Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signed the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea on August 12 in in the coastal city of Aktau in Kazakhstan. The agreement — which some Iranian officials have described as a “constitution” for the sea — was also signed by the heads of the other four Caspian littoral states, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
The convention, which was signed after a quarter of a century of negotiations, has met with deep distrust among politicians and the Iranian public, who question the government’s actions to secure national interests. One member of the parliament, Mahmoud Sadeghi, criticized the convention on Twitter, saying the provisions of the convention were ambiguous. He also reminded his followers of the Treaty of Turkmenchay, a hated agreement between Iran and Russia signed in 1828 that ceded the Caucasus to Moscow. “Is another Turkmenchay on the way?” he asked. “Know this, people: Members of the parliament have been completely in the dark about this behind-the-scenes agreement.”
The Basic Law of the Caspian Sea
The new convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea is the result of 26 years of negotiations. Iranian officials say that thousands of hours of negotiations have gone what they call a “constitution” for the sea, which will form the basis of all future decisions and agreements concerning it.
The signing of the convention, however, does not put an end to negotiations and legal wrangling over the Caspian Sea. Two issues remain unresolved: the delineation of new seabed borders and the establishment of the baseline. The baseline defines the 15-mile territorial water of the littoral countries, including Iran, and the delineation of the seabed will decide how the Caspian will be shared between the countries, as well and the shape of Iran’s future geographical boundaries and map.
Mohammad Ebrahim Rahimpour, former Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister and a former member of Iran’s Caspian negotiating team, said on August 10 that whatever Iran’s share turns out to be, it will be the Supreme Leader that will make the decision to accept or reject it [Persian link].
Secrecy or Negligence?
President Rouhani’s office published the full text of the document immediately after he signed it [Persian link]. But Russian President Vladimir Putin actually signed the document close to two months ago, and its text was published at that time by the Kremlin’s website for legal documents.
Mahmoud Sadeghi’s claims that members of the parliament had been kept “completely in the dark” is not entirely accurate. In years past Iranian parliamentarians participated in the negotiations on the Caspian Sea and accompanied the president in his meetings with the heads of other littoral states. In other words, even though the members of the parliament might not have been aware of the minutiae of the negotiations, they were aware of the general outline.
But at the last meeting between the heads of Caspian littoral states, which took place in December 2017 in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov unexpectedly announced that the five Caspian states had agreed on "all the outstanding key issues" regarding the legal status of the Caspian Sea and said that the draft text of the convention was "practically ready" to be signed. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif offered no explanation about the resolution of "all the outstanding key issues,” and his silence fanned anxiety among Iranians over Iran’s share of the sea.
A few months later, again unexpectedly, it was reported that President Putin had signed an order approving the draft Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, becoming the first head of state among the five to do so. The Kremlin published the text in Russian, but no English or Persian text was available. This coincided with a visit to Moscow by Ali Akbar Velayati, the Supreme Leader’s advisor in international affairs, leading to the Iranian public suspecting that a secret agreement with Russia over Iran’s share of the Caspian Sea was in the works.
But when the Persian text of the convention was published a few minutes after the heads of the littoral states signed it, it turned out that Iran’s share and the share of other countries had been left undecided. These decisions will be taken during future bilateral negotiations between the neighboring countries.
The Caspian Sea and its Five Littoral States (Source: Google Maps)
A Quarter Century after the Soviet Union
The Caspian is not an “open” sea in the conventional sense — unlike the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman — and no guidelines or precedents for it being shared between countries have been set out in international laws or United Nations conventions. Therefore, the Caspian needed its own legal framework and laws, a process that took 26 years, and even after that time, it is not finalized because of the unresolved question of how it will be shared between the littoral states.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, three new littoral states declared their independence. As a result, the sovereignty of the Caspian Sea, which had been shared between the Soviet Union and Iran, had to be renegotiated.
Reaching an agreement over Iran’s share, however, is going to be very difficult. Because of the elongated shape of the Caspian Sea, Iran would be entitled to the smallest share among the littoral states. Based on a formula offered by Turkmenistan and the Republic of Azerbaijan, Iran would get, at best, 13 percent of the sea. But Iran has not agreed to this and officials say it should have 20 percent of the Caspian based on its own formula.
Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have already agreed on their own shares with their northern neighbors, Kazakhstan and Russia, but Iran’s position prevented the same thing from happening in the southern part of the Caspian. As a result, the newly-signed convention does not specify anything about the shares.
Now Iran must reach bilateral agreements over shares with its own two neighbors, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. Within the 20 percent share that Iran wants, there is a huge petroleum field that Azerbaijan has claimed as its own; it had even approached oil companies to extract oil from this field, which prompted Iran to send fighter jets over the area, culminating in Azerbaijan bringing the operation to a close. This will be a contentious issue, but Iran must come to an agreement with Azerbaijan over the area before it can claim undisputed ownership.
Iranian military officials claim that Iran’s navy already controls 20 percent of the Caspian, but last year they suffered a serious loss when the destroyer Jamaran, its biggest warship in the Caspian, crashed on the breakwater on the shoreline of Nowshahr and was so damaged that it had to be taken out of service.
When Does the Convention Become Effective?
The convention must first be approved by the parliaments of all five littoral states.
In Iran, the government must present the parliament with a bill for joining the convention. According to Article 77 of the constitution, “International treaties, protocols, contracts, and agreements must be approved by the Islamic Consultative Assembly.” After the parliament, the Guardian Council must also approve the bill. And after that, the government of Iran will officially inform Kazakhstan, which is responsible for keeping the documents signed by the heads of littoral states, that the Islamic Republic has officially joined the convention.
The convention will become effective the moment when the last littoral state declares that it has officially joined the convention. The Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea has also been registered as a United Nations document.
When the convention does take effect, all prior agreements that conflict with the new convention will no longer be valid. Important agreements on the Caspian Sea since the early 19th century include the above-mentioned Treaty of Turkmenchay, which was signed in 1828 between Iran and tsarist Russia after Iran’s defeat in a war against its northern neighbor, and two treaties with the Soviet Union regarding “friendship” and to resolve border issues.
The Treaty of Turkmenchay stripped Iran of the right to navigate the waters of the Caspian, but after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the takeover by the communists, the new government returned that right to Iran. Then the 1921 Russo-Persian Treaty of Friendship announced that the Caspian was a sea “shared” by Iran and the Soviet Union. Some in Iran have interpreted the word “shared” as meaning Iran has a share of 50 percent of the Caspian but there is no credibility or basis for this interpretation from a legal point of view.
Negotiations for a new legal framework began immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the emergence of three new neighbors on the shores of the Caspian. Iran hosted the negotiations and the then President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani suggested the formation of a “Cooperation Council of Caspian Sea Countries.” This idea was not pursued, but Iran did succeed in introducing and passing an agreement for protecting the environment of the Caspian. This agreement, which became known as the Tehran Convention, was the first important document to be signed by the five littoral states.
Now, a quarter century after the breakup of the Soviet Union, these littoral states have a new convention or “basic law” for the Caspian. And yet, for Iran, the hard part has just begun: It will have to get its share of the sea through negotiations with Turkmenistan and the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Its share will be 13 percent in the worst scenario and 20 percent at its best. The question is: If, as the former Iranian negotiator has said, it is Ayatollah Khamenei who will decide what to accept, what will the map of Iran look like under his leadership?
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