What do you expect from the summit of Caspian littoral status in Baku on 18 November?
Generally speaking, we shouldn’t expect any serious outcome from the November summit of Caspian states. Determination of the legal status of the Caspian Sea, especially the seabed, would constitute a serious outcome, but it won't happen. The stance of Iran, and partly Turkmenistan, on this point makes it impossible to solve the issue right now.
Azerbaijan has reached agreement with Russia and Kazakhstan on the principles of the division of the northern part of the Caspian Sea, while the situation with Iran and Turkmenistan remains unclear. What are the prospects for a solution?
You said that Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan had already solved the delimitation of the relevant sectors of the Caspian Sea. The issue remains unresolved only between Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Iran. Actually Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have no big differences in their approach, the only problem is how the “coast line” should be determined. You know that the Turkmen side is demanding that the Absheron Peninsula and its “nose” or promontory should not be taken into account in determining the coast line. The Azerbaijani side disagrees and this is rational, because the determination of territorial waters, for which we need the “coast line” concept, historically developed from security concerns as well – they were determined as the shooting range of sea cannon. I mean that coastal infrastructure is very important in determining the coast line. Baku is located on the Absheron and the city is the major facility of the country, so the Turkmen claim about Absheron doesn’t make sense.
We should mention the Russian approach to the problem. If Russia supported the same principles that it used with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan everything would be perfect. But Russia, like Iran, is known to be against a Caspian pipeline. These two countries signed an agreement in 2005 and reiterated that the legal status of the sea and its seabed should be determined by mutual and unilateral decision of the five coastal states. So in fact Russia will not support conciliation between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. As you know the reason for Russia is to keep Europe dependent on Russian energy by preventing Turkmen gas from reaching the European market. Gas is a powerful “lever of pressure” when such dependence exists.
But there are some circumstances that will push Russia to support agreement between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. And once these two countries agree, Iran’s objection will be groundless.
Russia stands against any foreign naval forces in the Caspian Sea and is most concerned about NATO naval forces.
Iran is not giving up its radical position of a 20% division of the sea. What do you think is behind this? Will Azerbaijan always be hostage to Iran on Caspian status?
If you pay attention to the words of Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh, the Iranian president's special envoy on the Caspian Sea, who claims that due to the agreements of 1921 and 1940 between the USSR and Iran, the latter has more authority in the sea than over 20%. Mohsen Rezaee recently made a similar statement. I think that these two gentlemen never read the text of these agreements. The agreements are about cargo and transit shipping, trade relations. There is nothing about the seabed, not even about the division of the sea into national sectors. The common principle is that the Caspian Sea is open to navigation by all ships of both countries, and that’s it. You cannot find anything there even about fishing.
The agreement of 1921 is also about free navigation for Iranian vessels on the Caspian Sea. On usage of water resources, Article 3 of the 1921 Agreement says that water resources are open for both countries but the issue will be regulated in future by a common commission. I do not know what the “commission” did, but in fact the sea was unilaterally used by the USSR. On fishing rules, Article 14 of the 1921 Agreement goes further in favour of Russia, saying that the Russian Federation has a special right to fishing even in the southern part of the Caspian Sea, near the Iranian coast. I mean that Iranian claims on the Caspian Sea are groundless, but they exist.
The problem could exacerbate relations over the Caspian basin and finally lead to the militarization of the sea, including the arrival of foreign naval forces. The United States provides logistical and other support to Azerbaijani naval forces. This is the worst-case scenario for Russia, and that’s why Russia has to keep Iran calm.
Note that the topics to be discussed at the summit mostly concern security. Foreign naval forces were forbidden by the 1921 Agreement, but Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan were not part of that agreement. Now Russia and Iran are very interested in keeping this ban and want it to be accepted by the other Caspian countries as well. Azerbaijan will make general statements that peace on the sea is very important but not sign such a commitment. Russia foresees escalation.
Can Iran's intractability be linked to its shared reluctance with Moscow to allow a gas pipeline to be laid across the Caspian? The pipeline would export gas from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and onwards to Europe. What is the fate of the Trans-Caspian project?
If you consider that the issue of transporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan becomes ever more topical, this could raise the question of security for cargo vessels. If transportation of LNG starts, if related facilities are constructed on both the Azerbaijani and Turkmen sides, then Russia will stop raising objections to the Trans-Caspian pipeline and then the legal status of the Caspian Sea could be solved.