Iran Backs Turkmens On Caspian Warns Foreigners

ASHGABAT (Reuters)–A senior Iranian official said on Friday Tehran backed Turkmen’stan in its dispute with Azerbaijan over several blocks in the oil-rich Caspian Sea–and said Baku had no right to invite foreigners to develop them.

"The positions of Iran and Turkmen’stan on the Caspian issue are close," Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani told reporters after meeting Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov.

"President Saparmurat Niyazov is also opposed to any unilateral actions by foreign companies on disputed fields in the Caspian," Ahani said through an interpreter.

The Caspian has huge oil and gas reserves but there is no international agreement on how it should be divided up among the five states which surround it.

In the last few weeks–Turkmen’stan has issued a series of toughly-worded warnings to ex-Soviet neighbor Azerbaijan and threatened to appeal to international arbitration if Baku proceeded with activities on several disputed blocks in the sea.

In a move that heated further the standoff in the Caspian–an Iranian gunboat last month forced an Azeri oil exploration ship used by British oil major BP to retreat from an offshore block claimed by Tehran.

Baku has voiced protests–accusing Tehran and Ashgabat of uniting forces against its national interests in the Caspian.

Ahani–who visited Moscow earlier this week–said that the littoral states–which also include Russia and Kazakhstan–should discuss the burning issue of Caspian division together–"taking into account the advantages" of each of the variants.

Ahani said Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was expected to pay an official visit to Ashgabat in the autumn–but did not say whether he would also take part in the Caspian Sea summit which Niyazov has proposed to hold in Turkmen’stan in October.

A top Russian diplomat was quoted on Friday as saying differences with Iran over the division of the oil-rich Caspian Sea remained–but that more talks would be held to thrash out a solution.

Itar-Tass news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Caspian envoy–Viktor Kalyuzhny–as saying there were signs all sides were moving closer on how to carve up the sea.

But he added that Iran’s demand for an equal 20 percent split of the sea with the four other littoral states of Russia–Kazakhstan–Azerbaijan and Turkmen’stan remained problematic.

"This is different from the position of Moscow–Astana and Baku," Kalyuzhny said of Iran’s stance. He said Turkmen’stan was also coming round to the idea of splitting the sea in a different way–one that would give Iran less than 20 percent.

Kalyuzhny–who met Ahani on Wednesday–said the Iranian had shown he was aware of the importance of regular dialogue.

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