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Turkmenistan: Ashgabat Overstating Gas Exports

  • Michael Lelyveld

Turkmenistan appears to have overstated its gas-export figures, according to numbers cited by Iran's national gas company last week. Supplies have consistently fallen short of expectations since a pipeline opened in 1997, while Iran's plans for huge gas exports to Turkey have also failed to materialize.

Boston, 4 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Iran said last week that it has bought less natural gas than Turkmenistan says it sold to Tehran, raising fresh doubts about Ashgabat's economic claims.

On 28 August in Tehran, the National Iranian Gas Company's managing director, Hamdollah Mohammadnejad, said Iran imported 4.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen gas in 2001, the official news agency IRNA reported.

The figure is 30 percent less than the 6.5 bcm that Turkmenistan said in January that it delivered. In February, President Saparmurat Niyazov gave a slightly lower total, saying the country exported 5-6 bcm of gas to Iran, which is still more than Tehran says it received.

At the time, Niyazov also said Iran had asked to buy 8 bcm of gas this year, Interfax reported. Since then, official Turkmen reports have cited 6.5 bcm as the amount to be pumped to Iran in 2002. But Mohammadnejad told a press conference that Iran would import only 4.5 bcm this year, the same as in 2001.

The specific numbers may mean less than the discrepancies and the reasons behind them. Gas is the biggest product and the mainstay of Turkmenistan's economy. Former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov of the opposition National Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan has charged that Niyazov consistently overstates Turkmenistan's gas production, exports, and reserves. Independent analysts have doubted the official figures for years.

But the gas trade with Iran seems to be a special case with problems of its own. Over the years, Turkmenistan has repeatedly reported higher figures than Iran for the amount of gas it pumps or plans to supply to its southern neighbor. Although the two countries opened a pipeline between them with fanfare in 1997, its potential has never been realized.

In May 2000, Iran cut its gas imports from Turkmenistan by half over a pricing dispute and terms of repayment on its $190 million investment in the 193-kilometer line. Officials told Reuters that imports from Turkmenistan had dropped to just 1 bcm per year, far less than the 5 bcm envisioned when a 25-year agreement was signed in 1995.

Reports suggested for over a year that Iran might boost its annual imports from Turkmenistan's Korpedzhe gas field to 13 bcm. But the increase never materialized, and Iran let it be known that the pipeline had only carried a total of 6 bcm from the time of its opening until last year. Although Turkmenistan says it has been building a new compressor station at the Korpedzhe field, the latest report indicates that the growth of gas exports to Iran has fallen several years behind the initial plan.

The trade seems to have suffered from several problems. Iranian officials first complained that Turkmenistan made little effort to link other resources to Korpedzhe, so that there was little chance of filling the pipeline, even if Iran wanted more gas. Tehran was also unhappy about the repayment terms because Niyazov wanted to charge more for gas than it was demanding of Russia.

But even after prices equalized, the trade continued to lag. Much of the early enthusiasm in 1997 seems to have been based on separate plans to carry up to 30 bcm of Turkmen gas across Iran to Turkey. But that project for a 1.6-bcm pipeline across Iran also fell flat, leaving the imports from Korpedzhe as an isolated trade. Much of the gas has been used at power plants in northern Iran, which has its main gas deposits in the south.

Tehran's plans for its own gas exports to Turkey have also fallen behind. A 23-year deal signed in 1996 and valued at $20 billion was extended to 25 years after Turkey delayed implementation, but the first imports this year are believed to be far short of the scheduled amounts.

Although it first threatened to impose penalties under its take-or-pay contract, Iran has been diplomatically silent for months about the volume of Turkey's imports through a pipeline connection that opened last December. Turkey's 16-month economic crisis has stifled gas demand.

Iran's frustration can only be guessed from the most recent figures on bilateral trade. Last week, the Turkish State Statistics Institute reported that overall trade with Iran dropped 12 percent in the first three quarters of this year. Turkey's imports from Iran fell 9 percent in value in the first half. Imports were expected to soar with the opening of the pipeline.

But instead of pressing Turkey in public, Iran has chosen to put the best face on relations, hoping that Ankara will help pass its gas on to Europe. During a visit to Tehran this week by Turkish Foreign Minister Sukru Sina Gurel, Iranian officials hailed the proposed gas transfer as an example of bilateral cooperation.

The "Turkish Daily News" also relayed a report by the Bulgarian state press agency BTA that Iranian officials were discussing a pipeline north through Turkey and Bulgaria and Slovakia to carry up to 100 bcm per year to Europe.

But the outlook for such a plan seems doubtful, given that Russian gas already travels south to Turkey through Bulgaria. The English-language "Tehran Times" quoted a member of the Iran-Turkey Parliamentary Friendship Group as denying that Turkey would stop importing Iranian gas altogether. The statement reflects the concern that Turkey's gas imports have been so small.

Although all the countries have downplayed their disappointments, it seems clear that very little gas has been flowing from Turkmenistan to Iran and perhaps even less from Iran to Turkey this year.