By Paul Goble
When the five littoral states signed an agreement in August 2018 on the delimitation of the surface of the Caspian Sea, most observers in Russia, the region and the West argued that this represented a solution to conflicts over how to divide that inland body of water in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
But in fact, that agreement did not address many difficult questions, and as a result of just one of them, Iran has refused to ratify the accord even though the other four littoral states – the Russian Federation, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan – all have (casp-geo.ru/pozitsiya-irana-po-opredeleniyu-morskih-territorialnyh-granits-v-kaspijskom-more/).
What that means, of course, is that the treaty has not yet formally in place, although the littoral states are observing most of its provisions already. But because it isn’t ratified, each may yet feel free to challenge it; and all must come to an agreement about one issue in particular if the treaty is in fact going to apply.
Tehran is concerned about what may seem a minor issue, but for Iran, which shared the sea with only the USSR before 1991 but now does so with four countries, it is no small thing. The 2018 accord does not specify exactly how lines from border points between two countries on the coast are to be drawn out to the limit of national exclusion zones.
International law and experience offer a variety of possible options in this regard, some of which would leave Iran in control of a larger seabed where oil and gas reserves are known to be plentiful and others of which would assign these same spaces to Azerbaijan in the northwest and Turkmenistan in the northeast.
It is unlikely that there will be much movement on this issue in Tehran until the new government has time to take shape; but until there is, the other littoral states and especially Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan will remain uncertain about their sea borders and thus have more difficulty attracting foreign investment on the basis of reserves in disputed areas.
And lest anyone think this is a minor issue, he or she should remember the difficulties that Baku and Ashgabat faced in working out their disputes about a gas field in a disputed area (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2021/01/more-fallout-from-bakus-qarabagh.html). In fact, even that agreement could be put at risk by Iranian intransigence on this question.