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Caspian Legal Regime Not Out of Hand If Littoral States Overcome Differences

Monday, October 6, 2014

Fatemeh Safavi
Central Asia Analyst

During past decades, Caspian Sea and issues related to it have been among important topics that have come to the surface subsequent to political and geographical developments in the region and the world. At the level of governments, Caspian Sea has drawn a lot of special attention from littoral countries, as well as regional and transregional players. At the level of non-state players, it has been also a focus of attention for researchers, research institutes and centers, international organizations and even economic entities, which have been paying various degrees of attention to this body of water in proportion to their own different interests and resources. Such issues as the legal regime of Caspian Sea, protection of its environment, exploitation of the sea’s oil and gas resources, transportation and transit of energy as well as the security matters related to the Caspian Sea have been studied and negotiated at various levels.

The increase in the number of littoral states from two to five and, as a result, the subsequent changes in the political map of the region and the increase in the number of regional and transregional players have created conditions, which have given birth to conflicting interests and interpretations of those interests. As a result, a new discourse has been established with regard to this vast body of water as well as its legal regime.

Before the implosion of the former Soviet Union, the area of the Caspian Sea had been divided between Iran and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on the basis of Russo-Persian Treaty of Friendship of 1921 and the Treaty of Trade and Navigation of 1940. The two countries had also defined an exclusive 10-mile fishing zone. Following the collapse of the USSR, Moscow and Tehran emphasized from the very beginning of new relations that as long as a new legal regime has not been determined for the Caspian Sea, the treaties signed between Iran and the USSR on February 26, 1921, and March 25, 1940, would be adopted and considered valid as the basis for the legal regime of the sea. At the same time, the governments of the Republic of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan rejected those treaties as legally worthless and called for basic changes in the situation of the Caspian Sea.

Therefore, those countries put the highest emphasis on the need to review the old legal regime and formulate a new one for the Caspian Sea. As a result, there were two different viewpoints about this geographical expanse. According to one view, the Caspian Sea was a common geographical domain in which all littoral states could take common advantage of its resources. On the basis of the second viewpoint, the body of water is considered a full-blown sea whose area should be divided into national and transnational parts. Despite such a difference in viewpoints, all involved countries have been unanimous about the necessity of formulating a comprehensive legal regime for this body of water. However, there have been differences as to how that legal regime should be formulated and within what framework. Various models have been so far offered, from a model considering a 20-percent share for each littoral country to models that determine littoral countries’ marine borders on the basis of their coastal borders; or determine common marine borders on the surface of the sea among all littoral countries, or divide the seabed and resources beneath the seabed among all littoral countries of the Caspian Sea on the basis of their coastal borders. None of these models have so far gained broad-based acceptance among these countries.

Mechanisms that have been so far worked out like establishing working groups consisting of deputy foreign ministers in order to formulate a legal regime convention and holding frequent consultation sessions, which were necessary to start negotiations, have slowed down the pace of the Caspian Sea’s littoral states toward resolution of their problems. Another reason for the delay in reaching a legal regime was differences in attitudes and viewpoints of littoral countries. Despite the slow pace of negotiations, however, littoral countries have reached a preliminary agreement in this regard. According to this agreement, efforts will continue to solve the existing issue at various levels, including among experts and deputy foreign ministers. The countries have also agreed that as long as the legal regime of the Caspian Sea has not been finalized, they would avoid implementing exploration and production projects related to undersea resources. These activities, as agreed, should be limited to coastal line of the Caspian Sea and along land borders of these countries, which are not open to territorial disputes.

The geopolitical nature of challenges surrounding this huge body of water and prolongation of the issue of the sea’s legal regime have been playing a role as the most important factors preventing close bonds to take shape among littoral countries. They have also proved to be a major obstacle on the way of taking suitable advantage of the Caspian Sea resources through interaction among neighboring states. In addition, bilateral agreements reached between certain regional countries have changed the balance of powers and led to formulation of new equations in the region.

