Decisions about Caspian Sea must be fair and unanimous

Oct 01, 2002 02:00 AM

President Mohammad Khatami chose the Caspian shore city of Rasht as the venue to sharply criticize "any foreign interference" in the Caspian Sea basin and call for the "Caspian to be divided fairly and logically in the interest of all littoral states. Any decisions about the Caspian Sea must be fair and unanimous."
His remarks seem to be a thinly veiled criticism of the pact by President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev dividing the Caspian seabed along a median line based on the length of each country's shoreline.

At the time Iranian officials reacted with a mix of disapproval and restraint, and in the mild words of Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi "such pacts are no substitute for an overall legal division of the Caspian among the five shoreline states. "Iran's position is that no bilateral agreements should be signed or recognized without a five-country agreement, but Russia has pursued them as a way to break the decade-old deadlock over oil-development rights.
"Bilateral agreements can not supplant the process of determining the Caspian Sea legal regime on the basis of unanimity among the five countries. The Caspian Sea can have a lasting, confidence-inspiring, and long-term legal regime if the five countries agree on it unanimously," Assefi warned. However, Iran's official response to the Russia-Azerbaijan pact stood in sharp contrast to Iran's previous denunciations of bilateral border deals, which it has repeatedly blasted as illegal.

Iran has often shown anger at the initiatives leading to bilateral pacts. In June 2001, for example, Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani called the unilateral development of any Caspian resource by a shoreline state "Illegitimate" in the absence of a five-country solution. "Such states would be legally responsible for their actions," Ahani had warned.
Also, last year, Assefi condemned another bilateral Caspian accord between Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan as "provocative" after it was signed in November.In a letter to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, Iran charged that the countries had no right to sign the agreement and sought to have it annulled.

Russia's formula for the Caspian, which is now embraced by Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, would divide the seabed into national sectors based on a median line. Iran objects because it would wind up with 13 % rather than an equal 20 % share, while Russian warships would be free to sail through common borders near our shores. However, even the agreement between Russia and Azerbaijan is ambiguous on whether its terms could be superseded by a five-way settlement.
Article 5 states, "The present agreement shall not come as an obstacle to a general accord of the Caspian littoral states concerning the legal status of the Caspian Sea, and shall be regarded by the parties as part of general understandings thereof." Article 6 says, "The parties shall promote a general accord of the Caspian littoral states concerning the legal status of the Caspian Sea with due consideration for the premises of the present agreement." It does not say, however, that the agreement would be set aside.

Therefore, while there is still time for Iran to redouble its diplomatic efforts aimed at reaching a fair, multilateral pact with the four countries sharing the world's largest lake with us, there is also the danger that such bilateral deals gradually advance toward our claimed national sector and threaten to define it, with or without our consent. And if a similar Russian accord is reached with Turkmenistan, it would leave Iran in an untenable position, or entangle the Caspian in a legal mess that would threaten the interests of all five countries involved for years to come.
Thus, we must embark on close, well-coordinated liaisons with our four Caspian neighbours and begin the process by concentrating on issues that we all can agree on.

We must also better coordinate our actions domestically and among various institutions dealing with the issue. Early, for instance, Elaheh Koolaee, a member of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Commission's Caspian Affairs subcommittee, complained that she and her colleagues are not briefed on a timely basis on negotiations conducted by the Foreign Ministry.
Perhaps to avoid such criticism, Mahdi Safari, Iran's special envoy for Caspian affairs, rushed to a briefing session with the lawmakers who seem exasperated that a Caspian agreement has taken a decade to reach the present impasse, and with no pact in sight.

Source: The Tehran Times
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