Leaders of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan attend the signing ceremony of the 5th Caspian Summit. (AFP)

By Amir Taheri

August 18, 2018

The storm raised last week over the signature by Iran of the Russian-sponsored Caspian Sea Convention may or may not subside anytime soon. But, whatever happens, it has opened a debate on at least one important issue.

This concerns the decision-making mechanism at the highest levels of the Islamic Republic. Just before the summit at Aktau, the Kazakh resort where the Convention was signed, President Hassan Rouhani’s entourage briefed media circles to the effect that he wasn’t very keen on signing and that, switching to sotto voce, he may have had his arm twisted by “someone above”.

The someone-above is, of course, the “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who, in both constitutional and political terms, has the last word in the Khomeinist system. In this instance, however, he, too, took precautions not to become too closely associated with the controversial convention. Raja News, one of the sites controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), run an editorial rejecting reports that Rouhani’s signature had been approved by Khamenei. It also criticized the Foreign Ministry, mostly controlled by the Rouhani faction, of having gone rogue.

The occasion was seized upon by those who wish to see the back of Rouhani for a variety of reasons. Even some within Rouhani’s own faction publicly called on him to step down.

Against that background, many were surprised to hear Khamenei publicly admitting that he had given the go-ahead for the secret talks that had led to the so-called “nuke deal” concocted by former US President Barack Obama.

“I made a mistake,” Khamenei said in a tremulous voice.

Some remembered that for years Khamenei had denied his pivotal role in the sorry saga designed to deceive the Iranian and American peoples.

So, the question last week was whether we were witnessing a repeat of the same comedy regarding the Russian-dictated text.

Conjecture and circumstantial evidence point to Khamenei as the man responsible for what many Iranians see as a sell-out to Vladimir Putin.

To start with, in both legal and political terms, no Islamic Republic president is able to sign so important a document without a nod and a wink from the “Supreme Guide”.

Next, the Islamic Republic, at least as far as the presidency and the foreign ministry are concerned, had been opposed to even weaker previous versions of the convention.

Talks on the subject ended in a cul-de-sac during President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s tenure at a time that a weak Russia, just emerging from the disintegration of the Soviet Union, was more accommodating that it is today under “Tsar Vladimir”.

At the time, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, two of the newly emerging littoral states, were in a worst shape than Russia. Azerbaijan had to cope with the secession of High Qarabagh, an enclave annexed by Armenia, and the shenanigans of luminaries like President Abulfazl Elchibey. So bad was the situation in Azerbaijan that almost half a million of its 5.5 million population at the time had to seek temporary refuge in Iran. At one point Iran set up a series of “counters” along its border to enable Azerbaijanis to buy foodstuff from Iran in exchange for personal possessions, jewelry and even furniture. A similar counter had been set up at Gomishan, at the eastern end of the Caspian Sea on the border with Turkmenistan, while the newly emergent republic was suffocating under the despot Safar-Murad Nyazov.

Saying “niyet” to any compromise on the Caspian continued under President Muhammad Khatami. At a summit of littoral states in Ashgabad, capital of Turkmenistan, Iran was the only participants to reject a “settlement” sponsored by Moscow. Unprepared to offer an alternative, Khatami had to do one of those mullahs’ tricks to get out of a tight corner; he announced that he had been struck with a crippling back-ache and had to fly back home for urgent treatment.

It may sound astonishing but the Islamic Republic never developed a coherent position on the Caspian Sea. The “niyet” posture continued under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Tehran leaders were more focused on meddling in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen than defining and achieving Iran’s national interests in the Caspian.

After years of diplomatic toing-and-froing with no results, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan decided to ignore Tehran and do whatever they liked as if Iran didn’t exist. They signed energy contracts with major Western companies, opened their economies to foreign investment and experienced two decades of fast economic growth.

In 1991, per capita income in all three was almost half of Iran. By 1917 all had higher incomes per capita than the Islamic Republic.

Also ignoring the Islamic Republic, the four littoral states signed bilateral and multilateral accords among themselves covering 87 per cent of the Caspian’s surface, leaving Iran isolated in its corner with less than 13 per cent.

In 2016 the Russians came back with a new offer: a convention to establish a legal regime for the Caspian without stating the actual share of each littoral state. This is like decreeing a legal system for a bloc of flats without determining the size of each flat and to whom it belongs.

Putin first presented the Russian text to Khamenei in a blitzkrieg visit to Tehran in 2015.

The two agreed to establish direct contact, that is to say by-passing their respective bureaucracies. In that trip Putin didn’t even make a courtesy call on the Islamic Republic President. Since then, Khamenei has used his foreign policy adviser Ali-Akbar Velayati and the Quds (Jerusalem) Corps chief General Qassem Soleimani to send to and receive messages from Putin by-passing Rouhani and the foreign ministry.

The Caspian Convention is a dish cooked by Putin and seasoned by Khamenei with Rouhani enlisted to serve it.

In it, Iran implicitly swallows the bilateral and multilateral deals that the other littoral states have concluded since the fall of the Soviet Empire. Iran also quietly drops its traditional claim of co-sovereignty with Russia with the three other former Soviet republics forming one half of the system as joint successors to USSR.

The key aim of the Convention is to turn the Caspian into a Russian lake as far as military power is concerned.

In an editorial published on August 14, Tabnak, a news-site reflecting the views of General Mohsen Rezai, former chief of the IRGC, put it succinctly: “We cannot consider the Caspian Convention as signing nothing. The new (legal) regime will prevent military presence by non-littoral states… Among the littoral states only Iran and Russia have warships in its waters. By approving this Convention, the Caspian Sea will become exclusive backyard for the Russian and Iranian military, free of outsiders.”

Comparing Iran’s “military presence”, a total of 11 patrol boats, with Russia’s immense military presence in the Caspian, not to mention 22 bases around the coastlines, it would be clear who the main beneficiary from the “backyard” is.

Any blame, or credit, for the Caspian Convention must go to Putin and Khamenei, not the clueless Rouhani. Will we see Khamenei coming back in three years to admit another mistake as he did when he cooked “the nuke deal” with Obama?

Asharq Al-Awsat

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.