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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tough Caspian Talks Ahead in Iran

APPutin smiling as he sits beside Merkel on Monday at the Petersburg Dialogue in Wiesbaden, Germany. The event was part of a two-day visit by the president.
Staff Writers

President Vladimir Putin was due to fly to Tehran on Tuesday for talks with Iran and other Caspian littoral states on two tough issues -- the long-running dispute on dividing the energy-rich Caspian Sea and Iran's controversial nuclear program.

On Monday in Wiesbaden, Germany, after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin dismissed reports of an assassination attempt planned on him during his Iran trip.

In Tehran, Putin will hold talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the leaders of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to try to hammer out a solution on a Caspian border dispute that has impeded the development of several potentially lucrative offshore energy fields. A settlement could open the way for a pipeline under the Caspian that would take Central Asian gas to Europe, bypassing Russia.

But experts warned that the talks would likely produce no breakthrough on the issue, which has clouded relations among the five countries since the Soviet breakup in 1991.

Putin's visit could signal, however, how Moscow will proceed in its efforts to get Iran to stop uranium enrichment. Tehran has rejected Moscow's offer to enrich uranium in Russia, rather than in Iran, where the Bushehr nuclear reactor is being built.

Putin reiterated Monday that Moscow remained opposed to tougher sanctions on Tehran.

The international community must exercise patience and diplomacy to persuade Iran to halt uranium enrichment, Putin said. "It is pointless to frighten someone, Iran's leadership or Iran's people,'' Putin said. "They aren't afraid."

At Monday's talks in Germany, Merkel disagreed with Putin over responses to Iran's nuclear program. She said Iran had to fulfill the United Nations Security Council's demands over its nuclear program or face "a new round of sanctions.''

The Caspian dispute dates back to the Soviet era, when Iran, whose coastline is 13 percent of the Caspian shore, controlled the part of the sea on its side of the land border with the Soviet Union.

Leaders of the five countries first

held a summit to discuss the problem in 2002 in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Iran offered to split the sea equally among the countries, with each getting 20 percent.

Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan proposed a different arrangement, which would split up the sea in proportion to the size of each country's shoreline. Under this proposal, Kazakhstan would emerge the biggest winner, with 27 percent, while Iran would get the smallest portion, just 13 percent. Russia would receive 19 percent, Turkmenistan 23 percent and Azerbaijan 18 percent.

Under the late President Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan was often the unknown factor in the talks, as he periodically appeared to favor one side or the other.

In contrast to the mercurial Niyazov, Turkmenistan's new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, has welcomed foreign investors back into his country, raising hopes of a breakthrough that could see long-disputed Caspian fields finally being developed.

Under Berdymukhammedov, Turkmenistan is likely to push vigorously for a solution, said Radzhab Safarov, director of the Moscow-based Center for the Study of Contemporary Iran.

morteza nikoubazl / Reuters
Presidents Ahmadinejad and Nazarbayev walking together Monday in Tehran.
Turkmenistan could invite massive Western investment into its sector of the Caspian if the water border were settled, Safarov said.

But Iran will most likely stand firm on refusing a 13 percent share of the sea, Safarov said. Russia could attempt to win Iran over by giving security guarantees, a renewed commitment to complete the stalled Bushehr reactor project and promises to sell it more sophisticated weapons systems, Safarov said.

"In return, Iran would probably consider agreeing," he said, adding that there would still be only a small chance of a deal.

But a deal on the Caspian issue would not be in Russia's short-term interests, as it would give Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan the option to build a pipeline under the Caspian to Azerbaijan that would get their gas to Europe without going through Russia, said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at UralSib.

Russia wants to keep a tight grip on the European Union in terms of gas supplies while it negotiates a new strategic partnership agreement and is eager to maximize Gazprom's opportunities to invest there, he said.

Safarov said the Caspian Sea summit was only a pretext for Putin to meet with Ahmadinejad. "If it weren't for this format, Putin wouldn't be able to make the visit," Safarov said. "It would infuriate the Western states that view any cooperation with Iran as questionable."

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev arrived in Tehran ahead of Putin on Monday for discussions with Ahmadinejad. A statement from the Kazakh president did not say whether the two countries had reached an agreement on the Caspian, Interfax reported.

In nuclear talks, Putin is in a strong position to influence the Iranian leadership, which under Ahmadinejad has grown increasingly isolated outside the Islamic world, said Vladimir Sotnikov, an analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Oriental Studies.

Putin and Ahmadinejad have met face-to-face at least twice before -- at the UN and during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Kyrgyzstan last year.

"The real Russian position on Iran is somewhat closer to the U.S. position than many think," said Clifford Kupchan, a senior analyst at the Eurasia Group, a Washington-based risk consultancy. "Putin will make a real effort to promote a solution."

Kupchan argued that while the chances for a breakthrough were slight because there were no signs that the Iranians would stop their nuclear program, Putin's efforts at diplomacy might improve his strained ties with the United States.

"Whatever he does will not go unnoticed by Washington," Kupchan said.