|That sinking feeling
Iran's bid for the Caspian
By Alex Vatanka
October 24, 2002
The Iranian Republic has based its Caspian Sea policy on two errors;-
lack of precision, and delusions of 'a special relationship' with Russia. Tehran
has got some catching up to do with reality.
Post-Revolution Iran has had to live with a foreign policy strategy that has either
been ideological and unfeasible at best and contradictory at worst. It was not before
the tenure of President Khatami that the ministry of foreign affairs, under an ally
of Khatami - Kamal Kharrazi - seriously attempted to place realpolitik at the heart
of the Islamic Republic's dealings with the outside world.
Notwithstanding a number of successes in bridging the gap with the rest of the world
- notably the European Union and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - the diplomatic
capacity of the clerical regime remains wanting.
On the issue of the division of the Caspian, Iran has pursued a consistent line:
to sway the other littoral states to agree to divide the resource-rich sea into five
equal sectors. However, Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are united in seeking demarcation
on the basis of the 'modified median-line' principle. Accordingly, based on the length
of its Caspian coastline, Tehran would only secure between 13-15% of the seabed.
In its decade-long endeavour to secure a favourable outcome on the Caspian, the
Iranian government prioritised relations with Moscow over the other Caspian states.
The logic is based on the notion that Moscow's leverage over the newly independent
littoral states would ultimately make a final settlement more or less a Russo-Iranian
During the 1990s, the Caspian was merely one factor among others in the increasingly
intimate Russo-Iranian relationship and the Caspian was arguably viewed as secondary
In April, Mehdi Safari, the Iranian foreign ministry's Caspian special envoy, stated
that time is on Iran's side. "Russia and Norway have been at odds over demarcation
for 35 years," said Safari. "We should not be worried and imagine that
we would be deceived if two other littoral countries reach agreement."
This was a reference to the bilateral treaties between Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan
on the division of the northern sector of the Caspian. In essence, it can be argued
the Iranian position has been undermined due to a perception of the issue as marginal
and by not adequately responding to shifts in the stance of its neighbours.
In May, President Khatami described the two-tier treaties on friendship, commerce
and navigation as "suitable yardsticks" to "finalise the Caspian legal
regime and attend to new requirements". This line of thinking, which disregards
reality on the ground, is more the rule than the exception. Critics argue that not
only did the government fail to declare a clear and precise position but the different
viewpoints expounded by officials increased the foreign policy confusion in this
Iran's faith in Moscow was about a set of necessities. In light of relatively intimate
ties between Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and the US, key Iranian decision-makers naively
viewed Moscow as a reliable partner. This posture was delivered to the domestic audience
in Iran as a strategic Russo-Iranian partnership. Russia has officially maintained
that it will not tolerate any littoral state granting 'extra-regional' forces access
to the Caspian, an implicit reference to Washington.
This officially designated muscle in Iran's Caspian policy has proven costly as Moscow
has, since the mid-1990s, carried out a number of policy shifts which isolated Iran.
Only Turkmenistan has appeared sympathetic toward Tehran's formula for a settlement,
due to the fact that it too would receive a larger section under such a plan.
Tehran's institutional limitations
Following the agreement between Russia and Kazakhstan on the division of the
northern section of the Caspian in May, one of the Iranian parliament's foremost
authorities on Russia, Elaheh Koolaee, a member of the Majles foreign affairs and
national security committee, unleashed a damning attack on Iranian diplomacy in which
she described officials in charge of Caspian negotiations as "unaware, uncaring
or ignorant" about the implications of the Moscow-Astana treaty.
Indeed, such a characterisation of the government's foreign policy would seem to
encapsulate much of the quandary. Iran does not have a coherent and uniform foreign
policy. The decision-making structure is not centralised and is even bypassed by
factors outside official state institutions. There is no doubt that hardline factions
within the regime have sought to prevent Khatami from implementing his programmes,
either those announced during the election campaigns, or, at a later stage, both
in domestic and foreign policies.
Most notably, efforts are endlessly made to thwart the policy of détente toward
the US. The clearest example came with the capture of Karin A, a ship carrying Iranian
arms to the Palestinian Authority in January.
The shipment was judged to have been the undertaking of hardliners and without the
President's knowledge. The aim was two-pronged: to increase Iran's credibility in
the Islamic world and to demolish Khatami's chances of a rapprochement with the US.
In both objectives, the hardliners sought to strengthen their hand within Iran rather
than to seek a foreign policy triumph as formulated by the government. Weeks after,
Iran moved from being a potential partner for the US in its war on terrorism to being
part of the 'axis of evil' and Khatami's 'dialogue among civilisations' was seriously
Iran's political factionalism is partly fixed in its constitution, according
to which important policies can only be adopted by supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei. The president is held accountable and responsible for the implementation
of domestic and foreign policies. However, many decisions are taken without the President's
Khatami was elected on an agenda that promised structural change within some ministries.
Halfway through Khatami's second term, it is clear that few institutional changes
have occurred and that the foreign ministry continues to suffer from bureaucracy
Different state institutions in the country continue to house dissimilar players
who each often pursue objectives that are either incompatible or a hindrance to effective
implementation of foreign policy.
Iran's clerical regime is officially devoted to solidarity with all Muslim states.
Armed and security forces, and key institutions under hardline control have been
willing to discard 'Islamic solidarity' in Chechnya in exchange for arms purchases
and the transfer of technology from Russia.
In Iran's relations with Russia, one can detect how
powerful branches of the regime have the upper hand in formulating the course of
There is a good deal of disparity between ideological and political rhetoric and
actual policy pursuits of principal state institutions. Also, there is a bias among
the leadership of some influential institutions - most notably the Islamic Revolutionary
Guards - in favour of maintaining what can be characterised as a policy of appeasement
The weaknesses in Iran's Caspian policy can be attributed to unfavourable geopolitical
circumstances, which is in turn exacerbated by the country's institutional setting.
In the current climate in the region, Iran's geopolitical fortunes are unlikely to
change for the better overnight.
As Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan move along the lines of bilateral agreements,
Tehran would benefit from having a cold look at its dealings with Russia on the Caspian,
and attach more importance to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan during negotiations.
If they do not, the Caspian will become the price Tehran will pay to satisfy the
ambitions of a handful of institutions dominated by short rather than long-term aims.
Alex Vatanka is the editor of Jane's Sentinel Russia & CIS Security
Assessment. This article was first published by Jane's Islamic Affairs Analys