Vladimir Putin met Iranian President Hassan Rohani on Sunday after a dramatic week in which he was threatened with the punishment of US economic sanctions.
But they did not meet to publicly agree to a common response to the act of "economic warfare," as Russia described the sanctions. The two Presidents were in the small Kazakh coastal town of Aktau to sign a legal convention on the Caspian Sea.
After more than 20 years of diplomatic efforts, the five Caspian coastal states ̵
Diplomats described the document as a regional constitution.
Putin told in a room where Presidents and Foreign Ministers were present: "Our summit is extraordinary, if not truly epoch-making."
Rouhani was more cautious: "Today we have taken a very important step, but we should recognize that there are more important issues that need to be addressed." He thanked his Caspian partners for their support since the US withdrawal from the United States Nuclear agreement, known as the Common Comprehensive Action Plan.
This was a hard-won diplomatic victory. Last week, Iranian analysts reported that Tehran was "50:50" to sign. The main issue was how the seabed should be distributed. Many prefer to divide by a line that is equidistant from the five coasts, but Iran – with the smallest coastline – does not.
Russia was reluctant to pursue Turkmenistan's planned 300 km long gas pipeline to Azerbaijan, which would open its huge, cheap gas reserves for a European market currently dominated by Gazprom.
The solution seemed to be to keep the wording vague and delay divisive decisions. On Sunday, the five nations agreed on 15 miles of territorial waters, in addition to another 10 nautical miles of fishing area behind which shared waters.
"What does that mean, who knows," a delegate told the Guardian. "The lawyers will have to tell you."
The tricky question of how to divide up the hydrocarbon-rich underground area has been postponed. Kazakhstan Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov told the press from the Convention document: "The methodology for establishing the state baselines should be laid down in a separate agreement between all parties under this Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea Iranian partner is particularly important. "
The Caspian Sea, once controlled by Iran, is a sensitive issue for this country. It lost the northern part of the sea in a defeat against Russia in the 1820s and the loss still seems traumatic. Rohani's critics will call any perceived concession at the summit a national betrayal.
But Rouhani is not well placed to fight with his neighbors. Ever since US President Donald Trump issued his Twitter threat, "the bitterest sanctions ever imposed," promising to publicize that "anyone doing business with Iran will not do business with the United States "fill dangerous new holes in his economy.
His preference was for a long time to achieve trade and diplomatic partnerships in Europe, but now the US has effectively capped that market, forcing Iran to turn to Russia, China and its regional allies to overrun its economy hold.
When asked if they feared that sanctions against the two major regional players would undermine the trade potential of the Caspian Sea, the delegates of Aktau responded with waiting pragmatism.
"We have to deal with this issue, but for us Iran is an opportunity, it's a huge country and a huge market and we should not miss this opportunity to work with them," said a high-ranking Kazakh diplomat. "Iran is our neighbor and our inevitable partner."
Trump's goal to reduce Iran's oil sales to zero by November seems increasingly unreliable. On Friday, Iran's largest oil company, China, said it would continue doing business with Iran. Rohani used his bilateral meeting with Putin at the summit to seek similar assurances.
"Putin and Rohani have very good personal relationships and they understand each other," said Stanislav Pritchin, a political analyst and expert on the Caspian Sea. "They will be discussing sanctions and how to cope with the new circumstances – including the Syrian situation, especially Israeli attempts to force Iranian troops out of Syrian territory, which is totally unacceptable to Iran, but the Russian media will not handle these meetings The signing of the convention is the real result – that is the great achievement. "
A legally binding convention that prevents the Caspian states from opening their borders to attackers – such as the US or NATO – or allowing foreign military forces The presence in the Caspian waters is a triumph for Putin. For Rohani, a strategic representation of Russian support is more urgent.
Ariane Tabatabai, political scientist and co-author of Triple Axis, Iran's relations with Russia and China, said: "Rouhani must tell the [the Iranian] public that he is doing everything in his power to appease their economic grievances and It is not isolated, this has been the most important topic of conversation of the Iranian government in recent weeks.
"The best possible result for the Iranians will be to return to Tehran with something tangible that says we are with or But without being subject to US sanctions well. "
But being bound by the sanctions of his own Russia does not give much in the way of economic lifelines.The best that Putin can offer is to assist in the development of Iranian gas fields or a form of cooperation between state institutions that already affected by existing sanctions and considered toxic a be written.
When it comes to substantial assurances that Rouhani can give back to a concerned Tehran, an awkward alliance must strike with some trade-friendly neighbors.