Equal but undivided?
The Russian-Iranian gambit in the Caspian Sea
March 12, 2001
President Khatami's visit to Moscow is taking place sooner than expected.
It is not claear if the haste is related to his wish to be back in Tehran
for the Iranian new year, or that the urgency is occasioned by some cannot-wait
development. In his talks with President Putin, Khatami will explore, among
other topics, the future regime of the Caspian Sea and how to share its
oil and gas deposits. The quick trip north is at any rate an apt metaphor
for the urgent need to resolve the simmering Caspian situation -- before
environmental degredation, decline of fisheries, risks associated with
offshore petroleum development, and potential for regional conflicts reach
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Caspian was nobody's
business but Iran's and the Soviet Union's, the only two countries that
abutted it. Today, in addition to Iran and the Russian vestige of the Soviet
Union, three new countries -- Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan
-- also border the Caspian, and the world's largest lake, or landlocked
sea, has become everyone's business, including the United States and China.
The meeting of the Caspian deputy foreign ministers in Tehran in February
failed to produce a general outline of a comprehensive agreement. Yet,
Iran's deputy foreign minister announced confidently that for the first
time all five countries had agreed that the sharing of the sea's oil and
gas resources must be by unanimous agreement. This was news to the other
four countries, who talk more in terms of a consensus in such matters.
The much anticipated Caspian summit meeting that was scheduled for early
March in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, is now postponed to April,
at Iran's last-minute request.
Iran has been pushing for one-fifth of the Caspian's spoils, insisting
that any future regime be based on the Soviet-Iranian treaties on friendship
(1921) and commerce and navigation (1940). Neither agreement, however,
provided a reasonable basis for Iran's claim that it is entitled to an
equal but undivided share of the Caspian. The other four Caspian countries
pay some lip service to the 1921 and 1940 treaties, but they have agreed
among themselves to the division of the Caspian along the median lines
described in three bilateral delimitation agreements.
All this has made Iran the odd man out, making it appear more of a villain
in the eyes of the regional players, including the United States, who are
predisposed to such a conclusion for other reasons. Ironically, the culprit
producing the uncertainties in the southern Caspian has been Russia's own
muddy-water diplomacy, which originally sought to secure for Russia the
oil and gas resources that its unfavorable geology, shrinking coastlines,
and international law would have denied it.
In 1993 Moscow rejected the old Soviet offshore divisions, which, if
continued, would have given a huge share of the proven and potential offshore
resources to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. It also disavowed
the 1962 Soviet-Iranian maritime boundary in the Caspian Sea, which had
been established by virtue of the 1954 and 1957 Soviet-Iranian frontier
No doubt, when it came to the Caspian, Iran suffered from a severe case
of coastal envy and lack of petroleum resources in the area off its coast.
So when Russia floated the idea of ignoring the Soviet-Iranian boundary
Tehran jumped at the opportunity: The formula of an equal-but-undivided
share of the sea's resources contained a greater promise of riches than
Iran's own measly offshore area could possibly deliver.
The Soviet-Iranian maritime boundary, a segment of a very long frontier,
cut across the sea from Astara-Chay in the west to the point 2.2 kilometers
south of the old Soviet Fisheries Station No. 1, on the eastern shore.
It, along with the rest of the frontier, was demarcated by a Mixed Soviet-Iranian
Commission on April 11, 1957, which entered into force on December 20,
1962. The line, as well as the rest of the frontier, divided vertically
the air space and subsoil. It remained the boundary between the two countries
until the Russian disavowal of it in 1993.
The Russian and Iranian disavowal of the old lines has resulted in utter
lawlessness in the southern Caspian. Presently, there are disputes between
Iran and Azerbaijan over the Inam and other offshore areas; Azerbaijan
and Turkmenistan have competing claims over a number of fields in the middle
of the sea; and recently a Turkmen bid had to be called off because of
the uncertainty in the Iranian-Turkmen maritime limits. This discord benefits
the Russian and Kazakh oil projects by keeping the wily southern Caspian
three-some off the market.
But Iran need not continue with Moscow's game, which is to play all
sides of the sea. Sure enough, today's impudence may be rewarded by a proverbial
extra barrel of oil or a puff of gas, but the long-term goodwill of one's
neighbors, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, is worth more. Iran's complicity
in Russia's dishonoring of the 1962 boundary was and is not to Iran's benefit
for another reason. If one segment of an international boundary established
by treaty can be set aside as inconvenient, then by what legal or moral
authority can one expect others, the Azeris and Turkmens, to mind their
limits under the 1954 and 1957 frontier agreements or other treaties that
they have inherited from the Soviet Union vis a vis Iran.
The collective interest of Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan in the
southern Caspian will be best served by President Khatami honoring the
1962 Soviet-Iranian boundary in the sea and insisting on his Russian counterpart
to return similarly to the rule of international law.
Guive Mirfendereski is a professorial lecturer in international relations
and law and practices law in Massachusetts.