Following meetings with Turkmenistan's President Saparmurad Niyazov in Ashgabat, Viktor Kaluzhnyi, President Vladimir Putin's special envoy on Caspian affairs, announced earlier this month that the five-way summit to define the Caspian Sea's legal status and the question of its division into national sectors, planned for early April (and postponed from early March at Iran's request), would take place in the middle of the current month. He was contradicted a few days later by an announcement from Putin's own office that the summit would be indefinitely postponed, which turned out to be the case.
Over the past three years, Moscow has signed bilateral accords with Kazakhstan and with Azerbaijan that adopt the "modified median-line" principle for the demarcation of national sectors in the Caspian Sea and establishment of a legal regime to govern the use of its waters and subsoil resources. Iran and to some extent Turkmenistan have resisted these developments. Last year Turkmenistan's President Saparmurad Niyazov put forward the idea of a five-way presidential summit in the port city of Turkmenbashi, to break the diplomatic deadlock over the definition of such a legal regime. The summit meeting was to resolve all outstanding questions concerning Caspian Sea demarcation and to define a comprehensive legal regime for it, including issue areas of shipping, fishing, and ecological conservation as well as others. It was originally scheduled for March of this year.
In 1994 Russia had challenged the legal basis of certain of Azerbaijan's offshore projects, but documents agreed during Putin's recent visit to Baku effectively conceded Azerbaijan's legal right to pursue them. In return, Azerbaijan dropped its insistence that the waters themselves be divided into national sectors, and restricted this insistence to the seabed and subsoil resources. The Baku documents' reference to "relevant contiguous and opposite states" clearly implied that the modified median-line principle was appropriate for demarcation all national sectors in the Caspian Sea, and so for being the basis of a comprehensive legal regime. Iran's response to the Russian-Azerbaijani agreement showed Teheran's increasing diplomatic isolation on the issue. For the first time in a long while, Iran's public statements explicitly invoked and insisted upon the old bilateral treaties signed with the RSFSR in 1921 and with the USSR 1940, as the basis for any future division of the Caspian. (Those treaties, however, do not address division of the waters, seabed or subsoil resources, nor do they provide any principle from which to infer what division would follow.)
According to Kaluzhnyi, a mid-February working meeting in Teheran, held at the deputy minister level agreed half of a draft political statement that would have been adopted at the March summit in Turkmenbashi. And while Turkmenistan moved closer to the common position of Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan at the Teheran meeting, it become equally apparent there that Iran had not relinquished its opposition to the "modified median-line" principle and continued to insist instead on a joint-rule ("condominium," not the same as "joint-use") legal regime. Such a regime requires consensus on energy development decisions, effectively giving each state a veto on any particular. Further, Iran continued to insist on an "equal division" of the Caspian among the five littoral states, meaning 20 per cent for each of the five, whereas under the modified median-line method of demarcation, Iran's national sector would be about 13 per cent of the Caspian seabed.
President Niyazov had opposed common use of the waters prior to the February Teheran meeting, and had insisted on the division of the waters, seabed and subsoil resources into national sectors. But at the Teheran meeting, he moved towards the modified median-line principle. When Kaluzhnyi's March visit to Ashgabat confirmed that movement, Iran requested a postponement of the five-way summit to early April. In early April on yet another trip to Ashgabat, Kaluzhnyi spoke publicly of Turkmenistan's "understanding" of Russia's position on demarcation and regime-creation, which is also the position of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. The five-way summit was subsequently postponed again to mid-April, and finally postponed indefinitely, when it became obvious that Teheran would not attend. Teheran's motive is clear. Had such a meeting occured, Teheran would have been faced with the choice between giving in on the modified median-line principle on the one hand, and, on the other hand, being publicly spotlighted as the only littoral country refusing to adopt an otherwise commonly agreed proposal.
It was after Iranian President Kamal Kharrazi's meetings with Putin in Moscow in early March, that Iran announced it would not attend the projected early-April meeting in Turkmenbashi. Of the four documents originally planned for signature at the Russian-Iranian summit in Moscow—a general document setting out the principles and the path for future development of bilateral relations, a "special" agreement on military cooperation, an accord on scientific and technological cooperation and a document establishing a common point of view on Caspian issues—only the first and last were signed, and the last was much weaker than expected. No genuine rapprochement occurred between the two sides concerning any of the fundamental Caspian questions, including the Iranian demand for the demilitarization of the Sea.
Even Moscow's reaffirmation of the 1921 and 1940 treaties with Teheran, which Iran long sought, turned out in practice to be effectively meaningless. In Moscow, the Russian and Iranian sides agreed that the definition of a legal regime for the Caspian Sea must be arrived at by five-way consensus. Since Teheran (and Ashgabat earlier) insisted on deciding such a regime before deciding the appropriateness of laying undersea pipelines, Astana and Baku reproached Kaluzhnyi for the apparent change in Russia's policy. But when Kaluzhnyi visited Kazakhstan in mid-March, he repeated his February endorsement of "economically beneficial" undersea pipelines.
Any mid-April meeting would have had to be hastily organized. It could not have been held at the presidential level, as was planned for the original March meeting, and even the deputy-minister level of the February Teheran meeting was questionable. In the days before the definitive cancellation of the April meeting, which came from Putin's office and not from Kaluzhnyi, it was unclear whether Teheran would even attend, and until Niyazov insisted on its re-postponement, the meeting could even have been held in the absence of Iranian representation. Such a course of events would have consolidated a unified position against Iran shared by Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, with perhaps some Turkmenistani dissents relegated to footnotes.
Iran has since contradicted its own declared position that the sea's status should be definitively established under international law before energy development occurs, by announcing the signature of a contract with the Swedish firm GVA and the domestic firm Sadra, to construct an offshore platform in its own sector for oil and gas exploration in the Caspian. It is to be noted that any Russian national sector of the Caspian will not be contiguous with any Iranian sector. Turkmenistan has generally been "understanding" of Iran's position, but there have been low-level military encounters between Iran and Azerbaijan over offshore fields that they both claim because national sectors have not been marked out. Any augmentation of Iran's 13% under the modified median-line principle would have to come at the expense of Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan, or both.
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First published in Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst, vol. 3, no. 9 (25 April 2001): 5–6.