Iran has established a dangerous precedent with its threat to use force to prevent what it claims are incursions by Azerbaijani-sponsored oil exploration vessels in a disputed area of the Caspian Sea. Although the international response to rising tension in the Caspian Basin has so far been muted, strategic economic interests are pushing international powers, including the United States, to consider stronger actions that would make the search for energy resources safe and secure.
Trouble began July 23, when an Iranian gunboat and two jets challenged a research vessel working on behalf of British Petroleum (BP)-Amoco at the Araz-Alov-Sharg field in the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian Sea. The Alov field lies 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Iranian waters under existing border arrangements, but the area is claimed by Iran. On several occasions since the initial July 23 confrontation, Iranian reconnaissance planes have reportedly violated Azerbaijani airspace. Tehran has denied such incursions, yet BP-Amoco has announced that will cease exploring this field, pending resolution of Caspian boundaries.
The status of the Caspian Sea has been disputed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under the 1921 and 1940 treaties between Soviet Russia and Iran, the land borders were delineated and demarcated, but not the sea boundaries. These treaties defined rules for shipping and fishing, but left open the question of oil and gas development. In addition, the existing treaties prohibit Iran from deploying naval assets in the Caspian.
The Iranian sector of the Caspian currently comprises about 12 percent of the sea. Iran's stake in the Caspian has not been affected by the Soviet collapse, and it cannot rely on treaties or other precedents to support its claim to a greater share of the Caspian. However, that has not stopped Iran, which is now demanding a national sector of at least 20 percent of the surface and the Caspian seabed, mostly in what is now the oil-rich Azerbaijani sector.
Based on decisions of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) which, for example, helped determined boundaries on Lake Constance between Germany and Austria many legal scholars believe that a combination of the Law of the Sea Convention and rules regulating lakes should guide decisions regarding maritime boundaries. Efforts by the four Soviet successor states in the Caspian Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan and Iran to resolve their differences have not made much progress. The next attempt to convene a Caspian summit is scheduled for October in Turkmenistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Iran has not given any indication of softening its stance. During an August 10 visit to Turkmenistan, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani said further energy development in disputed sectors of the Caspian was impermissible.
There are signs that international powers are increasingly frustrated with Iran's Caspian position. For example, at the CIS Summit in early August, Russian President Vladimir Putin floated the idea of a four-nation meeting to discuss Caspian issues, excluding Iran. Only Turkmenistan has reacted skeptically to Putin's proposal.
Meanwhile, officials in Washington are mulling possible responses to Iranian actions. In order to keep the peace in the Caspian, and protect important energy resources, the Bush Administration can consider a variety of options. One possibility is a strong statement, made by a senior Administration official, supporting peace in the Caspian, and warning Iran not to use its military to change the status quo. Such a statement could, at the same time, endorse rapid and commercially viable development of the Caspian energy resources based on existing and future production sharing agreements.
Washington might also initiate or endorse a UN Security Council resolution urging the fast and peaceful resolution of Caspian disputes. In this context, Great Britain can also intervene, along with its European Union allies, to generate additional pressure on Iran to refrain from any and all future use of force. As President Vladimir Putin called for peaceful settlement of claims in the Caspian, Russia could also be expected to participate in the drafting of a UN resolution concerning the Caspian.
Another option would be for the US Congress to amend Sec. 907 of the 1992 Freedom Support Act, allowing the U.S. to develop, supply and train Azerbaijani ground, naval and air border guards. Sec. 907 was passed by the U.S. Congress at the height of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, which ended in a cease-fire in 1994. Similarly, the Pentagon could expand Azerbaijani ties with NATO through Partnership for Peace contacts.
Some observers express concern that a continued lackluster international response to Iranian provocations could invite further steps by Tehran, endangering promising energy projects in the Caspian. Billions of dollars have already been invested in these projects, which could benefit varied interests in the West, in Russia and in countries in the region. A concerted international effort is needed to ensure that investments and potential profits are not lost because of Iran's aggressive moves in the Caspian Sea.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. and the author of Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis, (Greenwood/Praeger, 1998).