Arash oil field challenge between Iran and Kuwait

With a width of ۴۰۰ km the Persian Gulf is the entire continental shelf and its entire area is subject to the laws of the continental shelf.
20 November 2023
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Seyyed Mohammad Reza Rouhani

 With a width of 400 km, the Persian Gulf is the entire continental shelf, and its entire area is subject to the laws of the continental shelf. Arash Field (Durra by the Kuwaitis), located in the north of the Persian Gulf, was discovered in 1960 by the Japanese AOC. The volume of oil and gas reserves of this field is estimated at 300 million barrels of crude oil and 11 trillion m3 of natural gas.

The beginning of the dispute between the two countries, Iran and Kuwait, regarding the Arash field goes back to the lack of delineation of the maritime boundary between the two countries. The main point of dispute is the way to determine the boundary of the continental shelf waters between these two countries because the Kuwaiti government does not accept Iran's straight line to determine the boundaries of the continental shelf and believes that Iran's maritime baseline should be before Khark Island and near the coast of Iran.

This dispute goes back to the 1960s when the maritime boundaries were not defined correctly. The Iranian government gave the right to determine the maritime boundary to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and the Kuwait government to the Royal Dutch Shell Company. These two rights overlap in the northern part of the field. In the past years, the National Iranian Oil Company drilled an exploratory well named Arash-1 to determine the amount of reserves in the Arash gas field. In 2001, after Iran started exploration operations in the Arash field, Kuwait immediately threatened Iran with a complaint in international forums, and after the visit of the Emir of Kuwait to Tehran during the presidency of Mr. Khatami, Iran stopped exploration activities and used the platform built for this field in other fields.

 

Determining the share of two countries in the continental shelf

According to Article 76 of the Convention 1982 on the International Law of the Sea, the continental shelf of the coastal state includes the bed and sub-bed of marine areas beyond the territorial sea that extends to the outer boundary of the continental margin. According to this article, if the outer boundary of the continent does not extend much, up to 200 miles from the baseline is considered the continental shelf of the coastal state. In this area, the exploration, exploitation, protection, and management of all living and non-living natural resources of the seabed, the seabed the waters on it, and performing other economic activities related to the exploitation of water, wind, and sea currents for energy production are the monopoly of the coastal state. In the seas where the continental shelf of two countries coincides, the median line method or drawing points that are at an equal distance from both countries is used.

According to Article 19 of the Maritime Zones Law of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the boundaries of the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as long as bilateral agreements do not determine them, will be in line with a line whose points are at the same distance from the nearest points of the baselines of the parties. In addition, it is stated in Article 9 of the Kuwait Marine Zones Law (2014) that if there is no agreement on determining the maritime boundary with neighboring and opposite countries, the median line will be the final limit of Kuwait's exclusive economic zone, and Article 7 of this law also states: if there is no agreement on determining the maritime boundary with neighboring and opposite countries the median line will be the final limit of the continental shelf of Kuwait.

Determining a point as the base of the boundary line has become a challenge between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kuwaiti government. During the previous regime, the base of Iran's boundary line was determined by the coast of Khark Island, which the National Council also approved, while Kuwait determined it at Failaka Island.

One of the reasons for the non-agreement of the coastal countries on the delimitation of the maritime boundaries and the continental shelf- which is usually drawn based on the median line - has been the non-acceptance of the alleged baselines by the parties. For example, the Islamic Republic of Iran has always emphasized its direct baseline and the placement of Khark Island and Fasht al-Mowa in the negotiations to determine the boundary of its continental shelf with Kuwait. At the same time, the Kuwait government has also emphasized the location of Failaka Island and Raas al-iahi behind its baseline, while Kuwait has only accepted Iran's baseline with Khark Island to determine the boundary of the continental shelf with the mainland of Kuwait and not the continental shelf of the region. This lack of understanding in accepting the baseline and its effects on determining the median line and boundary line of the continental shelf has been one of the important factors in the lack of success in the process of delimiting the boundaries of the continental shelf of Iran and Kuwait in the last 50 years.

About nine rounds of negotiations have been held between the governments of Iran and Kuwait regarding the delimitation of the boundary between them - the last round of negotiations dates back to February 2022 in Tehran - which still has not yielded any results.

On March 29, 2023, Kuwaiti Minister of Foreign Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah announced during a joint press conference with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian in Kuwait that the Durra oil and gas field is a three-way position between this country, Saudi Arabia and Iran. After a few hours, he changed his words, which was obviously under pressure, and claimed that the Durra oil and gas field is only Kuwaiti-Saudi and that Iran is not on our side in this matter, and what was discussed in the press conference was about the orbits of the continental shelf.

 

Negotiations as the only solution to the existing challenge

As mentioned above, in the bilateral negotiations during the last two decades, technical and specialized discussions progressed in stages, but due to various reasons, including the depth of differences between the two countries and the involvement of third countries, there was no result.

One of the characteristics of the Persian Gulf, with a width of 400 km, is that all of which was the continental shelf and its entire area is subject to the laws of the continental shelf. On the other hand, according to the Convention1958, the duties of the maritime rights of the Persian Gulf must be determined by agreement between the countries, and according to the  Convention 1982 of the United Nations on the Law of the Sea, it is also possible to determine the water boundaries.

In recent months, the Kuwaiti and Saudi authorities, in various statements, while seeking completeness and calling themselves justified, have not given any share to the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Arash oil and gas field, and in this regard, the Council of Ministers of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council in the 157th meeting of August In the past in Riyadh, in paragraph 12 of its issued statement, it repeated the unrealistic and baseless claims of the countries of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia regarding the Arash field and called the exploitation of this field completely the exclusive right of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, while the map of the field indicates that 40% of the mentioned shelf is located in the seas of our country and 60% is located in the seas of two countries, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

On the one hand, more than nine rounds of negotiations between the government of our country and Kuwait, and on the other hand, the action of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has provided the Kuwaiti side with the information related to the exploratory seismic survey conducted in this field, indicates that the government of Kuwait recognized the rights of the government of Iran in this field until last year, but the change of positions of the Kuwaitis after solving their boundary problems with the Saudis and joining forces with the Saudis regarding this oil field is questionable and thought-provoking.

In the current situation of the region, it is felt that in order to maintain stability and security and avoid any new crisis in the region, the authorities of the beneficiary countries should proceed with tact, wisdom, and rationality in the continuation of the previous meetings and away from any media controversy and advertising blackmail with a positive view and win-win strategy to consult and carry out negotiations to reach an understanding and a fair solution to the existing dispute so that the relevant countries use from its benefits.

Seyyed Mohammad Reza Rouhani, a senior expert at the IPIS

 (The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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