Caspian Sea: What do the Russians want from Iran?
by Dr Bahman Aghai Diba
A high level delegation from the Russian Federation is in Iran to discuss the legal regime of the Caspian Sea with
Iranians, before the meeting of the five countries’ working group in Baku to draft the International Convention
of the Caspian Sea. According to Iranian authorities, the Russian delegation headed by the Russian president’s
special Caspian envoy, Victor Kayuzhny, wanted to describe the Russian positions regarding the legal regime of the
Caspian Sea for Iranians. But it seems that the Russian delegation has something more than mere explanation of
positions to do in Iran.
The positions of the concerned states in a nutshell are:
Iran wants a condominium or division of the whole sea into 20 % sections. The Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have divided their territories on the basis of the Russian made formula called “modified median line” which divides the seabed according to an equidistance line, and leaves the waters as free for all. They are putting pressure on Iran and Turkmenistan to do the same.
Turkmenistan has been changing its positions several times, but the bottom line is that they want a piece of the
Sardar/Kapaz oil field, which is now under the control of Azerbaijan. It is no secret that in the recent years the
Russians have been uneasy about the positions of Iran and Turkmenistan regarding the legal regime of the Caspian
Turkmenistan has not agreed with others regarding the Caspian regime, and its permanent president, Saparmurat Niyazov has unclear positions in this case, as many other cases. He has taken contradictory positions in the past. There was a strange assassination attempt against him. He rules the country in a combination of the Prophet and Stalin (this year he changed the names of the months in a year and named the first three months after himself, his mother and the name of his new book called Rahnama --the Guide -- which is compulsory to read in all schools and universities).
He calls himself “Turkeman Bashi” or the father of Turkmens and he lives in the Firoozeh Castle that has been built in the Firoozeh village, which was granted by Iranian officials to Turkmenistan as a good gesture in the presidency of Mr Hashemi Rafsanjani. He has accused Russians for the recent attack to his motorcade and some experts think it was a reference to the Russians dissatisfaction with his unpredictable policies in the Caspian Sea.
The Russians want to put pressure on Iran, including through the contacts with the Majlis deputies, to accept their formula for the division of the Caspian sources. It is necessary for the Iranian government to take these points very seriously at the present juncture:
1. Iran does not need the Caspian oil and gas at the moment or urgently. Iran has many other sources in other areas,
including the Persian Gulf which has vast reserves and can be exploited much easier. There are many areas in Iran
that have never been explored for oil and gas reservoirs. The whole north of Iran from Azerbaijan to Khorasan is a
part of these unknown areas, while they all have signs of rich sources.
The main reason for inactivity of Iran in those parts was not the lack of interests but the policies of Iran that did not want to annoy the Russians. The crisis of the “Northern oil” (Nafte Shomal) is still alive in many minds.
2. There is no hurry for Iran to get 12 to 13 % of the worst places in the Caspian Sea. For a long time, Iran was
holding the same position as Russia regarding the legal regime of the Caspian Sea, but two years ago since Russians
found oil and gas in their own part, they have been going in differing directions. Russians still agree with Iran
regarding the validity of the 1921 Treaty for their own reasons.
However, no state has accepted the Iranian proposal for 20 % sectors. Some observers consider Turkmenistan as Iran’s ally in asking for 20 % sectors. This is not true. Turkmenistan is trying to get a better position in its disputes with Azerbaijan over several oil fields, including Sardar/Kapaz oil field, and beyond this point it has nothing to gain by supporting Iran.
The modified median line, which is proposed and enforced by Russians in their agreement with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, (and also, between Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan) leaves less than 12 % for Iran. On the other side Russians will be free to navigate in the whole Caspian Sea. In reality, Iran and the other littoral states (except Russia) have nothing to gain from the freedom of navigation, because they do not have any considerable commercial or naval fleets there.
3. Iran should not accept any pressure from the Russians. First of all, the Russians themselves are to blame for the
present isolation of Iran in the Caspian Sea. For one decade or so the Russians wasted Iran’s time by following
the same positions as Iran and later without any regards to the benefits of Iran, they changed their position almost
The ink of Russian statements and letters to the United Nations Organization was not dried yet when they said that in all of them, any unilateral action in the Caspian Sea was against the international law. Now they have found some oil and better relations with the West and they have left Iran in isolation, so badly that the newly independent states like Azerbaijan, which have come into existence out of Iran’s disintegration in the hand of Russians, do not accept an equal share for Iran.
