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

August 14, 2018

Having resisted relinquishing its historic rights in the Caspian Sea for more almost 20 years, the Iranian government on Sunday succumbed to pressure from Russia by signing a document that opens the way for shaping the future of the inland sea in accordance with Moscow’s wishes.

Attending a summit of the five littoral sates at the seaside resort of Aqtaw in Kazakhstan, President Hassan Rouhani abandoned the position of his three predecessor, Hashemi Rafsanjani, Muhammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinjead, by hailing the Russian-authored text as “a model for peace and stability.”

The document, labelled the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, proposes a series of measures regarding the exploitation of the sea’s natural resources, notably oil and gas and fishing. It does not deal with the thorny issue of ascertaining the share of the five littoral states: Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan. But by signing it as well as five other “technical documents”, Iran has abandoned its demand for “a proper share” in the inland sea. But it includes a long-standing Russian demand that no “outside power” be allowed a naval presence in the Caspian. However, since the Caspian is an inland lake no “outside power” could send in merchant let alone a military navy without the agreement of at least one of the five littoral states.

The convention is designed to prevent Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan ever to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, giving the US-led alliance a presence in what Russia regards as its backyard pond. Talks between NATO and the three Caspian littoral states of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan were halted under President Barack Obama with no prospect of resuming them. Russia, however, wants to block any future talks while the present-regime in Tehran shares Moscow’s anti-West position.

Successive Iranian governments refused to sign up to the Russian “deal” for three reasons.

The first was what they termed as “Iran’s historic rights.”

Iran first signed an accord with Tsarist Russia in 1841 under which the inland sea was divided between the two while Russia secured the sole right of maintaining a military naval presence in the Caspian. That accord caused a great deal of bitterness among Iranian nationalists and , decades later, was a theme in the revolution that ended the Qajar Dynasty’s despotic hold on power. The man who had signed the accord was one Mullah Abbas Iravani, alias Haj Mirza Aqasi, who acted as First Minister for the Qajar Ruler. His notorious quip ” We shall not embitter a sweet friend for a handful of salty water!” entered Iranian historical memory as one of the low point of national humiliation.

The second accord between Iran and Russia was signed in 1921 after the fall of the Tsarist Empire. It divided the Caspian 50/50 between the two neighbours while denying Iran the right to have a military presence in the inland sea. Iran then formally recognized the new Communist regime in Moscow.

Another treaty in 1940 confirmed the deal while giving Russia the right to land troops in Iran to ward off any external threat to its security.

Nevertheless, on that basis Iran demands a 50 per cent share of the Caspian, arguing that the three new littoral states, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan belong to the previous entity i.e. the USSR and thus should be given a share from the 50 per cent assigned to the Russian federation.

Russia has rejected Iran’s position with reference to the principle of “if things stand the same” (Rebus sic stanticus in Latin). As both Tsarist Russia and the USSR no longer exist the treaties they signed are no longer valid.

Russia, however has offered a compromise under which each littoral state would have a share commensurate with the length of its coastline on the Caspian. That would give Russia, which has the longest coastline with more than 2,990 kilometres, the biggest share, followed by Kazakhstan with 1,894 kilometres and Turkmenistan with 1,768 kilometres. Iran’s share would be 740 kilometres just ahead of Azerbaijan with 713 kilometres.

After two decades of negotiations, including four summits and 52 ministerial sessions, Russia, backed by Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan offered to give Iran a 13 per cent share, slightly above the 11 per cent warranted by the size of its coastline. Under President Khatami Iran indicated some flexibility by implicitly agreeing to consider a 20 per cent, instead of a 50 per cent, share. But that position was quickly abandoned by Khatami’s successor Ahmadinejad who adopted a less friendly profile towards Russia.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have concluded bilateral accords based on the “thalweg” (median line) principle used in many frontier lakes and rivers across the globe.

Next to “historic rights” Iran claims a bigger share in the Caspian with reference to its bigger population, second only to Russia among the littoral states and the fact that six of its provinces directly depend on the sea’s eco-system and economic opportunities.

Iran’s third argument is based on the claim that its river systems are the second biggest contributor, after Russia, of water to the 371,000 square kiomteres sea. A total of 22 Iranian rivers flow into the Caspian, notably Sefid Rud, Aras, Atrak and Haraz.

“The truth is that the Convention makes no reference to the essential issue of how to share out the Caspian between the littoral states,” says Bahman Aaqi-Diba, one of Iran’s leading specialists on the law of the sea.

Aqai-Diba believes that Russia’s campaign to prevent the presence of outside powers, meaning mainly the United States, is a political move not a legal position.

Iran’s decision to sign the Russian text has been met with some anger across Iran.

On Sunday, “Islamic Majlis” member Mahmud Sadeqi compared the Aqtaw convention with the Turkmanchai treaty that most Iranians regard as the most shameful ever imposed on their nation.

“The Aqtaw convention has nothing to do with us,” Sadeqi says. “It has not been discussed with the Majlis.”

Rouhani’s entourage are briefing journalists and political circles in Tehran with the message that the president isn’t happy with the Russian-dictated text.

Esmail Pour-Rahim, Iran’s former top negotiator on the Caspian and believed to be close to Rouhani, says the decision to sign the Russian text was taken by “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei.

Some experts believe Iran could have a good case arguing that Russia and the three littoral republics that emerged from the USSR should be regarded as one unit in the sense of a successor state. However, to argue that claim Iran would have to take the case to the International Court and that, in turn, might require, an accord from the United Nations Security Council where Russia has veto power. The US, Britain and France would find no reason why they should back a hostile power such as the Islamic Republic in any dispute with Russia.

Aqai-Diba says Iran currently lacks the power and the expertise needed to argue its case.

Another expert Hamid Zomorrodi urges Iran to continue arguing its case and not signing any definitive document until “better times”, meaning when Iran emerges from its current turmoil and finds some friends and allies across the globe.

“We get nothing out of giving Russia what it wants,” he says. “If the Caspian is opened for outside investment and business, people will go to the other littoral states which are not involved in disputes with so many other nations, no one would come to Iran.”

Others go further.

Mehrdad Ebadi, a former adviser to the European Union, says Iran would be making a big mistake “relying on Russia.”

“Our past experience with Russians show that going under the Russian tent is not the right thing to do,” he says.

Meanwhile, petitions signed by tens of thousands are circulating in the social media condemning the Aqtaw event as “another treacherous sell-out by a regime that has lost its legitimacy.”

In Kazakh language Aqtaw means “White Mountain”. Some Iranian bloggers have played on the word by announcing Rouhani’s presence in the Russian-sponsored event as “a black day in the White Mountain.”

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.