Authors: Javad Heirannia and Omid Shokri Kalehsar*
In international law, the concept of power is inevitably alongside with the principles of the law.
In other words, since there is no judiciary reference in the international judiciary conflicts, the law is affected by the concept of power in international system. There are different opinions about the relationship between power and law.
Different legal schools of thought differ in their views towards the relativity of power and rights.
Realists believe that power is the main core of international law and takes the main role in the basic norms and principles of international law and relations. So; law should be in compliant with national interests and accordingly it takes prominence. Contrary to realists, scholars from the Yale University Law School do not accept power as the core of international law and emphasize global social commonalities instead of the traditional notion of power. But in general, we cannot ignore the role of power in creating international rules among governments.
Therefore, due to the importance of power in politics, when we want to determine Caspian Sea legal status, at the same time that we pay attention to previous legal contracts, including the treaties of 1921 and 1940 between Iran, Russia and the former Soviet Union, we have to also consider the political conditions. According to the text of an agreement between the presidents of Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, signed on August 5 in Aktau, Kazakhstan, the five countries agreed on issues such as military, security, shipping and economic matters, but delineating seabed and sub-seabed postponed to bilateral agreements between countries. However, the announcement of the signing of an agreement between the government of Iran and the other four countries after nearly three decades of the collapse of the Soviet Union Led to the critical reactions of many Iranians, especially those saying that Iran had enjoyed 50% share of Caspian Sea during the former Soviet Union.
Russo-Persian Treaty of Friendship (1921), Treaty of Commerce and Navigation (1940)
The 1921 treaty is one of the agreements between Iran and Russia on the Caspian Sea. According to the treaty, the Caspian Sea is a common sea between Iran and Russia, both enjoying equal rights of free navigation. According to Article 40 of the treaty, 10 miles were considered as an exclusive fishing zone and the rest was shared between Iran and Russia. Of course, in this treaty, Iran was requested to surrender fishing privilege to Russia to help Russian livelihoods, and the privilege was awarded to them in 1925 for 25 years. But Iran’s Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, did not extend the second period of 25 years, although the Soviets continued fishing in all areas and waters of the Caspian, but Iran was usually fishing only in the coastal zone. This continued, and although the fishing privilege for the Russians was not renewed, Russia and Iran both operated at the sea.
Before signing 1921 contract, only the Russians could have military naval forces in the Caspian on the basis of Treaty of Turkmenchay and Treaty of Gulistan, the privilege of which was awarded to Russians by two above-mentioned treaties. In fact, after the oppressive and one-sided Treaty of Turkmenchay and Gulistan between Iran and Tsardom in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, 1921 contract between Iran and the Russian government was the first formal agreement with almost equal status in the Caspian Sea. But the 1940 contract was a little different from the 1921 in which the Russians set to be in a higher position in the contract clinched during Stalin and Iran, the difference of which is totally clear by contrasting them. Parts of the 1940 treaty were on commercial and customs rights between the two countries and other clauses were about the shipping rights of the two sides over the Caspian Sea. The position of Iran in this contract was slightly better than the one in what were signed during the Tsardom of the Russian era.
Dividing the seabed and sub-seabed; ignoring Iran’s viewpoints
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the founding of the Russian Federation, three other new countries around the Caspian Sea were created from the Soviet heritage, including Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Although Iran and Russia at this stage were set for the Caspian Sea to treat a shared one, the Russians took a dual stance in this case. In this regard, Russia from one side stroke a bilateral deal with Kazakhstan in 1988 dividing the northern seabed and its resources and from the other side clinched similar contract with the Republic of Azerbaijan. It led to Iran’s protest maintaining that because both countries enjoy the joint ownership of the Caspian Sea, then any decisions have to be taken jointly in this regard.