For a period of two decades, consultation and efforts have been underway to resolve differences among Caspian Sea littoral states. As part of those efforts, heads of these states have so far held frequent meetings, including in Ashgabat, Tehran, Baku, and this year, in Russia’s Astrakhan port city. During the latest summit meeting of the Caspian Sea littoral states in Russia, key issues related to cooperation among littoral states of the Caspian Sea as well as the process for the implementation of agreements reached in the previous summit in Baku, which was held in 2010, were on the agenda of the talks. The participants also determined priorities and the main direction of future cooperation among regional states.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has always put the highest emphasis on the necessity of cooperation and partnership among all littoral states of the Caspian Sea. During the second summit meeting, which was held in the Iranian capital city of Tehran in 2007, the idea was brought up that the legal regime of the Caspian Sea should be only formulated through agreement of all littoral countries and on the basis of consensus. In this way, no country could consider itself entitled to impose a unilateral legal regime for the Caspian Sea.

Iran's President Dr. Hassan Rouhani took part in the latest summit meeting of the Caspian heads of state in Astrakhan with a futuristic view on the convention related to the legal regime of the Caspian Sea. Addressing the fourth summit of the heads of littoral states in Astrakhan, Russia, he said two main factors that should be taken onboard when formulating that convention included “accuracy” and “speed.” He also noted that the results of the formulation of the convention, especially with regard to setting limits for each countries maritime territory on the surface of the sea as well as setting limits of their shares of the seabed and what lies underneath, should give a good response to the demands of all the countries’ public opinion and also meet the needs of people living in the littoral countries and their collective interests. The Iranian president also emphasized that the Caspian Sea should turn into a “center for development and welfare” for all people living around it, and serve as a “symbol of peace and security … and cooperation among our nations.”

As admitted by many experts, holding such meetings among heads of state has been a very positive step. The signing of the final statement of the summit meeting has been also considered another effective step and a positive sign in diplomacy through which the heads of littoral states tried to tell their peoples that they have been successful in achieving a relative consensus. One of the main achievements of the meeting was signing of the final statement of the fourth Caspian summit. Its main theme revolved around such issues as promoting cooperation among Caspian Sea littoral countries in various fields of transportation, including by establishing international transportation corridors. Other issues of interest included expansion of interaction among port cities around the Caspian Sea and implementation of joint infrastructural projects, which will pave the way for improvement of conditions and increased attraction of investment in this very important region.

In addition, according to agreements reached during the fourth meeting of the Caspian Sea heads of state and upon a proposal offered by Iran, for the first time, the width of sovereign zone of each littoral country on the surface of the Caspian Sea was set at 15 miles from the coastline. The exclusive fisheries zone has been set at 10 miles from the exterior border of territorial waters. The rest of the sea surface is considered a common territory. Also, for the first time, a ban has been approved by heads of state on military presence of countries other than littoral states of the Caspian Sea within the limits of the sea. In this way, the situation of the surface water of the Caspian Sea is now clear. Each country will have a 15-mile sovereign zone in addition to 10 more miles as exclusive fishing zone and the rest of the sea will be under common sovereignty. By agreeing on these arrangements, the Caspian Sea will be a unique body of water in the world where the zone considered for the enforcement of sovereign rights is three miles wider than other seas in the world.

Another achievement of the Caspian summit meeting in Astrakhan was the signing of three more cooperation agreements in such fields as protection and optimal use of maritime resources; hydrology and meteorology; as well as prevention of and reaction to emergency situations.

For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin, pointed to the results of the summit meeting and while emphasizing on the principle of cooperation among all stakeholders, noted that further legal agreements over the situation of the Caspian Sea could be reached in the future.

Of course, no final decision was made over the legal regime of the Caspian Sea during the summit meeting because the meeting was not actually meant to do this. However, according to the experts, setting the limit for the enforcement of the national sovereignty of countries along the Caspian coast was one of the most important measures that have been so far taken for the implementation and stabilization of the legal regime of the Caspian Sea. This achievement came through serious resolve and a spirit of understanding, which were quite evident among the participants in the meeting. There is no doubt that holding a future meeting of heads of state of Caspian Sea’s littoral countries will play an important and strategic role in shaping political and diplomatic relations among those countries, especially in the field of energy.

Key Words: Caspian Legal Regime, Littoral States, Differences, Geographical Domain, National and Transnational Parts, Hassan Rouhani, Caspian Summit, Astrakhan, Diplomatic Relations,  Safavi

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