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IRANIAN AND CASPIAN MEET
by Amir Taheri
Arab News
June 23, 2007

It had been tipped as a major diplomatic coup for Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad strategy of building a series of regional alliances against the "Great Satan" and its allies.

In the event, however, the conference of foreign ministers from the five countries bordering the Caspian Sea ended in Tehran on Wednesday with almost total failure. Worse still, the gathering provided an occasion for some sharp exchanges between Manuchehr Motakki, the Islamic republic's foreign minister and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilmar Muhammad-Yarov.

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1992, the geostrategic importance of the Caspian, the world's largest body of inland water, has increased dramatically. The sea and its littoral are believed to contain some 12 percent of the world's oil reserves plus huge reserves of natural gas. Once a quiet backwater shared by Russia and Iran and known mainly for its caviar-bearing sturgeon fish, the Caspian has become a coveted prize in the undeclared, but no less intense, three-cornered race for influence pitting Russia, the Western powers, and China against one another.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, made this clear at the Tehran conference by reminding everyone that his country was the only one of the five littoral states to have the military wherewithal to defend it against "the greed and ambitions of hostile outsiders."

The Islamic republic had hoped that the conference would do three things: Set a date for summit of the littoral states, devote a preliminary debate on an Iranian proposal to fix the legal status of the Caspian, and issue an unequivocal declaration of support for Tehran's controversial nuclear program.

None of that happened.

No date was fixed for the summit largely because Russian President Vladimir Putin is reluctant to visit Tehran and meet Ahmadinejad. Having resisted Iranian pressure to visit Tehran for the past eight years, Putin is even less inclined to do so now that Ahmadinejad is in charge.

The conference took note of the Iranian proposals but decided to postpone debating them at an unspecified date.

There was also no unqualified support for the Islamic republic on the nuclear issue that has led it into a direct clash with the United Nations' Security Council. The participants expressed support for Iran's right to develop a nuclear industry for peaceful purposes but insisted that it abide by the two resolutions already passed on the subject by the council.

Before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Caspian, covering some 143000 square miles, was shared between Iran and Russia under a treaty signed in the 19th century. The treaty prevented Iran from any military presence in the Caspian, and stipulated that its marine resources be exploited by Russia with Iran receiving a share. A subsequent treaty, signed in 1921, gave the Soviet Union the right to land troops in Iran if and when Moscow decided that it faced a threat from Iranian territory.

With the end of the Soviet Union, three new littoral states appeared on the map: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. Naturally, these newcomers did not recognize the Russo-Iranian treaties, triggering a debate on the future status of the Caspian.

Kazakhstan, which has the largest coastline on the Caspian, wants the sea to be divided into five sectors in accordance with the length of the coastline of the littoral states. Under such a scheme Iran would end up with only 10 percent of he inland sea.

Russia endorses the Kazakh formula as far as the Caspian's underwater resources are concerned but suggests that the sea be treated as a single unit in other domains such as navigation, environmental protection and tourism.

The Islamic republic's proposal is to treat the Caspian as a single unit jointly managed, developed and defended by the five littoral states. If accepted, the proposal would give Iran 20 percent of h Caspian, twice that warranted by its coastline.

The two remaining littoral states, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have not come out with clear positions.

Nevertheless, both have opposed the Iranian proposals and shaped their policies on the assumption that the Caspian will be divided in five segments according to the length of each state's coastline.

The Islamic republic has watched with a mixture of envy and apprehension as the major American and European oil companies have arrived in the region to help develop the Caspian's oil and gas resources. Western investment since 1993 is estimated at around $10 billion, with not a single cent going to Iran. Of the dozen or so oil and gas pipelines planned to link the Caspian resources to world markets, not one will pass through Iranian territory despite the fact that it represents the shortest route to open seas.

According to Tehran sources, the clash between Yar-Muhammadov, the Azerbaijani minister and Mottaki concerned two issues.

The first was the Russo-American suggestion, first raised during the G-8 summit in Germany last month, to build an anti-missile shield in Azerbaijan, directly designating the Islamic republic as the key threat to both Europe and Russia.

The second cause of the clash was Baku's claim that Tehran is creating a network of "terrorist sleeper cells" in Talesh, a region of Azerbaijan bordering Iran and the Caspian.

For its part, Russia would do all it can to prevent a rapprochement between Iran and the United States.

At the same time, however, Moscow does not want Tehran to develop regional ambitions or play the religious card to foment trouble among Muslims who account for some 18 percent of Russia's population or to gain influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

The root cause of the Islamic republic's failure to break out of its diplomatic and political isolation is its insistence on pursuing a global strategy based almost entirely on their ideological illusions rather than national interests.

The Tehran conference highlighted the problem that the Islamic republic has faced since 1979: Its inability to make its neighbors like itself by "exporting" the Khomeinist revolution, and its unwillingness to become like its neighbors by accepting the global system shaped since the end of the Cold War.

 

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