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Iranian Doctrine of the Caspian Sea

By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law

Iran is planning to define its Caspian Sea Doctrine. The concerned doctrine has several components which are designed to answer the views of the Iranian government in the various fields starting from the legal regime of the Caspian Sea and extending to the environment, shipping, and flying over, exclusive economic and fishing areas, joint ventures in the economic activities and the security of the region.  The key words in the "Iranian Caspian Sea Doctrine" are: "consensus", "equity" (in the divisions) and at the same time, "keeping the non-littoral states out" of the region.

Mohammad Mehdi Akhunzadeh, the Deputy Iranian Minister of Foreign affairs and also the special envoy of the Iranian president in the Caspian Sea affairs, following the recent Summit of the Caspian littoral states in Baku Azerbaijan Republic (18 November 2010), which was the third summit of these states (the first one was in Ashgabat 2001, and second one in Tehran 2007), has said that Iran is preparing its Caspian Sea Doctrine.

On the basis of what he has told as the report of the Baku Summit to the Iranian media, and also other reports about the positions of Iran regarding the Caspian Sea, it is possible to conclude that that the main points in such a doctrine are as follows and at the same time, some comments are made about each of them.

  1. The Caspian Sea is a sea of "peace and friendship".  These words have been repeated by many Iranian officials, including the president and foreign minister, before and after the Baku Summit. This point has in fact two important sides: it is an expression of hope that peace prevails in the Caspian Sea and at the same time, it is indirectly a kind expression of concern that the Caspian Sea has potentials for conflict (1) and if the littoral states cannot find ways to solve their problems from peaceful ways, the possibility of conflict is there.  Lack of attention to the fundamental interests of a major power in the region (noting that the other states of the Caspian Sea are increasingly becoming careless about Iran's positions in the Caspian Sea) can be a cause of problem to peace and stability. This is also a call for refraining from militarization of the Caspian Sea.  Although this is an important point, but probably the time to stop it has passed.

  2. The case of the Caspian Sea is a "Sui generis" (a special case).  This is a key issue in the Caspian Sea affairs and it affects all other issues related to this region. The Caspian Sea is a unique case and for the same reason its legal regime and the delimitations and other maritime issues are not subject to the general rules of the international law of the sea.   This feature gives the littoral states of the Caspian Sea the ability and the right to find their own formula for the problems of the Caspian Sea.  In the same context, some of the littoral states (such as Kazakhstan) have proposed in the past that at the same rules of the international law of the sea to be used in the Caspian Sea.  However, the other states are under no obligation to accept this suggestion. The case of the Caspian sea has not been discussed in important international law of the sea occasions ( such as the United Nations conferences on the law of the sea and especially the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea which resulted in1982 UN Convention) because of the special and exclusive status of this body of water.

  3. No legal regime can be defined in the Caspian Sea without agreement of Iran.  Noting that some states of the Caspian Sea, led by the Russians, have opted for delimitation of the Caspian Sea-bed by Modified Median Lines (MML) and Iran is basically opposed to this formula (the reason is that the formula gives the smallest share to Iran, among others.) (to see the implications of the MML and the reasons of Iran to oppose it please see the article mentioned in note number 2)

  4. The legal regime should be defined on the basis of "equity" as a principle of the International law.  Iran's position regarding the legal regime of the Caspian Sea has gone through several periods.  (3) In the first period Iran was supporting the common administration of the Caspian Sea.  Later, when confronted with the rejection of this formula by others, Iran started to ask for the 20 percent for each.  Yet, in another stage Iran asked for the division on the basis of "equity". During the last couple of years, Iran has been talking about the "equity", but now, especially before the Baku Summit of 18 November 2010 and after that, it seems Iran means something other than what it was at least implied to mean by this criteria.  The new special envoy of the Iranian president for the Caspian Sea, immediately after the conclusion of the meeting of the Caspian Ministers in Tehran (15 November 2010), and a few days before the Third Summit of the Caspian States in Baku (18 November 2010) in response to a question by the official news agency of Iran about the 20 percent share of Iran in the Caspian sea, responded: our aim goes further than this limit.   This indicates to a new change in the Iranian policy because up to that date, what was generally understood from the insistence of Iran on the principle of equity in the Caspian Sea was that it may agree to something less than 20 percent, provided that the share of Iran is extended from 13 to couple numbers higher (for example 17) and especially to include some of the places favored by Iran (such as Alborz oil fields that Azerbaijan Republic calls it Aloo). According to the new policy, Iran's interpretation from the equity is at least 20 percent of the entire Caspian Sea if not more. (4)

  5. Any decision for the legal regime of the Caspian Sea must be the result of "consensus "among the littoral states.  This point is based on the fact that the littoral states should decide the fate of the Caspian Sea and it is necessary that they agree on it. The issue was first mentioned in the earlier agreements of the littoral states but later mentioned in clear words in the final decoration of the Tehran Summit in 2007.  

