Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev is to travel to Iran on September 17 for talks on the two countries' Caspian Sea boundary dispute, news reports said on Wednesday quoting a visiting Iranian official.
Ali Ahani, Iran's deputy foreign minister said as he left the Azeri capital Baku after a two-day visit that the date had been agreed with Iran's President Mohammad Khatami, the private Lider television station reported.
There was no one immediately available in Azerbaijan's presidential administration to confirm the date, but officials had already said Aliyev was planning to visit Iran some time next month.
Last month's incident in the Caspian, when an Iranian warship threatened to open fire on an Azeri oil research ship unless it left a disputed sector of the sea, is likely to top the agenda during Aliyev's visit. Since then Iranian air force planes have made repeated incursions into Azeri airspace, further heightening tensions.
Iran and Azerbaijan are at loggerheads over boundaries in the oil-rich inland sea, with Tehran staking a claim to several areas of the sea currently under Azeri sovereignty. Talks on Tuesday between Ahani and Azeri politicians, including Aliyev, failed to reach a compromise.
Following a day of talks in the Azeri capital, Baku, both sides stuck to their positions, with Ahani saying all disputed sectors of the sea should be off-limits while Aliyev insisted Azerbaijan would continue oil exploration.
Aliyev slammed the actions of the Iranian navy in the Caspian as "wrong" and called on Tehran to pull its military out of the inland sea altogether until a lasting settlement on borders had been thrashed out. But he said he was still ready to attend a planned summit of leaders of the five Caspian states, despite a decision this week by the host country, Turkmenistan, to postpone it indefinitely. It had been planned for October.
"I am ready to take part in the summit whatever the venue and whenever it takes place," said Aliyev. He added: "Iran should not exercise force against neighboring states, especially Azerbaijan. The use of force in the Caspian incident was wrong." "It is in our interests that the question of the status of the Caspian should be resolved on the basis of negotiations, mutual understanding and the norms of international law."
Ahani said Tehran had warned Baku three years ago that it would not stand for any oil exploration in disputed areas of the Caspian. "We did not expect that an Azeri ship would go into disputed territory and that mistaken step left us with no choice but to use force," he said.
At the root of the row is a disagreement over how to divide up the Caspian Sea between the five states — Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Russia — which border it. That dispute has been rumbling on for almost 10 years now, since the collapse of the Soviet Union created four new states around the Caspian and allowed Tehran to question the legitimacy of the old Soviet borders.
But the stakes are now much higher because of the multi-billion dollar investment from western oil companies in developing the Caspian's potentially huge oil and gas reserves. Iran is particularly piqued that companies from the United States — which it regards as its ideological enemy — are prospecting for oil in Azeri territory which it believes rightfully belongs to it.
As the dispute gets more heated, oil exploration is being affected. British oil group BP has suspended operations in the Alov-Sharg-Araz field, where the confrontation with the Iranian navy took place.
The borders, which currently apply in the Caspian, give the littoral states sovereignty over a slice of water and the seabed, which roughly corresponds to the length of coastline each has. That leaves Iran, at the southern end of the Caspian, with a narrow slice of territorial waters hemmed in behind a straight line drawn from the two points where its northern land borders meet the shore.
Tehran wants a redivision of the Caspian to give each of the five states an equal share. Under this arrangement, Iran's sea border would start at the same points but would push out in an inverted "V" instead of a straight line. Crucially, that would mean that several prospective oil and gas fields now in Azeri territory and being developed by western companies would come under Iranian control.
Diplomatic efforts to find a solution are intensifying. This week Elizabeth Jones, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, visited Baku for talks with President Aliyev. Victor Kalyuzhny, the Russian deputy foreign minister with special responsibility for the Caspian, is due to arrive in the Azeri capital late Wednesday with talks scheduled for Thursday. ― (AFP, Baku)
by Christian Lowe
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com )