Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 157

moderation notwithstanding, Tehran attacked Washington in connection with Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones’ Baku visit. A statement by Iran’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, denouncing the “attempt to sow discord between Iran and the neighbor country [Azerbaijan],” went on to underscore Iran’s “just claim” to the portion of the Caspian Sea from which it had evicted the British Petroleum Amoco-led consortium in the July 23 military incident.

An accompanying editorial, reflecting the government’s position, on Iranian state radio cast the issue in its strategic context, with the Russian factor brought in: “The Caspian Sea is one of the few regions of the world in which Washington’s role is limited. This region’s main countries, Iran and Russia, oppose any American interference in the region’s affairs. Therefore, the key to solving problems and disagreements in the Caspian Sea is talks between the five littoral countries.” Another editorial on state radio, casting Azerbaijan as the sole pro-American country in the region, warned: “America is a long distance away, and its acts of intervention are opposed by four out of the five littoral countries. Instead of looking to outside countries and ill-serving its own interests, Baku should embark on negotiating with the Caspian littoral states.”

Having made its point through military threats, Iran now appears content to call for a “dialogue” with Azerbaijan. As Tehran conceives it, the dialogue is premised on Baku’s acceptance of the fait accompli and on separating Azerbaijan from the United States.

On August 28 in Baku, Iran’s deputy foreign affairs minister in charge of Caspian issues, Ali Ahani, held talks with President Haidar Aliev and other Azerbaijani officials. Ahani insisted that Iran’s moves in the Caspian Sea “do not signify enmity toward Azerbaijan” and “should not be described as hostile; differences of views are a normal occurrence;” yet “Iran’s due rights in the Caspian Sea will be defended.” Referring to the Alov-Araz-Sharg oilfield (called “Alborz” in Iran), Ahani criticized its exploration by Azerbaijan and the British Petroleum Amoco-led consortium as unaccceptable “disrespect toward Iran.” But that field, scene of Iran’s military move, lies approximately 100 kilometers inside what is generally accepted as Azerbaijan’s part of the sea. At the same time, Ahani dusted off Tehran’s earlier call for “demilitarization” of the Caspian Sea, with a ban on naval forces. Initially inspired by Iran’s own concern about the Russian naval buildup in that sea, the proposal has lost the credibility it had possessed prior to the July 23 incident and August flights into Azerbaijani airspace, staged by Iran itself.

Yet Baku and Tehran seek, each for its own reasons, to prevent this dispute from aggravating their overall relations, which are already fraught with contentious issues. Those were listed recently in what sounded like an indictment by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council chief, Hojatolislam Hassan Rowhani, in Baku last month (see the Monitor, July 25-26). Azerbaijan, while able to stand up to Iran politically with Western support, lacks the means to defend its rights in the closed Caspian Sea alone against Iran. Moreover, caught between Russia in the north and with Armenia holding on indefinitely to Azeri areas in the west, Baku can certainly not sustain another dispute in the south, even if Iran were not incomparably stronger than Azerbaijan. Baku is therefore reacting in a highly conciliatory manner and hopes that Aliev’s long-planned, repeatedly postponed visit to Tehran can take place soon under dignified conditions.

Tehran, for its part, wants to convince Baku that it cannot count on its Western partners for support in a crunch, and that Iran has the ability to seriously cut into Azerbaijan’s anticipated oil revenues. If that demonstration is successful, Iran may achieve its goals of isolating Azerbaijan and changing the country’s pro-Western orientation. Russia and Iran would then share the strategic dividends of such a change in the entire South Caucasus-Caspian area. Those dividends would greatly exceed the value of the Alov-Araz-Sharg oilfield, which–however promising in its own right–may turn out to have provided the starting point of far larger reverses to the West and its friends in the region. If the Clinton administration thought it could pursue major economic and political objectives there without an appropriate security framework, it ultimately thrust that omisssion in the Bush administration’s lap (IRNA, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Tehran), August 25, 27-28; Tehran Times, August 27; Turan, Space Television, August 28).