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Turkmenistan: Iranian Official Explores Possibilities For Economic Cooperation

By Rozinazar Khoudaiberdiev and Masha Rasner

A visit this week by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi to Turkmenistan has focused new attention on bilateral relations. Rozinazar Khoudaiberdiev and Masha Rasner of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service provide this report.

Prague, 22 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- An Iranian government delegation, led by Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi, met on Oct. 20 in Ashgabat with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. In the course of the talks, the two sides discussed the prospects for economic cooperation between Iran and Turkmenistan. They noted their similar approaches to the question of cooperation on the Caspian Sea and pledged readiness to work together on Caspian gas deposits.

As a result of the talks, the two sides signed an international agreement on cooperation in building and use of the "Druzhba" (Friendship) dam on the Tejan River which partially forms the border between Iran and Turkmenistan. The planned dam will hold 1.2 billion cubic meters of water, allowing for irrigation of 20,000 hectares of land on each side of the border. The project is expected to take five years to complete.

During the meeting the two delegations also discussed the prospects for bilateral cooperation in the sphere of motor transportation and road construction. President Niyazov suggested an idea of creating a joint venture "Khazar" that would unite the efforts of the Iranian company "Dobral" and the Turkmen road-building company "Turkmenautoellary." The joint venture would take part in large-scale road construction projects. The most urgent are the reconstruction of the 550 km highway between Geoktepe and Turkmenbashi inside Turkmenistan and construction of the 330 km highway connecting Turkmenistan with Iran.

In the aftermath of his meeting with the Iranian delegation, President Niyazov said that the bilateral relationship "is not fake, which means that we have a big future."

"After conquering our territory, the Russian Empire instilled in us a belief that Iran is our enemy. That, of course, was the view of the Empire and of leading Russian officials. That is history. We will not allow Moscow to act in the same way anymore. I had mentioned that before. We will not allow for any disagreements between our countries."

Niyazov went on to say that since his country gained independence in 1991, in his words, "some countries and politicians" have tried to harm relations between Iran and Turkmenistan. But he said Turkmenistan will, in his words, "never be a marionette."

The Turkmen president did not specify which countries and politicians he meant. Niyazov also noted that the two countries share similar views on Caspian Sea issues.

For his part, Iranian Foreign Minister Kharazi said the two countries enjoy a special relationship:

"Our relationship with Turkmenistan is unlike our relationship with any other country. When our two countries sign international agreements, we always consider each other's interests. That is not the same with respect to other countries." Kharazi could have mentioned that, unlike many other projects Turkmenistan has discussed with other countries and foreign businesses, past agreements between Iran and Turkmenistan have become reality.

One example is a small gas pipeline which opened between Turkmenistan and Iran at the end of 1997. That section of pipeline may prove to be the first stage of a pipeline eventually reaching to Turkey. Iran and Turkmenistan have also connected their railway lines.

But not all of Turkmenistan's relations with Iran have been trouble-free. Neither leader chose to mention a dispute that flared between Tehran and Ashgabat in February when Turkmenistan signed a deal with two major U.S. energy companies to lay a gas pipeline across the Caspian seabed.

The pipeline -- which if it goes forward would take three years to build -- would transport Turkmen gas to Azerbaijan. From there it could be forwarded to the world market through pipelines Washington wants to see built through Turkey. The U.S.-backed projects have angered Tehran because they deliberately bypass Iran as a transit route for Caspian Sea energy.

But Ashgabat also has recently shown signs it may not have enough patience to wait for the Trans-Caspian pipeline to be built and could instead look again to Iran to move large quantities of its gas. Niyazov passed that message to Turkish Energy Minister Cumhur Ersumer when he visited the Turkmen capital earlier this month.

(Bill Samii, a regional specialist with RFE/RL's Communications Division, and Liz Fuller of Newsline also contributed to this report.)