Caspian Sea Summit

10 m.   |  2019-01-17

The Caspian Sea Region gained great importance for Iran, when Russia and Great Britain began expanding their influence in Iran and Central Asia since the 18th century. The struggle between the superpowers was tentatively resolved by    a treaty in 1907, defining the zones of influence in the Iranian and Central Asian spheres.  

Common opinion, is that the disagreements on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea have appeared only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, though it was referred to in the status of both the Gulistan and Turkmenchay treaties in the first half of the 19th century. These were treaties between Iran and Russia in 1921, and between Iran and Soviet Union in 1941.

After the collapse of the USSR, the process of border review started in the Caspian Sea Region as well as outside influence from other powers. In the former Soviet republics, apart from the countries of traditional Russian influence the US and Turkey began to establish closer ties with the newly formed republics. This created new challenges for Iran. Besides the natural resources of the Caspian Sea, the area also gained importance for the Caspian countries from a security perspective.

T he first session of the Ministers meetings of the Caspian Countries took place with Iran's initiative in 1996, during the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjan.  After 20 years of negotiations on August 12 2018, the presidents of Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan signed agreement on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea in Aktau Kazakhstan, which was mainly regulating security issues. Other talks such as reviewing the demarcation line hadn’t yet succeeded in reaching any fruitful results.

Also Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have come to common agreements and now will negotiate with Iran and Turkmenistan. The serious disagreements have been usually between the three countries of Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, of which the final regulations of the agreement depend on.

Apart from the issues on the legal status of the Caspian Sea, delimitation and the use of energy resources, the Caspian countries also have significant disagreements on security and environmental issues.

Particularly, Iran and Russia have always fought to exclude the presence of a third military power. After the signing of the agreement, Iranian experts emphasized the security factor. According to Seyed Rasoul Mousavi, Advisor for Minister of Foreign Affairs and the senior expert at the Center for Political Studies, Russia will provide security of the sea’s northern part, and Iran the southern part.      

According to the version published in the official website of the President of Iran, the parties agreed to cooperate on security issues, regulation of the oil and gas transit directions, environmental protection, emergency situations, fishing, researches, drugs and trafficking, as well as in many other issues.

Under the agreement, the Caspian countries should continue separate negotiations related to demarcation, that is, that the current signed document does not regulate demarcation. Immediately after the release of the agreement, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote a letter to his colleagues in the Caspian countries, referring to the contracts of 1921 and 1940 and cited the provisions existing in the agreement, on which it was planned to work.

I t is a common opinion that until the collapse of the USSR, the Caspian Sea was divided into two equal parts under the total control of the Soviet Union and Iran. Azerbaijan is the first in extracting large volumes of oil, following Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and then Russia. Iranian experts assert, that Iran has done significant investments in oil exploration, but has not extracted oil from the Caspian Sea yet. What’s more, officially Tehran stated that unless the final agreement is gained on the legal status of the Caspian Sea, particularly on the demarcation, Iran will not allow any country to conduct oil exploration activities.

It should also be noted, that the agreement according to Iranian law can get into legal force only after being approved in the Iranian Parliament but until then the document should be discussed in research centers and after receiving the expert opinion presented to the MPs in the form of a bill.  

The Iranian social-political circles are actively discussing the issue of signing the agreement on the demarcation of the Caspian. Ebrahim Rahimpour, the Former Deputy Foreign Minister for Asia and Pacific Affairs in Iran, has made a remarkable comment, referring to the border reviewing of the Caspian in his interview to “Khorasan” daily  mail: “The negotiations on this issue may last 50 years, and the parties will never reach a final agreement” .

While substantiating a point of view against the sharing the Caspian sea from Iran’s 50%, politicians and experts who oppose the agreement, refer to the contract signed between Iran and Russia in 1921 and between Iran and USSR in 1921, by expressing conviction that Iran and USSR had equal rights. Iran feels it is deprived of its historical rights by the Actau agreement. Almost all the experts insist that the Caspian Sea is divided into two equal parts by the 1921 and 1940 contracts.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry gave additional clarification on the legal status of the Caspian Sea to dispel concerns among social-political circles and to avoid new criticism, according to which, the contracts of 1921 and 1940 did not give any legal regulations on the equal division of the sea, moreover, the wordings in numerous points of contract were made in favour of the USSR.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Iran clarified that according to the 1940 contract, equal rights wordings referred to the trade relations, rather than border issues. At first glance it may seem, that Iran has gained an advantage over some of the negotiations in particular the issue with shipping, during the signing of the contract Iran did not have ships in the Caspian Sea with only Soviet ships. The first Iranian ship was lowered on the Caspian Sea in 1989.

