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Thursday 16 August 2018

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(Left to right:) Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Iranian President Hassan Rohani, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov attend an event on the sidelines of the Caspian Sea summit in Aqtau on August 12.

AQTAU, Kazakhstan -- Though the presidents of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan have long left the Caspian Sea summit, several questions remain about the joint document dividing the sea that they signed in Aqtau on August 12.

Though some progress was made and several longstanding issues resolved -- the major undecided problem appears to be how to satisfactorily divide the maritime borders of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan with Iran.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani said at the summit that more talks were needed on the Caspian borders, although previous agreements signed between Azerbaijan, Russia, and Kazakhstan -- and jointly by Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan -- resolved those countries' border issues long before the Aqtau summit.

Rohani's comments mean that for the near future, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan probably will not be able to develop hydrocarbon fields in the area of the Caspian that lies near the as-yet undefined border with Iran -- at least not without consulting with and likely including Iran in any projects there.

Trans-Caspian Pipeline

As regards construction of the long-planned Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP), which aims to bring some 30 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and ultimately to Europe, the Caspian Convention signed on August 12 states that "Parties may lay submarine cables and pipelines on the bed of the Caspian Sea."

The document also gives neighboring states the right to conclude bilateral agreements on pipelines that would run along the seabed exclusively through their territorial waters, meaning legally there should be no problem for Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to construct the TCP, especially since the area where the pipeline would be laid is well north of any potential maritime border with Iran.

That was, however, true even before the convention was signed.

The biggest potential obstacle remains the part of the agreement that reads: "Parties may lay trunk submarine pipelines on the bed of the Caspian Sea on the condition that their projects comply with environmental standards and requirements embodied in the international agreements to which they are [party to]..."

Russia and Iran have used environmental concerns to halt construction of the TCP for some two decades and the wording of the convention seems to leave room for debate about "standards and requirements."

In their opening statements at the summit, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov addressed this issue, assuring that their countries were paying close attention to environmental concerns and were consulting with leading experts to guarantee safety.

But it appears they must still convince Iran of this and that may prove to be complicated.

Changing Tack?

Azerbaijan's relations with Iran are solid but Turkmenistan and Iran have experienced difficulties since Turkmenistan's decision to cut off gas to northern Iran in early 2017 citing what Ashgabat claimed were unpaid gas bills.

Both Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan need to convince Iran that the ecology of the Caspian Sea will in no way be damaged by construction of the TCP -- but this will require Turkmenistan to change its recent tack with Tehran that has put the two countries at loggerheads.

But Ashgabat has so far shown no sign it is willing to drop its claim that Iran owes nearly $2 billion for gas received during the winter of 2007-2008, while Iran insists Turkmenistan hiked up the price for gas that particularly cold winter by some 900 percent over the agreed-upon price and refuses to pay Ashgabat.

Despite the signing of the Caspian Convention, this bilateral financial dispute and ecological concerns could continue to delay construction of the TCP, even though the long-awaited project appears to have a green light to move forward.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
(Left to right:) Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Iranian President Hassan Rohani, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov pose after the signing ceremony for a new convention on the status of the Caspian Sea on August 12.

The leaders of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan met in Aqtau, Kazakhstan, on August 12 for what was supposed to be the long-awaited signing of a convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea.

The leaders met, and signed the convention, but after more than 20 years it was clear that some of the same issues that have prevented an agreement that suited all five countries remained.

While the five presidents agreed on most of the issues, Iranian President Hassan Rohani mentioned that the delimitation of the sea remains an issue for Iran. Rohani said further talks would be needed to resolve the division of the Caspian, though it was unclear if he was speaking about the 22-kilometer stretch from each country's shore that is considered the territorial waters of each state, or the lines drawn to the maritime midway point where states meet.

Rohani also indicated further talks would be needed to clarify obligations to the responsibilities of the littoral states for guaranteeing the environmental safety of the Caspian.

In his opening remarks, Rohani praised the part of the agreement that excludes any foreign military presence in the Caspian, but in his closing statement he mentioned that should include shipment of foreign militaries' cargo across the Caspian. Rohani did not name any countries but he almost surely was referring to the agreement the United States has to ship cargo from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan’s Aqtau and Quryq ports.

In what was perhaps a telling remark, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov concluded his opening remarks by saying another summit should be held in Turkmenistan.

The leaders used their opening statements to highlight aspects of the Caspian agreement that were most important for their individual countries.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev both stressed the trade links that would surely expand with greater shipping across the Caspian. Both Nazarbaev and Aliev spoke of a new trade bridge between Asia and Europe.

President Rohani echoed this message pointing out trade among Caspian states was still only a small fraction of what it could be.

He touted the potential of railway connections from the eastern and western side of the Caspian to Iran and on to the Persian Gulf, rather than referring to an Asian-European trade route. Aliyev and Berdymukhammedov also mentioned the railways passing through their countries to Iran.

Toward the end of his opening statement, Aliyev also drew attention to the ongoing conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, saying the unresolved issue was an obstacle to fully developing trade potential through the Caucasus.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his opening remarks and closing statement that the parts of the agreement that dealt with fighting terrorism were especially important given the Caspian’s proximity to Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Although the five presidents signed documents at the end of the summit, it would be difficult to qualify the event as a clear success. It was evident there are still unresolved matters, particularly from Iran's perspective.

The fact that there was even mention of another summit in the future could indicate that indeed, while the convention on the legal status of the Caspian was signed, key issues still need to be discussed.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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