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Caspian Sea Exclusive Zones: solving the problem or creating a new one?

By: Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law of the Sea 

While the Iranian and Russian officials are discussing how to implement the decisions of the Baku Summit on setting a 25 mile excusive Zone in the Caspian Sea, the differences of the Caspian coastal states on the legal regime of the Caspian Sea is still far from resolved or even in a commonly acceptable track. Caspian Sea is the scene of major disagreements between the Iran and Russia and no matter how the Iranian regime is in need of the Russian support in the international issues, including the confrontation of Iran and the West in the nuclear issue of Iran, it has not reached the point to let the Russians have complete free hand on the determining the legal regime of the Caspian sea, under the conditions that the Russian formula for this problem leaves Iran with the smallest share and the worst parts of the Caspian Sea (the parts that no major oil and gas field has been discovered so far).

Recently, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister in International and Legal affairs and also the Special Envoy of the Iranian President for Caspian Affairs, Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh, has met the Russians officials to hammer out the details of an exclusive zone of almost 25 miles for the littoral states. Akhundzadeh has met the Russian Special Envoy for Caspian Affairs, Alexander Golovin, and the two sides have underscored the important role of Iran and Russia in determining the legal regime of the Caspian Sea. (1)

Before his visit to Moscow, Akhundzadeh had told reporters that he would pursue the decisions adopted by the five littoral states at the Baku Caspian Sea summit on the range of high seas up to 24-25 miles and the five-year ban on caviar fishing. (2) Iran has underlined that all littoral states should have a fair and just share of the Caspian Sea in a bid to guarantee durable peace and stability in the region.

It seems the main objective of this trip was finding a way for implementation of the decisions made in the Baku Summit of the Caspian Sea littoral states (November 2010)about a 25 mile exclusive zone.   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.(3) Although some of the littoral states of the Caspian Sea consider this treaty as outdated and useless, it seems until such time that the concerned states find a legal regime to replace the regime based on the 1921 and 1940 treaties of Iran and Russia, this regime is the only existing one. 

 In the Baku Summit (4), 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.    Also the same officials have refereed to another 12 mile or so as the "exclusive fishing zone".  These expressions (such as the territorial sea and exclusive fishing zone) have clear definitions in the important documents related to the international law of the sea.

However, the exact meaning of the "Caspian Sea Exclusive Zone" is not clear. It could be only a zone similar to the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that is included in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention and it has already become a part of the customary international law through the practice of states. In the EEZ, the entire sources, in the water, seabed and subsoil, belong to the littoral state, but other states have a right of "free passage" in those areas of the EEZ that falls out of the Territorial Sea (usually 12 miles) of the littoral states.

The reference of the Iranian officials to the 12 miles of territorial sea and 12 miles of the contagious zone (in which the coastal states, according to the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention have certain rights) means that Iran intends to establish a zone that at least 12 miles of it is similar to the territorial sea that others have only the right of innocent passage (much more restricted than the free navigation) in those limits.  

It does not seem that given the deep interest of Russians in the concept of MML (dividing the Caspian Sea bed according to the shore length of the coastal states and leaving the superjacent waters for common navigation) (5), the ideas described by Iran as the meaning of 24 or 25 mile EZ in the Caspian Sea, can be compatible with the Russian positions. At the same time, contrary to some news published in various places, this is not a real step in the line determining the legal regime of the Caspian Sea and it may eventually go through the course of unending negotiations about the legal regime, mainly because of the serious differences of Iran and Russia on the concept.

(1)    Tehran Times


(3)   To see the text of the articles refer to: Bahman Aghai Diba, the Law and Politics of the Caspian Sea, 2006.

(4)   Baku Summit and New Policy of Iran in the Caspian Sea

(5)   National Interests of Iran in the Caspian Sea

... Payvand News - 01/28/11 ... --

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