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Pro-government media deny Rouhani 'sold out' Iranian Caspian Sea claims

Iranian social media has been inundated with claims that the government has given away much of the nation's share of the Caspian Sea, while pro-Rouhani newspapers reject such talk as baseless.

On Aug. 12, the Caspian Sea littoral states — Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan — signed what has been described as a historic accord on the legal status of the Caspian Sea.

Controversy over the details of the convention has not subsided, however, and the issue remains the talk of the town in Tehran. On Aug. 15, pro-government papers once again put the spotlight on the pact and went the extra mile in its defense, dismissing claims that Iran ceded its share of the Caspian Sea to Russia and other littoral states.

Days before the convention was signed, reports circulated on Persian-language social media that Tehran was set to offer concessions on its share of the inland lake. Those reports were relying on claims that in older agreements Iran had possessed 50% of the Caspian Sea, but that it was now losing a significant portion to primarily the Russians. The fall of the Soviet Union led to the creation of new independent republics such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, each of which now claim shares of the Caspian Sea as littoral states, disrupting the previous understanding of the lake as equally shared by Iran and the Soviet Union.

Iran's Foreign Ministry was quick to respond, saying what was agreed upon in the historic pact had not touched upon the respective shares of littoral states. The ministry said the convention stressed the sovereignty of the lake and prohibited any foreign military presence there.

But that did not stop the flow of hashtags, articles and statements against the government of President Hassan Rouhani, which was accused of inking a humiliating pact likened to Turkmanchai, the 1828 treaty whereby the Qajar monarchy ceded large swaths of territory to imperial Russia.

Articles in moderate and Reformist papers Aug. 15 once again came out in support of the president. Etemaad described the criticisms of the convention as a "wave of populism" derived from unfounded claims that seek to condemn the authorities instead of engaging with the facts of the matter. "Those claims are presented by people with no expert views," the daily wrote, raising the question that the public might no longer be pursuing in-depth facts through conventional media.

On its front page, the moderate-leaning Ettelaat used a tweet by Iran's ambassador to Britain, Hamid Baeedinejad. The Iranian envoy had criticized "celebrities who posed as intellectuals and unintentionally acted against national interests by making claims without enough knowledge." Baeedinejad defended the Rouhani government for "preventing an unjust sharing of the Caspian Sea despite the most pressing sanctions and international pressure."

Jomhoori-e Eslami, another moderate daily, also responded to claims about the Iranian concessions. "Iran's rights have not been violated," read the paper's headline. The editorial quoted Foreign Ministry officials and the Iranian ambassador to Kazakhstan as saying that the convention on the legal status of the Caspian did not cover the issue of shares and borders, which will have to be negotiated down the line.

Taking a cautious approach, Ghanoon, a Reformist daily, wrote about "the hidden layers of a convention" and called for the government's clarifications on the pact and explanations to the parliament. While rejecting claims on social media about a 50% Iranian share of the Caspian as "worthless propaganda," the paper pointed out that the treaty fell short of determining each state's share of resources, saying that those issues remain under dispute. Ghanoon also described Russia as a state that has not left behind a positive image in Iran's contemporary history.

As pro-Rouhani papers wrote on the unfoundedness of the reports, conservative dailies remained silent, both before and after the convention was signed. Still, the debate over where the claims originated from and what purposes they sought could remain heated in the days to come.

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