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Turkmenistan Attack on Iranian Fishermen in the Caspian Sea: Roots and Implications

By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD Int. Law

Recently, the coastal guard of Turkmenistan opened fire on a group of Iranian fishermen in the disputed and un-demarcated part of the Caspian Sea.

Noting that the littoral states of the Caspian Sea (Iran, Russian, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan Republic) have not reached an unanimously-agreed formula for delimitation of the Caspian maritime territories, it is important to know the roots and implications of this incident because it may be an indication of what may happen increasingly in future.

The continued problem of Caspian delimitation that has persisted since the collapse of the former Soviet Union (1991) and emergence of newly independent states in the coasts of the Caspian Sea, is exerting pressure on these countries and creating an atmosphere of frustration.

Pending attainment of a new legal regime for the Caspian Sea, the area is still subject to the legal regime created by 1921 and 1940 treaties of Iran and Russia. According to the 1921 treaty, the Caspian a common domain of the littoral states and according to the 1940 treaty there is a 10 mile exclusive fishing zone in the Caspian Sea.

In the last summit conference of the littoral states in Astrakhan of Russia (in 2014) it was decided to create a 25 mile territorial zone for the littoral states. However, this point has yet to be incorporated in the draft convention for legal regime of the Caspian Sea which is not ready currently and has to go through the government and parliamentary channels even after finalization by the summit conference.

At the same time, whether with the 10 mile exclusive fishing zone of 1940 treaty or on the basis of the 2014 agreement of the fourth Caspian summit in Russia regarding a 25 mile territorial zone, still the criteria for delimitation of adjacent and lateral borders of the national jurisdiction in the Caspian Sea remains an open question.

Therefore, it is clear that the Turkmenistan attack against the Iranian fishermen which took place without any warning and going through official or diplomatic channels, or hesitating to explore if these fishermen (which actually belonged to Turkaman villages of Iran) had really entered Turkmenistan territory or violated any other law is an indication that the issue has more profound roots:

  1. Turkmenistan is very sensitive to safeguard its share of the Caspian Sea. This has precedence in Turkmenistan's reaction to activities of the Azerbaijan Republic in the part of the Caspian Sea which is the site of a disputed oil field.
  2. Turkmenistan is also sensitive to the Iranian claims regarding having a share of the Caspian Sea further than the extension of the land borders in the sea (a median or equidistance line which leaves Iran with less than 13% of the Caspian Sea). Iranian claims have usually centered on a 20% share of the Caspian Sea.
  3. Turkmenistan will have a 17% of the Caspian Sea with the median line. Russians have been long exerting pressure on Turkmenistan to accept the Russian proposed formula of the modified median line (MML) for delimitation of the Caspian Sea. According to MML, only the seabed of the Caspian Sea is divided on the basis of a kind of median line and the superjacent waters of the Caspian Sea are considered as free for the use of the littoral states. Russia has already signed treaties with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan Republic for delimitation of Caspian seabed according to MML. However, Iran and Turkmenistan have not accepted this.
  4. Iranian relations with Turkmenistan are not generally developing due to the sanctions existing against Iran that make almost any major project of working with Iran impossible or full of problems.

The bottom line is that the concerned incident may not immediately lead to a further escalation of the situation, but the roots of the dispute between the Caspian states and the possibility of emergence of similar or more serious incidents especially on oil and gas resources are still there. This may have a new dimension due to singling Iran out as an obstacle for reaching a unanimously-agreed formula for the Caspian Sea's new legal regime.


... Payvand News - 02/07/15 ... --

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