10 Reasons Why Rouhani Signed a Bad Russian Document

10 Reasons Why Rouhani Signed a Bad Russian Document

Tuesday, 14 August, 2018 - 06:30
Leaders of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan attend signing ceremony of 5th Caspian Summit in Aktau. (AFP)
London - Amir Taheri
When he signed the Russian-drafted Convention on the Caspian Sea on Sunday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may have hoped that his move will be seen as nothing more than a formal diplomatic gesture.

However, even before he had signed the issue the “signature” seemed to have touched a raw nerve in a nation already angry about a range of political, social and economic grievances.

Voices condemning the signature as a “sell-out” to Russia were raised across the board, including circles within the ruling establishment. Raja News, a website controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, ran an editorial claiming that the Caspian Convention could threaten Iran’s national security. It also rejected a previous claim by the Foreign Ministry that the signing of the Russian document had received the approval of the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei.

Responding to the storm raised in the social media by “the signature, the Islamic Majlis’s National Security Monday summoned Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to a grilling session next week.

Zarif and Rouhani, however, have kept a low profile, hoping that the storm would subside.

That is unlikely to happen anytime soon as “the signature” has become a rallying cry for all forces opposed to the Iranian regime for a wide variety of reasons.

But what does a close reading of the Convention show?

The first point is the bizarre provenance of the document.

The Caspian Convention has been drafted by the Russian Ministry of Defense without any direct input by the four other littoral states of the inland sea: Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says the four states’ views had been expressed in more than two decades of negotiations, including four summits. However, the fact remains that the four states had no opportunity to offer amendments and demand clarifications regarding the final text itself, something rare in international negotiations.

The second point is that the text invents a new regime for the Caspian Sea, ignoring the international conventions already in force on seas, lakes and rivers throughout the world. Russia’s rationale for this is that the Caspian is too big to be regarded as a lake and too small to be considered a sea.

However, if we go by the legal and internationally recognized definition of lakes as closed bodies of water, the Caspian would perfectly fit. Thus, it could be subjected to similar conventions in place for the Laurentian Great Lakes between the United States and Canada, the Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and Lake Albert in Africa. The advantages of such a definition include that of subjecting the Caspian to international law and conventions already recognized by the community of nations.

The third point is that the text establishes the Russia Ministry of Defense as an authority on the literature, including maps and surveys, regarding the Caspian. That would mean divesting the literature, including historic documents held by Iran, of any political authority, despite the fact that between 1828 until the fall of the Soviet Union, Iran and Russia, in its various forms, shared the ownership of the inland sea. To be sure, for much of that time, Iran’s much lauded “50 percent share” in the Caspian was largely symbolic because Russia, far more powerful than Iran, simply ignored its weak neighbor.

The fourth point is that the text that Rouhani signed implicitly gives the stamp of approval to a fait accompli in the shape of bilateral accords that Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have already signed with each other. Those accords already establish a de facto status for almost 87 percent of the sea, which means whatever happens next Iran wouldn’t be able to have a say in more than 13 percent of the area covered.

The fifth point is that Iran is alone among the five littoral sates not to be granted what is termed “inland waters”, meaning bodies of waters partly surrounded by land on at least two sides, such as bays. The largest of these, of course, is the Qarabughaz Gul (Black Mouth Bay) which has been fully assigned to Turkmenistan and kept out of the regime suggested by the convention. The Iranian coastline, however, is an almost straight line, apart from a tiny depression in the Enzeli lagoon in the Gilan province. This means that if and when there is agreement on the base-line for territorial waters, Iran would be strictly limited to the 15 miles cut-off point established by the convention.

The sixth point is that the convention fixes at 10 miles “the exclusive fishing rights’ zone” granted to the littoral states, plus a further 15 miles allocated as “territorial waters”. This could not only wreck the Iranian fishing industry in the Caspian, but also hamper operations against poaching, smuggling and, perhaps, even hostile activities by groups threatening national security.

Rouhani claimed that such concerns are unwarranted since the current text also states that agreement on such limits must come in further negotiations. This is a bizarre excuse. If those who wrote the text didn’t mean those measures to be at least the basis for a legal regime, why did they include them?

The seventh point is that the Russian text replaces well-known and universally accepted technical and legal terms by inventions from the Russian Ministry of Defense. For example, the well-known term of “continental shelf” is replaced by “seabed”, a poetical but not legal term. The term “Thalweg” (qa’ar al-mia in Persian and Arabic) is replaced by “depth of water”. The intention of the Russian authors may have been to make it hard for signatories to interpret it with reference to the established body of the law of the sea, sanctioned by the United Nations.

The eighth point is that the convention offers no authority to back any definition of the terms it uses, leaving the door open for interpretation by the more powerful partners, in this case Russia. Divesting he judiciaries of Iran and the three other “weaker” littoral states of any say in implementing the terms of the convention, the document signed by Rouhani emerges as a Russian diktat.

The ninth point is related to the one above. The document lacks any mechanism for arbitration in case of dispute between two or more littoral states. This is already relevant because of Iran’s dispute with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan regarding the Alburz deep-water oilfields. If he convention is fully implemented, Iran’s share of the Caspian’s oil and gas reserves would hover at around just one percent.

All in all, Iran’s share would be around 14,800 square kilometers of the Caspian’s 371,000 square kilometer area. That despite the fact that, because the Caspian is at its deepest in the southern parts, Iran’s share of waters would be closer to 22 percent. (The northern part close to Russia is shallow, and much of it even freezes in winter.)

Finally, the Russian document signed by Rouhani hurts Iran’s national feelings in a big way. It is little more than a political gimmick to provide President Vladimir Putin with a diplomatic fig-leaf for his hegemonic designs. He annexed the Crimean Peninsula with a “referendum” and now wants to annex the Caspian with a convention.

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