IRAN RETURNS TO GUNBOAT DIPLOMACY IN DEALING WITH THE CASPIAN SEA

MOSCOW - 27 Feb. The Islamic Republic of Iran told an international conference on Seaís legal status started in Moscow on 26 February, that Iran will not allow any country to exploit the oil reserves in its 20 percent share of the Caspian, thus dumping hopes for a negotiated end to the decade-long dispute.

"By considering the all-encompassing and long-term interests in the region the Islamic Republic of Iran proposes the Caspian Sea bed split equally between the five littoral states as the best choice for completing the Caspian Sea legal regime", 's Iranís Envoy for the Caspian Sea Mehdi Safari stressed, adding that regardless of how the waters are divided between the littoral states, Iran will see "at least 20 percent share as its right".

"Iran will not allow any activities by oil companies or a country in its 20 percent region until a settlement is reached between all the countries bordering the Sea, the Iranian delegate said, repeating that Iran considers the 1921 and 1940 agreements with the now collapsed Soviet Union as a proper basis for completing the legal status of the Caspian Sea.

Observers said while Iran is insisting that Caspian Seaís resources should be shared on equal basis among the five littoral nations, Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have already defined their borders, on a basis that leaves Iran 13 per cent of the Sea's portion, against 30 per cent to Kazakhstan and 19 per cent to Russia and Azerbaijan each.

Turkmenistan, witch has its own disputes on the sea bed with Azerbaijan, wavers between Iranian and other threeís positions.

Addressing the same meeting, Russia's Caspian Envoy Viktor Kalyuzhny said that Moscow continued to support the "common water" principle as a basis for any legal settlement.

"Russia is determined to search for a compromise in solving these problems, and in particular we propose agreement to a new principle of dividing the seabed, but sharing the water", Kalyuzhny was quoted as saying by ITAR-TASS.

"Unless the legal status of the Caspian is resolved, the peace and stability of the region cannot be guaranteed", he added.

Because of Iranian stubborn insistence for the water sharing on old agreements, the "Caspian Five", that are Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan, have so far been unable to agree on how to share the sea's oil and gas reserves, which are believed to be possibly the world's third largest.

Last July, Iran sent gunboats and air force to stop oil exploration, undertaken by British research vessels on behalf of Azerbaijanís national oil company, in the "Alborz" zone of the Caspian Sea claimed by both Tehran and Baku.

Calm gradually returned after Turkey indicated it would back Azerbaijan militarily, while Russian President Vladimir Putin signalled political support for Baku by calling the use of force "impermissible."

The Islamic Republic of Iran blames the weaker Azerbaijan for the troubles, accusing Baku of "always ignoring the national interests of other countries in the Caspian Sea".

In a 26 February commentary on the issue, and oblivion of the fact that Moscow had also abandoned Iran, the conservative English language daily "Tehran Times" said "by signing oil contracts with foreign oil firms before a clear definition of the legal status of the sea is established, and, moreover, by wooing the U.S. and Turkey's supports for its long-term plans the Azeri government has, in fact, challenged the interests of other littoral states".

The Caspian is believed to cover fields containing 200 billion barrels of crude oil and 600,000 billion cubic meters of gas. However, the figures have been disputed, putting it at 15 to 40 billion barrels and 6.7 to 9.3 trillion cubic meters.

A series of reports suggest that Iran may be resuming its assertive stance in the Caspian at a time of diplomatic uncertainty.

Iranian Oil Minister Bizhan Namdar-Zanganeh that his country will protect its claims in the Caspian, even before international borders are drawn.

In remarks reported by Russia's Itar-TASS news agency, Namdar-Zanganeh was quoted as saying on 20 February: "Our stand is perfectly clear: We will not wait for deciding the matter on the legal regime in the Caspian Sea. We begin acting, relying on our own understanding of law, and we will not permit anybody's actions in the part of the sea we regard our own."

"What is important is that any settlement of the Caspian Sea legal status should consider the natural rights of all the Caspian littoral states and any attempt to do otherwise may lead to some problems in the region in the years to come", "Tehran Times" warned.

On 22 February, Kalyuzhny, used the same word to describe the Namdar-Zanganeh statement, the RIA-Novosti news service reported. Kalyuzhny recalled the July incident, saying that "one should not create supremacy of some countries over others. Everything should be decided on the basis of consensus."

Interfax also quoted Kalyuzhny as saying that Iran's announcement "can be considered to be pressure on the neighboring states and an unconstructive method of holding negotiations."

Azerbaijan also took note of Mr. Namdar-Zanganeh's remarks. In a report relayed by the BBC, the country's Bilik Dunyasi news agency said, "[W]e could assess the said statement as a signal that Iran's position towards Azerbaijan has become more aggressive, and a feeling that Azerbaijan's rights are being ignored is in the air."

According to press reports cited by the Prague-based Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, there have been "repeated instances of confrontation between the two countries' coast guard vessels" in the past several weeks.

"While the reports may be a warning of more incidents to come, the situation is far from clear; making it uncertain how much worry is warranted. After several days, there appeared to be no independent verification of either the Namdar-Zanganehís statement or the reported coast guard encounters", the same radio said in a commentary.

Oil companies see the border issue as a legal cloud hanging over Caspian development that could keep disputed fields off-limits indefinitely.

A Caspian Summit that was first scheduled to be held in Ashgabat last March, has been repeatedly put off on Iranís demand.

Iran's fear of being cornered in negotiations has made it hard even to hold talks.

In recent weeks, Iranian officials have visited Baku repeatedly to patch up the rift, although Iran's official press coverage has avoided even mentioning it. The missions are said to be aimed at preparing a package of agreements for Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev's long-delayed trip to Tehran next month.

Iran's fury again raged briefly in early December after Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan signed a pact on dividing their sections of the Caspian. Tehran blasted bilateral deals without an overall settlement. But it kept silent as Russia signed a similar accord with Kazakhstan, apparently preferring not to antagonize Moscow.

According to Azerbaijani reports, Baku has offered a share of its disputed oilfield to Russia's LUKoil, a move that could complicate matters for Iran.

But Tehran's reactions will be worth watching after reports this week that Russia has launched powerful new warships in the Caspian.

According to ITAR-TASS, a "Sokzhoy" series vessel began patrolling Russia's Caspian border on 23 January. The ship, which carries a "six-barrel super-rapid-firing cannon," is said to be capable of speeds up to 50 knots. It will be used to protect "biological resources," the news agency said. More than 10 ships are being added to Russia's fleet.

Relations between Tehran and Moscow soured after Iranian Foreign Affair Minister Kamal Kharrazi called off in extremis an official visit to the Russian Capital, where he was to hold "important talks" with the Russians after the United States said the Islamic Republic was an "evil regime", alongside with Baghdad and Pyongyang.

Though the Russians said the visit was called off because of "technical reasons", but informed sources had told Iran Press Service that Mr. Kharrazi cancelled his trip after realising that the agenda of talks did not include any meeting with the Russian President. 

Though no breakthroughs were announced on the dispute, but insisted the conference had produced progress.

"We have reason for hope", Kalyuzhny, said in closing the conference, without explaining the reasons. ENDS CASPIAN SEA STATUS 27202