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Tensions between Iran, Azerbaijan rise

BAKU, Azerbaijan, July 24 -- Tensions between Azerbaijan and its southern neighbor Iran reached a new, dangerous level Tuesday as an Iranian warship threatened an Azeri oil research vessel in disputed waters in the Caspian Sea.

Iran claims that the geological survey vessel Geofizik-3, operated by BP, formerly known as BP Amoco, is trespassing in Iran's territorial waters, while British diplomats have insisted neither London nor BP wishes to get involved in a territorial dispute between Baku and Tehran.

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In a war of words, Azerbaijani officials have responded to Iranian warnings by declaring that Baku will not be intimidated and will not retreat from its rightful claims to develop the oil shelf.

Meanwhile, BP has said all work on the Araz-Alov-Sharg field is being suspended until the dispute is resolved, and Britain's Ambassadorto Tehran Nick Browne, in a statement reported by the official Iranian news agency IRNA, confirmed that oilfield development work would stop until the matter is settled between Iran and Azerbaijan.

"The United Kingdom attaches great emphasis to avoid misunderstandings. British Petroleum is not going to resume any oilfield development projects in the waters disputed by Iran and Azerbaijan," IRNA quoted Browne as saying.

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An Iranian warship intercepted the research vessel, chartered by BP, which reportedly entered Azeri waters on Monday evening, and was forced to return to Baku.

The Azerbaijani government has issued a formal protest to Iran, accusing it of "committing a grave violation of international norms, (using) aggressive and unceremonious actions by the military (which) could cause serious damage to bilateral relations."

According to a report by the Azeri state news agency, Iran's ambassador to Azerbaijan, Ahad Gazai, was summoned by Azerbaijan's Prime Minister Artur Rasi-zade, who handed the envoy a letter of protest, claiming that Iranian military aircraft flew over Azeri research vessels before an Iranian warship approached and ordered the Azeri survey vessel to turn back.

Iran has not responded to the accusation that its warship crossed into Azeri territorial waters and threatened to fire on the research vessel.

Iran has called for all development of the disputed oil field to be frozen until a final resolution to the 10-year-old argument can be found at the negotiating table.

BP, formed by the merger of British Petroleum and Amoco, U.S.-based Exxon Mobil, Norway's Statoil and the Azeri state oil company SOCAR all have interests in an international consortium established to develop the huge oil and gas field, which is estimated to be worth more than $9 billion, while Iran has also claimed part of the offshore territory. Iran has called the disputed oilfield Alborz.

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Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA, reported that the Iranian Oil Ministry called international oil companies' contracts for the development of the oil field "unlawful" and invalid.

The dispute is part of Iran's claims for a larger share of the Caspian oil basin. A summit involving the five littoral states -- Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan -- has been called for this autumn.

Azeri Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliyev has called the Iranian territorial claims "unacceptable."

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