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Iran and the legal status of the Caspian Sea: repeating positions that no other country accepts

By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law of the Sea

Caspian Sea Countries:
Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Russia, Turkmenistan

Recently, representative of Iran in the 47th session of the forgiven ministers of the Caspian Sea littoral States repeated Iran's positions about the legal status of the Caspian Sea once again. These were positions that have been heard for the last many years from Iranian officials in various levels (including the summit conferences of the Caspian heads of states), and yet there is no indication that any other littoral country tends to accept them. At the same time, there are many indications that they are moving towards different set of positions. The gist of those positions is that, despite the long history of Iran's presence as a littoral state of the Caspian Sea, the newly established countries of the region, including the Russian Federation that has replaced the collapsed USSR, are not ready to accept equal rights for Iran in the Caspian Sea.

The positions that were mentioned by the representative of Iran, in a nutshell, were:

  •  Until such time that the littoral states of the Caspian sea find a new legal regime for the Caspian Sea, the old legal status of the Caspian Sea based on the 1921 and 1940 agreements of Iran and Russia will be valid.
  •  The new legal status of the Caspian Sea must contain the long-term, comprehensive and all-encompassing interests of the littoral states.
  •  The littoral states must refrain from arm race and use of military forces ( to follow their policies)
  • The extra-regional states must not play any role in the Caspian Sea (military forces of the non-littoral states should not be present here).
  •  Delimitation of boundaries must be based on the equity as a legal principle.
  • - The decisions must be taken unanimously.

However, a look at the situation in the region reveals that the littoral states of the Caspian Sea are moving in a different direction. No other state of the Caspian Sea, including and especially Russia, is accepting the main points of the said positions (such as the limitation of boundaries according to equity, unanimous decision making, and refraining from militarization of the region). The Caspian littoral states do not share the same views on the validity of the previous agreements, and the legal regime stemming from them. They have different interpretations about the nature and methods of gaining the long-term, comprehensive and all-encompassing interests. In fact, due to the following reasons:

The long period of time that has passed since the problem of finding a new legal status for the Caspian Sea emerged (after the collapse of the former USSR).

  • Conflicts in legal definition of the area
  • Conflicts in criteria for delimitation of seabed and water boundaries.
  • Conflicts on construction of pipelines and other kinds of facilities (such as artificial islands).
  • Internal pressures in the littoral states for speedy use of the resources
  • External pressures for introducing the Caspian resources (as basically Non-Arab and Non-OPEC resources) to the international markets.

Have led the littoral states of the Caspian Sea to:

  • Initiate bilateral arrangements (such as the agreements of Russia and Azerbaijan Republic and Russia with Kazakhstan, and Kazakhstan with the Republic of Azerbaijan to divide the Caspian Seabed) ignoring the statements of Iranian side about invalidity of such arrangements.
  • Strengthening of military forces among the Caspian littoral states in order to increase the readiness to confront the possible and potential dangers. All of the littoral states, including Iran, are expanding their forces in the Caspian Sea. Russians have stationed one of their most advanced naval fleets in the Caspian Sea and by firing cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea towards Syria, they have introduced new elements to the militarization of the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are strengthening their new naval units and get military training from several countries, especially for their coast guards.
  • The littoral states are entering various kinds of arrangements which open the way for presence of extra-regional states and corporations to the Caspian Sea.

In the light of these points, moving towards the "Sea of peace, friendship and stability" in the region is not compatible with the realities. The draft for the convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea, which has been the subject of countless meetings of the littoral states, lacks the articles related to the points that there is no agreement on them.

Under these circumstances, it seems that the littoral states other Iran, are waiting for a fundamental change in positions of Iran, perhaps with some persuasion from the Russians. They want Iran eventually to accept the smallest portion of the Caspian seabed on the basis of the modified median line (the Russian formula to divide the Caspian seabed according to the length of each country's coast and leaving the superjacent waters for common use of the littoral states). Iran is left without allies and friends in the Caspian Sea. Iran has close ties with the Russians that are even becoming more extensive due to the bad relations of the two countries with the Western world. However, in the Caspian Sea, positions of Russians are against the interests of Iran.

About the author:

Bahman A Diba, PhD International Law of the Seas, is the author of several books.  His latest books were published in 2011:



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