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Russia Ratifies Caspian Convention With Iran Still Holding Out

Russian President Vladimir Putin, second from right, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, center, Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, right, President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, third from left, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, August 2018.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law ratifying the controversial Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, on Tuesday, October 1. Duma, the Russian parliament, had already passed the convention on September 19.

The international treaty between Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan was signed in Aktau, Kazakhstan on August 12, 2018, pending endorsement by respective parliaments.

The Islamic Republic of Iran's Majles is the only parliament that has not yet ratified the convention that maps out how to divide the potentially vast oil and gas resources of the Caspian.

Russia and other littoral countries hope the ratification of the convention will pave the way for more energy exploration and pipeline projects.

The multilateral agreement delineates the Caspian Sea into various jurisdictions, such as inland waters, territorial waters, fishing zones, and common waters, as well as the seabed, subsoil and to the airspace above it.

The convention also allows the littoral states to reach their own bilateral agreements on their sea borders.

But the signing of the convention has triggered a series of criticisms among Iranians. Many on social media have been complaining about what they believe is Iran's unfair share of the Caspian Sea.

Many believe that according to bilateral friendship treaties of 1920 and 1941 between Tehran and Moscow, the Caspian Sea was shared by Iran and the Soviet Union before the latter's fall in 1992 and should not be equally divided in the new regime between Iran, Russia, the Republic of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Rather, the successor states of the Soviet Union should continue to have 50 percent sovereignty and Iran should keep its 50 percent jurisdiction.

According to some unofficial estimates, Iran's share of the Caspian has been reduced from 50 percent to as little as 11 percent.

Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia have already delineated the seabed through bilateral treaties, but they have not yet decided on their sea borders. Iran and Turkmenistan have so far hesitated to follow.

Article 14 of the convention also authorizes the littoral states to construct oil and gas pipelines on the seabed through bilateral treaties, provided they respect ecological standards.

The article paves the way for constructing the "Trans Caspian" pipeline to transfer Turkmenistan natural gas to Azerbaijan, and then to the West.

Russia and Kazakhstan are also set to mutually agree on a similar project that had been in limbo for years.

Furthermore, the Convention regulates the navigation of warships, submarines, and other underwater vessels. Importantly, it prohibits the presence of armed forces not belonging to any of the five coastal States.

The outright exclusion of the military vessels of third States has wider implications, such as ensuring, for instance, that the NATO states are not able to deploy ships or troops in the Caspian Sea. Thus, Russia remains the dominant military power across the world's largest lake.

The speculations and criticism of the Iranian government for compromising "Iran's rights" gained momentum on July 29, when Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the Iranian parliament that the Caspian Legal Regime has been "finalized."

Zarif added that Iran signed the convention in 2018 after it was approved by the Islamic Republic Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), chaired by President Hassan Rouhani.

One of the most vocal critics of the new legal regime for the Caspian Sea, is Prince Reza Pahlavi, the heir to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi whose reign was terminated by the anti-West 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Prince Reza's supporters have launched a campaign on social media against the new legal regime (convention).

Moreover, the exiled Prince Reza Pahlavi has called on Iranians to "rise and protect the country's interests and territorial integrity by forcing those who have occupied seats in the Iranian Parliament to stand up and defend the country's rights." He has reminded Iranians that "unity and sympathy are the only paths to victory."

The Prince also questioned the "silence" of lawmakers in the face of the new Caspian Sea convention he believes caused harm to Iran's interests and rights.

Referring to talks in Kazakhstan last year among littoral countries and Iran's reluctant position, he said it was unlikely that the Islamic Republic would guard Iran's interests.

Many Iranian look with suspicion at Russian President Putin's speech on the convention where he insisted that the new agreement would replace the older treaties, between Tehran and Moscow.

"Based on consensus and consideration for our mutual interests, we have produced a modern and balanced international agreement. The convention will replace the Soviet-Iranian agreements of 1921 and 1940," Putin asserted immediately after the new convention was signed in Aktau.