  6. The non littoral or third states should not interfere in the issues of the Caspian Sea. The point is based on the old Iran-Russian treaties of 1921 and 1940.  These treaties, although they are old and not accepted by some of the newly independent countries, still form the backbone of the legal regime of the Caspian Sea until such time that the littoral states find a new regime agreed by all of them for the Caspian Sea.  Article 13 of the 1940 "Treaty Regarding  Trade and Navigation between the USSR and Iran", provides that : " the contracting parties agree that in accordance with the principles set forth by the Treaty of February 1921, between the Russia and Persia, only vessels belonging to the USSR or Iran and likewise to nationals and commercial and transport organizations of either of the contracting parties , sailing under the flag of the USSR or Iran respectively may be found throughout the Caspian Sea." (5) this point has been emphasized, especially by Iran (mainly due to the concerns that the littoral states may put parts of the Caspian Sea at the disposal of non-littoral states to stage an operation against the present regime of Iran) in all meetings of the littoral states and it was reflected in the final dictation of the Tehran Summit in 2007.

  7. Security of the Caspian Sea will be provided by the littoral states. The Caspian Littoral states have signed an agreement regarding this issue (Baku 2010) and they are going to conclude more protocols on it later. The main titles of this agreement are: combat against terrorism, combat against organized crimes, combat against smuggling of arms and narcotic drugs, combat against money laundering, human trafficking, illegal fishing and security of shipping and combat against piracy. ( 6) 

  8. Economic cooperation of the littoral states should be expanded through establishment of joint companies among the littoral states. Iran was after this idea since the start of the new era in the history of the Caspian Sea, which was the collapse of the USSR and emergence of the newly independent countries around the Caspian Sea.  However, the realization of this idea is far from reality due to the different political orientations of the littoral states and at the same time the policies of Iranian regime which have made the country isolated.  

  9. The environment must be protected against all sources of pollution.  Pollution in the Caspian Sea is a major issue.  Apart from the unregulated and illegal fishing which has resulted in endangering the Caviar producing species, exploration, exploitation and transportation of the oil and gas in the Caspian Sea have put it to new dangers. The littoral stats have concluded a convention in 2003 (Tehran Convention) to combat the pollution but they have not made much progress. (7)  Iran believes laying oil and gas pipelines on the seabed of the Caspian Sea can leave negative impacts in the Caspian Sea and it should be avoided to the extent possible.  However, it seems this stance is directly related to the level of participation of Iran in such projects including the new gas pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the EU, called Nabucco (8).  Iran has been excluded from many of such projects due to the bad relations with the Western countries and especially on the nuclear program of Iran. ( 9)

  10. Determination of a 25 mile exclusive zone for littoral states.  This idea has been discussed in many meetings of the Caspian littoral states and different figures have been proposed.  According to the 1940 Treaty of Iran and Russia, a ten mile "exclusive fishing zone" was determined in the Caspian Sea for the two sides. In the Baku Summit, the idea of a 25 mile exclusive zone was supported and the concerned states are going to make decisions on it. Iranian officials have talked about a 12 mile being like a territorial sea (10).   1982 law of the Sea convention gives the right to states to claim 12 miles or less for the territorial sea, but here there is no obligation to follow that rule. Also the same officials have refereed to another 12 mile or so as the "exclusive fishing zone".  The idea of exclusive fishing or economic zone in the Law of the Sea convention extends up to 200 miles if possible from geographical point of view.  Therefore, it can said the idea of a 12 or 13 miles exclusive fishing zone, is a special feature for the Caspian Sea and in spite of similarity with the expressions used in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the sea, this has nothing to do with that.

Notes and sources:

(1)   Refer to the "

(2)   Please refer to :

(3)   Bahman Aghai Diba, Law and Politics of the Caspian sea, Booksurg, 2006


(5)   Ibid, Law and Politics of the Caspian sea, Booksurg, 2006


(7)   Caspian Sea is Dying,

(8)   Iran and Nabucco


(10) Iranian special envoy on the Caspian Sea affairs

... Payvand News - 12/27/10 ... --

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