According to the joint ownership principle, resources are considered jointly and therefore would have to be divided equally based on an agreement signed by all the Caspian coastal countries. Hence, what the Russians did in dividing Caspian seabed and its resources bilaterally ran contrary to joint ownership principle. In fact, when we consider the Caspian Sea as a common sea, all the resources of this sea are divided equally among all members. Therefore, the Russians’ attempts to conclude bilateral agreements and the division of the continental shelf is contrary to the being common sea of the Caspian.
Under Mohammad Khatami, the then president of Iran, it was proposed that the Caspian Sea be divided equally having 20% share by each coastal country, but four others did not accept the offer, after which Iran declared that it will not allow any interference by other countries in 20% of its adjacent waters So, the Russian vessel left waters of Iran. Since that time, Iran has emphasized its 20% share, but Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan were dissatisfied with this situation, especially in the Alborz field with oil resources, making it a dispute and the disagreement has prolonged so far.
After Kazakhstan’s Aktau agreement on the Caspian Sea, Iran declared to continue governing its 20% share of waters as long as its share with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan is not determined well.
After the meeting, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated: “There are still issues in the southern part of the sea between Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan. We had good agreements with Azerbaijan that are in operation, but some of these issues have not been resolved yet. At the recent Caspian Summit, some serious issues concerning Iran and many other countries were resolved the most important of which was security in the Caspian Sea.
The talks between Iran and Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan on the Caspian Sea have been Unsuccessful. Recently, Russia has announced a new plan with coastal states accepting it with the exception ofIran. According to the Russian plan, 15 miles would be considered as the territorial sea and 10 more miles as the exclusive fishing zone. The surface water would be for shared shipping, but seabed and sub-seabed resources are divided according to the 1998 contract.
In Kazakhstan’s Aktau agreement, Caspian Sea navigation was calculated according to the Convention on the Law of the Sea(1982). According to the Convention, 15 miles considered as coastal waters and 10 miles as the exclusive fishing zone putting the rest as a common area. This means that the sovereign right of Iran in the Caspian will be less than 13%.
Because the Caspian Sea doesn’t have any link to open waters, it is in fact considered as a great lake the rules of which are regulated on the basis of the coastal states multilateral agreements.
Based on Kazakhstan’s Aktau agreement, the baseline of the Caspian Sea has been identified; therefore, it is impossible for Iran to determine its share of the seabed and sub-seabed resources in upcoming negotiations. Also, since the deeper part of the Caspian Sea is located in the southern part, the Iranian side, Iran’s share of internal waters will be much less. In the other words, Iran’s baseline in Caspian Sea will not be so distant from the coast, something that can bring about security consequences for the country.
Sharing seabed and sub-seabed in accordance with bilateral agreements among other countries expect for Iranis detrimental to Tehran. However, when the rule over a sea is deemed as joint ownership, its mineral resources, oil and gas are to be taken into consideration fully and then the achieved interests are divided among 5 countries. According to the Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea, the areas beyond the territorial waters and exclusive fishing zone of each country are to be known as a common or joint zone. In this case, the use of seabed resources in the Caspian Sea remains unclear.
This is especially true in the southern part of the Caspian Sea, because the fate of the resources in the northern part of the Caspian Sea is determined in the bi-and-trilateral agreements of Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. So, the existing disputes are only among Iran with two countries including Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. As a result, declaring the area beyond the territorial waters and the exclusive fishing zone as a joint ownership means destroying the sovereignty of Iran over the energy field of the Alborz in the Caspian Sea. Based on bilateral agreements signed between Russians with Kazakhstan and then with Azerbaijan and also between Kazakhstan with Turkmenistan in 1998, seabed and sub-seabed resources were divided between themselves, making the share of Iran negligible.
Russia, in fact, by signing the above bilateral contracts violated the joint ownership agreed upon with Iran and the case ended in Tehran’s detriment. Since the presidency of Khatami, Iran has emphasized that it has 20% share in Caspian Sea and announced not to allow others to do any kind of activity in its territorial waters. That’s why the Azerbaijani oil operation in the joint oil field with Iran was stopped. While before Kazakhstan’s Aktau agreement, Iran rejected the joint exploitation with Azerbaijan, Tehran approved 50-50 division of the oil field of Alborz with the country in this convention.