Regarding the fishing divisions, the areas where determined by the length of the coastal area this gave the USSR having seven times larger territory than Iran. As mentioned above, in Iranian society the belief is, that the USSR and Iran had equal rights in the Caspian Sea with the contracts of 1921 and 1940, and this is deeply rooted. Therefore, according to that logic, if Iran discusses the issue of not 50% but 20% shares at the new negotiations, it will be considered a defeat for the nation.

The formulation “20% of shares” was put into circulation during Tehran’s meeting in 1996. During the reign of the next Iranian president following Hashemi Rafsanjani, the demand for 20% mostly remained unchanged.

In this context the Iranian experts circulated the thesis, that Iran should delay the final solution of the issue on the sea’s demarcation. However, the official viewpoint of Iran is different as the Caspian countries attempt to clarify their portion Iran cannot reject that right.  

W hat’s more, according to the Foreign Affairs of Iran, the USSR wasn’t formally established at the contract signing in 1921.  Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan joined the Soviet Union after 1 to 2 years respectively, therefore that treaty was signed between Iran and Russia. As to the Iranian portion of the Caspian, Russia can also talk about the 50% of shares, though he is keeping silent. Moreover, less than 19% percent of stake in the Caspian has been acceptable for Russia.

Hassan Rouhani, the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, has mentioned at one of the government sessions after the signing of the agreement: “ Some of the Caspian countries came to the agreement on the status issue: Russia, which once was considering to take the greatest part of the Caspian Sea is currently satisfied with a 17% share”. The disagreements on Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, Hassan Rouhani has mentioned, that although Tehran and Baku have come to the agreement on some issues, number of questions haven’t answered yet.

According to Hooshang Amir Ahmadi, an Iranian expert and professor at Rutgers University, The Caspian Sea wasn’t divided into two parts by the Treaty of Moscow, just Iran and The Soviet Union had the right to use the sea for ( for commercial and military purposes) and for fishing. Initially, there was no question on the seafloor division when oil was discovered in Azerbaijan’s part in 1929, the importance of the Caspian Sea increased even more.

According to the assessment of Majid Saberi, head of the secretariat for the Caspian Sea of the Iranian Foreign Affairs, the Aktau agreement does not specify any method or criteria for the division of the sea floor and surface. Moreover, some of the Caspian countries, including Azerbaijan, suggested options for sea division, though Iran declined, leaving the discussion open. Hence, both Iran and Russia didn’t have any right of any part of the Caspian Sea, the right to navigate was restored by the 1940 Treaty, which was violated by the Treaty of Turkmenchay. Later on the Caspian Sea was declared as “common sea between the USSR and Iran”.

As to the Department of Foreign Ministry of Iran, maps have been printed both during the years of Pahlavi governance and after the Islamic Revolution, where 50% of the Caspian Sea was depicted in the territory of Iran, which doesn’t provide any legal basis for negotiating 50% shares during the current talks “The Persian Gulf  is also presented as Iranian territory in Iranian maps, which does not mean that the whole Gulf belongs to Iran” this was mentioned in the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s clarification.

Indicators from the parties involved prove that none of the countries are ready for concessions on delimitation issue each are striving for not necessarily for the bigger share, but to acquire areas rich in oil and gas. The Iranian position, despite the serious reservations, was in the favour in signing the document, though it wasn’t a true final decision, and could be canceled at any time, depending on the situation.

The Constitution of Iran has solutions for reneging on contracts, which will allow to avoid ratification.  According to the Article 77, international contracts should be ratified by the Parliament, although by the Article 94 of the Constitution, the Constitution Council of Iran (Shouraye Negabban) must examine the Majlis decisions and check its conformity with the Constitution. In case of contradiction, The Guardian Council sends it back to the Majlis to review.

Taking into account the above mentioned provisions of the Constitution of Iran, as well as judging from the official provision of Iran and expert viewpoints, it can be concluded that based on political expediency, Iran can challenge the issue on agreement ratification, by avoiding the signing of an agreement contradicting his interests.