iran's share to 11 percent" due to the "high sensitivities" that have been created.

Analyst Hossein Aryan suggested that some of the criticism was based on a lack of knowledge about more than two decades of negotiations over how to divide the Caspian Sea among its five littoral states.

"The idea of 50 percent share of Iran that has been floating around has no legal basis. Iran's suggestion of dividing the sea into five equal parts evaporated when Russia under bilateral agreements with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan divided the northern section of the sea," Aryan said.

Rohani said on August 15 that "some issues remain regarding the southern section of the sea" without providing details.

Zarif, for his part, suggested that Iran would share about 20 percent of the Caspian Sea's resources. "The illusory 11 percent line is no longer valid. Of course, some tried to revive this illusory historical procedure that had been forcibly imposed on Iran during the former regime, but the Islamic republic rejected it," Zarif was quoted as saying in his televised interview.

Who Wins?

A close observer of events around the Caspian, Stanislav Prichtin, tells RFE/RL that such official comments are an attempt by the Iranian government to ease tensions. He says Iran's share of the sea's resources will be decided after negotiations with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.

"The main point of the convention is that all territorial issues should be resolved through bilateral negotiations among countries, as was done for the north part of the Caspian Sea," Prichtin said.

Touraj Atabaki, a senior research fellow at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda that Iran's final share is likely to be between 11 and 13 percent of Caspian resources. "At a time when Iran faces its worst situation regarding international ties, this is definitely not to the benefit of the Iranian people and the country's national interests," Atabaki says.

Prichtin, a fellow at Chatham House and a research fellow at the Institute for Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy Of Sciences, says that after more than 20 years of negotiations, "It's difficult to talk about winners and losers."

But he says he believes the convention's prevention of foreign militarization is a win for Russia as well as Iran. "When we're talking about the regional security system, it was of course the idea of Russia and Iran -- from this perspective from the point of view of geopolitics, Russia and Iran are winners," he says.

Roya Karimimajd of RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this report