5 Caspian Presidents Meet to Divide Sea

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- The presidents of all five states surrounding the Caspian Sea will meet in the Turkmen capital on Tuesday to try to settle a decade-old dispute on how to divide the sea, including its gigantic oil and gas wealth.

But while the fact that President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are prepared to meet at all is seen as a step forward, not everyone expects a dramatic breakthrough.

"It's an important event, it's the first summit of all five presidents," a senior Turkmen Foreign Ministry official said Monday. "It will be difficult to find a solution immediately, but this is a first step."

Before his departure for Turkmenistan, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was more optimistic.

"It's a positive meeting and I hope that all five countries reach a fair solution for the Caspian Sea's legal regime," Khatami said at the airport, Iranian state television reported.

The Caspian has existed in a legal limbo since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Until then, a 1970 agreement between the Soviet Union and Iran established exactly who owned what in the priceless waters.

But the emergence of three new states, each desperate to use the massive hydrocarbon resources of the Caspian to boost their infant economies, has increased the urgency -- at least for them -- of drawing up a fresh legal status for the waters.

That the sea contains huge reserves is not in doubt. Multibillion dollar investments have already been made in sectors claimed by Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

The Azeri capital, Baku, produced half the world's crude oil a hundred years ago.

"In 2010, we estimate production of the Caspian area will be about 3.8 million barrels per day -- that means about 60 percent of the present production of the North Sea," said one Western oil executive, speaking on condition of anonymity at a recent World Economic Forum in Kazakhstan.

He pointed out that this would raise Caspian output to well over Iran's current 3.4 million barrels per day, and would give the region 50 percent more output than the Gulf of Mexico.

But with each state holding widely differing views on what represents an equitable division, progress on dividing the sea has been painfully slow.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has attempted to host summits several times before, most recently last October, but all have been cancelled as differences proved too great.

Last summer an Iranian gunship ordered two exploration ships out of what it considered its waters. The ships were in what they believed to be the Azeri part of the sea.

Iran wants the Caspian divided into five equal chunks, but analysts say it might have to settle for less.

Turkmenistan also complained bitterly to Azerbaijan last summer over what it saw as illegal licensing by Azerbaijan to explore in a disputed area of the sea.

Legal experts from the littoral states met in Moscow in January to try to bring a deal closer, but left empty-handed.