4. The Russians and the Republic of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have agreed during the last two years to divide the Caspian Sea-bed according to the Russian formula of “Modified Median Line” and now they want a secure atmosphere that owners of capitals act in absolute calm. Iran has no reason to help this calm. Maybe it is better that Iran does exactly vice versa. Iran should help Turkmenistan to keep its ambiguous policy even if it has to use special diplomacy like Iran had in Syria during the Iran-Iraq war, but this time for its national interests. Iran may want to scare away the foreign investors in the Caspian Sea. This is an effective instrument to exert pressure on others not to ignore Iran.
5. Iran has no advantages to give to Russians. Although the issue of the possible attack of the US to Iraq and later to Iran is very much alive and kicking but the present regime of Iran should keep all lessons of history in mind that the Russians have always welcomed the disintegration of Iran because they may get a share of a better geopolitical satiation. If something important happened, the Russians are not going to stand by Iran, especially in front of the only superpower of the world.
6. The countries around the Caspian Sea, including Russia, have been using the bad relations with Iran, including
with the US for denying Iran’s rights in the Caspian Sea. Any advantage to them must be given after receiving
substantial things such as free navigation through the Volga Don canal. The Caspian Sea is connected to the Black Sea
and Baltic Sea through Volga’s canals. The issue of the legal status of Volga-Don and Volga-Baltic waterways is
one of the important problems that will be on table in later stages. Iran has to get advantages right now.
Maybe the Russians offer other countries (especially Kazakhstan) a better deal in the canals, but Iran has to be more careful in this field. The Russians could give assurances regarding the acceptance of the principles of international law regarding the internationally navigable waters or give bilateral concessions. They may also try to establish a special regime for the passage from Volga-Don and Baltic waterway. There are several cases of special regimes like those of the Turkey’s Phosphorus and Dardanelle Straits.
7. There is no concern about reference of the case to the international tribunals or the United Nations. There are no doubts of the realties of the present order in the international relations, along which the power of the two big countries of the world and several other smaller ones will not let Iran to get its legitimate rights through international forums.Iran should avoid going to these places. At the same time, it must be noted that no international forum, no matter how manipulated by others, can give a worse share to Iran.
8. Iran can hope that some developments come up in the situation of the concerned countries and their relations with
others. This includes political changes in all corrupt, unstable and undemocratic states around the Caspian Sea. It
should be noted that Soviet time’s politicians continue to be in power in almost all of the newly independent
states. They are decided to prevent oppositions and they also violate all kinds of human rights in wide scale. Also,
the possibility of changes in Iran-US relationship is an important factor.
The Iranians are well aware that bad relations with the US is damaging Iran’s interests in the Caspian Sea issues at an extensive level. The hardliners, just like the reformists in Iran want to be in power and they do not wish to be the target of American hostility.
9. Iran can start cooperation in the fields like environment from now on. There is no need to wait. The Russian
Federation is responsible for a considerable amount of pollution in the Caspian Sea. At the same time, it is
signatory and party to almost all important conventions in the law of the sea and pollution. The only point is that
they do not consider themselves as committed to observe those obligations in the Caspian Sea. This approach has to
The Republic of Azerbaijan, which is responsible of polluting the Caspian Sea with oil during the last 50 years or so, should accept the commitments to observe internationally recognized standards of prevention of oil pollution in these areas. Out of the several thematic centres that are established by the CEP (Caspian Environment Programme) in the littoral states of the Caspian Sea, the Legal Centre, which is in charge of preparing regulations, is in Moscow. I do not think that Russians are very interested in preparing regulations which most of them would address themselves. Maybe these centres should circulate among the concerned states, before becoming fully independent from the CEP.
10. I wish to point out another aspect of Iran’s political and legal role in the Caspian Sea. Iranian people are suspicious of their regime. They believe that the regime is so preoccupied with its preservation that it does not give enough weight to national interests in dealing with foreign relations, including the issues related to the Caspian Sea. The Iranian government should walk with extreme caution here, because the political ramifications of any concessions will be very considerable.
Dr Bahman Aghai Diba has studied Law of the Seas. He is a consultant on international law affairs for several US companies. His new book: “The law and politics of the Caspian Sea, with special reference to Iran" is under publication by IBEX Publishers.