Iran And The Convention On The Legal Status Of The Caspian Sea

On 12 August 2018, five littoral states of the Caspian Sea (Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan) signed a convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea. This convention should be approved by the legislative bodies in all five states before it becomes officially binding.

The Caspian Convention has determined certain important points and at the same time, has made determination of certain other important points contingent on future agreements of the concerned states.

The most important points determined by the Caspian Convention are:

  • A 15-mile territorial Sea for the littoral states
  • A 10-mile exclusive fishing zone for the littoral states
  • Leaving the superjacent waters of the Caspian Sea out of the national territories for the “common use” of the littoral states
  • The littoral states are free to lay submerged pipelines without the need to get approval of others
  • The littoral states are committed not to let non-littoral states have military presence in the Caspian Sea

The most important points which are not determined in this convention are:

  • The share of littoral states in the seabed of the Caspian Sea
  • The baselines for measuring the maritime areas ( noting that the baselines are not determined, the extent of internal waters- behind the baselines- and width of territorial sea , exclusive fishing zone and the start of the international sector is not determined in practice).
  • Details of flight over the Caspian Sea for the military aircraft
  • Legal status of using Volga-Don waterways
  • Conditions for using the living resources
  • Conditions for entry of the naval units of the other littoral states to the territorial and internal waters
  • Conditions for cooperation of littoral states with the real and legal persons of the non-littoral states

What Iran loses in the new Caspian Convention?

  • Noting that the Caspian Sea is 640 miles long and 270 miles wide, what is important is the fact that except for 15 miles of territorial sea, and 10 miles of exclusive fishing zones, that goes to the littoral states, the remaining vast area of the Caspian Sea has been considered as “international waters” for the five littoral states. Other than Russia (which has some of its most advanced naval and industrial fighting units in the Caspian Sea), no other state has any important naval or industrial fishing units there. This means that the Russians get the naval and industrial dominance over the vast areas of the Caspian Sea.
  • Iran loses its leverages for putting pressures on the other states of the Caspian Sea to give more attention to its disadvantaged situation, despite the fact that once Iran and Russia were the only two states in the coasts of the Caspian Sea. In the past Iran had even rejected the validity of the Russian agreements with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan (based on the MML- Modified Median Line) dividing their parts of the Caspian Seabed.
  • If the seabed of the Caspian Sea is divided according to the length of coasts (median line), Iran will get the smallest share (around 13 percent) of the Caspian Sea. (Using the same method, Russia and Azerbaijan each get around 20, Kazakhstan gets around 30 and Turkmenistan gets around 17 percent of the Caspian Sea). The new agreement opens the way for this.
  • Iran was using its rejection of the trans-Caspian pipelines (submerged pipelines of oil and gas) as a tool to put pressure on the neighboring states (under the pretext of environmental issues and with cooperation of Russia, which did not want the rivals get stronger in the market) to give more attention to its demands.

What Iran gains:

  • Commitment from the Caspian littoral states not to give permission for the military presence of non-littoral states in the Caspian sea
  • Commitment from the other littoral states not to let their sections in the Caspian Sea be used for “invasion” or military operations against IRI

Some important points:

  • In this Convention, the Iranian government gains security for the regime of Iran and against the national interests of the people in Iran, and Iran loses some of its levers to pursue national interests in the Caspian Sea.
  • Iran has given a free hand to Russians in major parts of the Caspian Sea, because of its bad relations with the Western countries. Iran – as an isolated state that insists on policies contrary to the national interests of the Iranian people as well as the peace and security in the region and the world – has played badly in this game.
  • Perhaps Iran could have waited to gain a better position in the future to settle an issue that has lasted for the last twenty years.
  • The people in Iran have historically negative views about Russian plans on Iran. This agreement has expanded that pessimism.
  • The people of Iran have gradually become disappointed about the ability of the government during the IRI regime to assert the rights of the people. The general approach of Iranian people to the recent agreement is:
  • This is the continuation of the regime’s failure to protect Iran’s rights in the case of Iran-Iraq war and disputes with the neighboring counties (on various issues, including water rights).
  • Iranian people feel defeated, embarrassed and humiliated due to an unbalanced agreement in the Caspian Sea, without it addressing the demands (and expectations) of Iranians. This has increased the level of distrust and even opposition of people towards the regime.
The leaders of Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan in Aktau, Kazakhstan, after signing an agreement on the status of the Caspian Sea.

The share of Iran from the Caspian Sea will be the smallest part of this body of water. None of the other littoral states (Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan) of the Caspian Sea is ready to accept anything more than this for Iran. At the same time, the Iranian part of the Caspian Sea (almost 13 percent of the Caspian Sea) has not any important oil and gas resources that is so far identified by any method. Even if new and economical resources of oil and gas are found in this sector in future, their exploration and exploitation requires high investment and technology (this sector is the deepest part of the Caspian Sea). Iran has none of them in the proper level. Again, if it has any of them, it would be easier and more profitable for Iran to use them in other places (such as the Persian Gulf). Therefore, it is possible to say: Caspian Sea has not high economic priority for Iran.

On the other hand, the Caspian Sea and its littoral states can pose a security threat for the regime of Iran. Most of the Caspian littoral states are very interested in having good relations with the Western, especially the US, government and companies. Azerbaijan Republic is an ally of the US and it has very close relations with Israel. In recent years, when the issue of a possible attack against Iran has been discussed, Azerbaijan is named as a possible route for this. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan attach great importance to the Western companies for development of their resources in the Caspian Sea.

While conflicts between Iran and US is still widespread and peaceful solutions for removing the conflicts are not so promising due to the policies of the Iranian regime (the US and its allies want Iran to stop regional interfering and support of terrorism) , the possibility of confrontation is growing. If this happens, the Caspian littoral states, except then Russia, will be in the opposite side of Iranian regime. For the same reason, the regime in Iran that attaches the highest priority to its survival, is more concerned about the military-security issues in The Caspian Sea, rather than resources in the seabed or even Iran’s share of the whole area.   The regime in Iran has been using every legal and political occasion, to block the presence on non-littoral states, especially the US, in the Caspian Sea, with cooperation of the Russians who have similar worries. Iran and Russia have used all meetings of the Caspian littoral states in the last twenty years or so to put pressures on the other Caspian sates to keep the West out of the region.

The recently concluded Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, has not really anything about the most important issue that it was supposed to address: the legal regime of the Caspian Sea or in fact what belongs to whom in the area.. If so, what was the hurry to conclude an agreement which is not solving the problem? The answer is in the chapters of the new convention prohibiting the presence of non-littoral sates in the Caspian Sea and the commitments of the littoral states not to let their territory in the Caspian Sea (without knowing where it is really) to be used for attacking others.

Iranian Majlis (parliament) has to approve this agreement with two thirds majority. There is a possibility that Majlis will not do so. If the leader interferes in favor of the approving the agreement, he will lose more credibility (especially under the present conditions of Iran).

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