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That sinking feeling
Iran's bid for the Caspian

By Alex Vatanka
October 24, 2002
The Iranian

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.

Realism deficit

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 affair.

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 Tehran.

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 regard.

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 undermined.

Institutionalised inefficiency

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 approval.

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 and inefficiency.

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 action.

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 toward Russia.

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 (September 2002).

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