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Baku Summit and New Policy of Iran in the Caspian Sea

By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law of the Sea

Iran is changing its policy about the legal regime of the Caspian Sea and it indicates that there is a new interpretation from the principle of equity in the division of the Caspian Sea.  The new interpretation may be beyond 20 percent.

Participants in the Caspian regional summit in Baku on November 18 included the Russian, Turkmen, Azerbaijani, Iranian and Kazakh presidents (left to right).

The position of Iran regarding the legal regime of the Caspian Sea was originally a kind of condominium.    The idea of condominium was based on the interpretations from the previous agreements of Iran and the Russians (1921, and 1940 treaties) when no other country existed in the coastal lines of the Caspian Sea. (1)  Later, Iran proposed a new option without giving up the condominium idea.

 Iran reduced its insistence on the condominium only when it was left lonely in the scene.  The new option was that if the condominium (a kind of joint management of the Caspian Sea affairs) is not acceptable to the other states, then the whole Caspian Sea must be divided into 20% sections for the five littoral states.  This meant that Iran still preferred the idea of condominium for the common administration of the Caspian Sea but for practical purposes and due to the dissatisfaction of others, it was ready to accept the new option.  In fact, the new position was the reaction of Iran to the wasting of Iran's time and energy by the Russian Federation for more than a decade. (2)

The Russian Federation for its turn was busy imposing the idea called MML (Modified Median line) to the other states in the Caspian Sea.  According to this idea, the "seabed" of the Caspian Sea is divided between the concerned states on the basis of a median line, which is the extension of the coastal points, and the superjacent waters are left for "free use" of the states.  On the basis of this formula, agreements have been reached between the Russian Federation, and Kazakhstan, Russian Federation and Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. The Russians are busy exerting pressures on Iran and Turkmenistan to accept the MML.  Sometimes they do it by words and some other times by acting.

After the Tehran Summit in 2007 (which failed to define the legal regime of the Caspian Sea, as the First Caspian Summit in Ashgabat 2001), Iran stated to talk about a new criteria which was "equity",  meaning that the whole Caspian Sea according should be divided according to justice and the legal principle of equity. (3)

What is meant from justice and equity by Iran in the Caspian Sea is very simple:  Iran wants to discard the MML as the basis of the division because it does not bring justice and it proposes new criteria for creating a just and equitable condition in the Caspian Sea.   The division must make note of many other considerations (4) in addition to the length of the coastal area in the Caspian, and especially the historical rights of states.   This is of course, very close to the idea of dividing the whole sea into five equal sections.  On the other side, it is opposed to the MML in the notion of the dividing of the whole sea not only the seabed.

What is the latest position of Iran? 

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, meaning flam in Azeri).

This was especially understandable in the light of the fact that up to now, no major oil and gas reserves that can be economically exploited have not been discovered in the Iranian side of the Caspian Sea. (Of course, this may change in future in the light of economic or technological developments). However, the new signals of what is meant by the equity by Iran, may make reaching an accord on the legal regime of the Caspian Sea more difficult, but it may be more compatible with the national interest of Iran: while Iran is not in a position to make others in the Caspian to give at least an equal share to it, Iran can delay the solving of the problem. 

As expected the Baku Summit adopted couple of documents about the security in the Caspian Sea (covering issues such terrorism, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and organized crimes) and the executive protocol for the 2003 Tehran Framework Convention about the environmental problems of the Caspian Sea, but it did not even get closer to agreement regarding the legal regime of the Caspian Sea.  The littoral starts agreed to continue the meetings in other levels for continuation of talks on the legal regime of the Caspian Sea.

About the author:  Bahman Aghai Diba is a Senior Consultant to the CEO of the World Resources Company.


(1) For further discussions in this regards, and also the text of the relevant parts of the 1921 and 1940 treaties, please refer to: Bahman A Diba, the Law and Politics of the Caspian Sea in the 21st Century, Ibex Pub. 2000. Maryland USA.

(2) Some experts believe that the historical rights should be regarded.  The case of "historical bays" in the 1982 UNO Convention on the Law of the Sea might be useful for a start.  Also, the arguments regarding the historical rights of Iran should start from the point that following the demise of the USSR, the inheritors of the dead man should divide their own share and Iran must get 50% of the Caspian Sea. The size of population of littoral countries and the degree of dependence of local population to the Caspian Sea must be taken into consideration.


... Payvand News - 11/21/10 ... --

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