The latest top-level meeting on the Caspian Sea came and went last month without achieving visible progress on the vexed question of who owns which parts of this resource-rich inland body of water.
The November summit saw the presidents of Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakstan and Turkmenistan gather in Baku. Talks focused on matters like maritime security arrangements, while discussion of the legal status of the sea was left to a meeting that will take place in 2011.
Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tehran is still discussing its desire for a rightful share of the Caspian Sea with the other four littoral states, but its prospects of getting what it wants seem as dim as ever.
Inside Iran, many people are unclear exactly what their leaders are pushing for, in part because the official position has changed several times and is not articulated very clearly to the public.
A series of treaties that Iran signed with Tsarist Russia, and later with the Soviet Union, put in place arrangements for shipping and fishing, but no formal demarcation of maritime boundaries took place.
With the break-up of the Soviet Union, Tehran found itself dealing with four countries instead of one, and was alarmed to find that the new state of Azerbaijan, in particular, was laying de facto claim to areas of the Caspian as it embarked on rapid development of offshore oil and gas deposits, made possible by western technology and investment.
Suggestions from Iran that Caspian resources could be exploited and shared by all in a “condominium” arrangement, in the spirit of Iranian-Soviet treaties of 1921 and 1940, were left by the wayside as its former Soviet neighbours drilled wells and signed a series of bilateral demarcation deals with one another.
Then came a 2003 three-way agreement between Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakstan which used a compartmentalised model for dividing the sea. This assumed a division by a median line drawn along the north-south length of the sea, with segments delineated on either side of it for each littoral state, according to how long its coastline is. The division applied to the seabed rather than the surface, which would still be shared by shipping and fishing vessels.
The arrangement set out in the trilateral agreement leaves Kazakstan with 27 per cent of the sea, Russia with 19 per cent, and Azerbaijan 18 per cent. It also assumes a 23 per cent share for Turkmenistan and a mere 13 per cent for Iran, although both these states rejected the principles behind the agreement.
Turkmenistan does not object to a segmented division per se, but argues that the dividing line with Azerbaijan across the sea is drawn too far east, depriving it of oil and gas deposits it feels are rightfully its.
The reason for the lack of clarity is that international laws have been used to describe the Caspian as a sea, a lake, or something in between, depending on which interpretation best suits the country concerned. The headlong race to stake claims oil and gas deposits has moved thing far ahead of the academic legal debate, and “winners” like Azerbaijan are reluctant to step back.
The Iranians have claims to offshore deposits that they feel have been wrongly appropriated by Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, with each of the latter citing its own version of a map that cuts Iran out of the resource wealth.
One offshore field, known as Alov by the Azerbaijanis and Alborz by the Iranians, was the scene of a minor military stand-off in 2001; both countries had earlier commissioned surveys of possible reserves.
Tehran now struggles to identify a position that would give it a respectable amount, and to which it could get other littoral states to agree.
One argument that was put forward early on was that the old treaties effectively gave Iran and the USSR half each, so the newly independent states should content themselves with a slice of the Soviet half. The reality is that no such marine boundaries were set in treaties, whose wording was limited to matters of shared use. Nor was the concept of common ownership really tested by Iran, which made limited use of offshore waters prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At the last Caspian summit, held in Tehran in 2007, it became apparent that Iran was no longer insisting on equal access to the sea’s resources. The final resolution also implied that the Iranians now accepted the bilateral and trilateral agreements its neighbours had signed among themselves, and which Tehran previously opposed.
Speaking at the time, the then foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, said calls for a 50 per cent share were “unreasonable”, and noted that even before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran did not exploit more than 11 per cent of the Caspian’s resources.
In response to his remarks, some legal experts and opposition politicians suggested that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government was incapable of protecting Iranian territorial interests.
It is unclear what the bottom line is for Tehran, as details of negotiations on the sea’s legal status are kept under wraps.
The more moderate position advocated by some in Iran is a straight 20 per cent share, as one of five littoral states.
Talking to the state news agency IRNA after the Baku summit, Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhoundzadeh, who is also presidential advisor on Caspian affairs, said Iran was still seeking a share of “over 20 per cent”.
Some experts, for example a political sciences professor at Tehran University, argue that accepting the deals that Iran’s neighbours have reached among themselves has fatally weakened the government’s ability to press for even 20 per cent.
Bahman Aqayi Diba, an Iranian expert based in Washington, suspect that the government would settle for as little as 16 or 17 per cent, but “on condition that the share also includes some oilfields like Alborz”.
The next Caspian summit, to be held in Russia in a year’s time, is supposed to tackle the thorny question of a final territorial division. With that discussion on the horizon, the position of Ahmadinejad’s government seems to many to be alarmingly vague.
The dilemma is that a straight demand for 20 per cent is unlikely to wash with the other states at the negotiating table, while agreeing to less would be extremely difficult given the strong domestic pressure on the government to achieve a fair outcome.
The ambiguous messages that the government is sending out may be well part of a strategy to lower public expectations ahead of next year’s talks.
Ebrahim Gilani is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist and foreign policy analyst based in London.