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Equal but undivided?
The Russian-Iranian gambit in the Caspian Sea

March 12, 2001
The Iranian

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 boiling point.

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 treaties.

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.

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