One of the criticisms leveled against Aktau convention is that the determination of the share of each Caspian coastal state in the seabed and sub- seabed and put to future bilateral negotiations.
In other words, the convention only discusses surface water and since the convention has determined the baseline, Iran cannot determine its share in seabed and sub-seabed.
Of course, the Kazakhstan’s Aktau agreement calls for a revision of the previous bilateral agreements between 4other Caspian Sea states, which can be in Iran’s favor. The review not to be based on the length of the beaches, since the contracts of 1921 and 1940 were not based on the length of the coasts, but all the sea was reckoned as common. Therefore, Iran’s share in Seabed and sub- Seabed resources should be more than what is now mentioned in the Aktau convention. Accordingly, if there is a review in the agreement, it can make a revision in Iran’s right and share in the Caspian Sea. While, due to the ordinary practice that making any decision is based on bi-and-multilateral negotiations, bilateral agreements clinched between some coastal countries have led to the violation of Iran’s rights in the Caspian Sea.
“Taking dual role, unfriendly and sensitive-inducing of Russia in the issue as well as sharing method of seabed based on bilateral agreements with new adjacent neighbors is one of the most important reasons Iran encounters a crucial problem in the Caspian Sea whereof”, Mohsen Aminzadeh, former deputy for foreign minister of Iran during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, believes. In reaction to Russia on dividing the resources of the Caspian sub-seabed without any coordination with Tehran, Iran announced that the final acceptance of the Caspian Sea enjoying joint ownership in the legal regime is conditional to determine the Caspian sub-seabed resources. This is while Iran for the first time formally abandoned the condition at the second meeting of the Caspian Sea in Tehran accepting the joint ownership of everything in the Caspian Sea but the sub-seabed tacitly.
Iran also accepted the crossing of the pipeline and energy transmission through the Caspian Sea in the Aktau agreement. This is while the crossing from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan could have been done through Iran instead. Consequently, from one hand, Iran lost this opportunity and on the other hand, accepting the crossing of the pipeline through the Caspian Sea will have environmental risks. Regarding security issues, The Kazakhstan’s Aktau agreement says that the Caspian Sea is not a military one, resolving Iran and Russia’s concerns over the presence of NATO in the sea. Of course, the very issue was in the previous treaties, but it was discussed more extensively in the Kazakhstan Convention. So, foreign powers cannot run for any military and naval bases on the Caspian shore and making any threats against other coastal states.
Prior to the Aktau agreement, When Iran had any disagreement over the Caspian Sea, it relied on both historical background and the 1921 treaties with Russia and 1940 treaties with the Soviet Union. Iran has always put emphasis on this historical background making its status one of two historical claimants of the Caspian Sea. Iran ignored these two historical contracts in Aktau convention by giving them up in its text.
Earlier, during the formal declaration of Tehran Summit, being the first joint document of the five leaders, no reference was made to the above-mentioned historical background and contracts.
The President of Kazakhstan formally stated in his speech that the previous treaties over the Caspian Sea have become null and void making it deemed accepted indirectly by Iran’s silence.
The newly independent coastal states are not interested in the historical background of the Caspian Sea, so they are trying to forgo the historical claimants of the two countries -Iran and the Soviet Union. They are more willing to Institutionalize the trends of the five countries instead of the historical background, but this doesn’t justify Iran’s withdrawal from its substantiated claims on the Caspian Sea.
“Iran could at least register its own stance alone concerning the historical background of its claims on the Caspian Sea in Tehran Summit putting emphasis on it. Therefore, it is really unclear why such a negligence was made in spite of the great importance of these backgrounds over Iran’s endless legal disputes over the Caspian Sea.” Mohsen Aminzadeh, former deputy for foreign minister of Iran during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, believes.
*Omid Shokri Kalehsar, Senior Energy Security Analyst