Turkmenistan proposes Caspian summit for April, but...

Mar 12, 2002 01:00 AM

by Charles Coe

Turkmenistan has again proposed that a summit of the leaders of the Caspian Sea littoral states be held in Ashgabat this April. The country's president, Saparmurad Niyazov, has made this suggestion on several occasions, but a summit-level gathering held specifically to discuss the legal status of the Caspian Sea has yet to take place.
Diplomacy dictates that such a gathering should conclude with a resolution on the vexed question of the sea's legal status and its territorial proportions. Yet that objective appears to be even more remote, with individual countries' positions hardening. As such, the summit -- if it should take place -- is now seen more as an attempt to inject life into an issue that is becoming increasingly moribund and confrontational among some of the parties.

Kazakhstan, keen to move ahead with the development of its domestic oil and gas industry -- a significant part of which will entail work at offshore fields in the northern Caspian -- has endorsed Turkmenistan's suggestion. And Russia too is beginning to think that a summit will help clear the air.
Kazakhstan, Russia and Azerbaijan have each signed bilateral agreements with one another accepting the division of the Caspian seabed into respective territorial sectors. Turkmenistan, whose position has yet to be made clear, is understood to favour the median-line principle, but its concerns revolve around the question of where the offshore line will be drawn. Ashgabat fears that offshore oilfields in the middle of the southern Caspian that it claims as its own will go to Azerbaijan.
Iran, meanwhile, insists that it is entitled to 20 % of the Caspian's territory. Such a division would encroach on territory claimed by both Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan and inevitably complicate matters for Russia and Kazakhstan. As it stands now, the median-line principle would give Kazakhstan 29 % of the seabed, Russia 19 % and Azerbaijan 21 %. Turkmenistan would have 18 %, and Iran would be left with 13 %.

A conference held in Moscow at the end of February failed to move the issue along, creating frustration among the Russians and Azerbaijanis. Baku sees itself as being bullied by Iran, which threatened to use military force against two of its research vessels in the region of the Araz-Alov-Sharg concession last July. Relations between the two countries are further complicated by Tehran's relations with Armenia, with which Azerbaijan is technically at war, and the rights of ethnic Azeris in northern Iran.
For its part, Turkmenistan failed to attend the conference in late February altogether. This is not entirely out of character for Ashgabat. Yet the irony of Turkmenistan's position is highlighted by this new proposal for a summit.
During the latest conference, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister and special envoy for the Caspian, Mehdi Safari, told delegates that Iran believes that the sea's hydrocarbon resources should be developed jointly and that it would insist that its claim to 20 % of the Caspian be recognized. Furthermore, Safari said that Iran would not allow foreign oil firms to explore for hydrocarbons in the portion of the sea that Iran claims as its own.

Viktor Kalyuzhny, Russia's deputy foreign minister and special envoy for the Caspian, responded by criticizing the Iranian position as "confrontational". The Russian diplomat has stated previously that Iran's position is unworkable. Still, he maintains that a declaration on the Caspian's legal status is ready in principle.
Kalyuzhny, who has been leading the diplomatic effort to arrange an agreement on the sea's legal status, said after the conference that it could take another year to formalize an agreement. He added, however, that a summit would likely be necessary in order to move forward. He said the working group of deputy foreign ministers that have been meeting occasionally on this issue had "reached the limit of its possibilities" making a summit "necessary to sum up the results of our work and to discuss disagreements and differences of opinion that remain." He added that the summit would most probably be held in the autumn.

Iran, meanwhile, appears to be determined to stick to its guns. On March 5, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh said that after the start of the Iranian new year in late March, Iran would begin to conduct seismographic research in its 20 % portion of the Caspian Sea. He added that Iran "will not allow any other party to engage in oil exploration in its 20 % share."
So for all its talk of consensus and insistence that the Caspian issue be resolved in its entirety before exploration and development begin in the Caspian, it appears that Tehran will take its 20 % whether the other parties consider this workable or not. Iran's position in the Caspian is similar to the position that it has taken in the lower Persian Gulf, where it now claims total sovereignty over the Tumbs and Abu Musa islands that it is suppose to possess jointly with the United Arab Emirates.
Zanganeh made his announcement shortly after it was reported that BP was in consultations with the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) on the next step in developing the Araz-Alov-Sharg concession. BP had chartered the research vessels that were forced to leave the area by an Iranian gunboat last July.

It is believed that the 13 % of the Caspian allocated to Iran via a median-line division contains few hydrocarbon deposits -- hence Tehran's interest in a 20 % share. But the question needs to be asked: Is Iran actually pursuing something else? As one of the wealthiest hydrocarbon states in the world, why should Iran risk bad relations and perhaps even some sort of confrontation with its neighbours for the sake of a section of the Caspian Sea that may do little to boost Iran's total reserves?
Might it be willing to accept the median-line division that Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan propose if it were offered something significant in exchange -- such as a pipeline that would carry significant volumes of future Caspian crude production to a terminal at a Gulf port?

Source: NewsBase
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