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Caspian: Pact Eludes Iran, Turkmenistan

  • Michael Lelyveld

Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov apparently failed to secure more gas sales or a Caspian agreement during this week's visit to Iran. Aside from the troubles of concluding accords between the two countries, the event may have been upstaged by the arrival of Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

Boston, 14 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A rare trip to Iran seems to have fallen short of President Niyazov's goals as the countries failed to sign accords on new gas deliveries or a common stand on the Caspian Sea.

The two-day visit to Tehran ended on 11 March without major results, despite Niyazov's prediction that "an agreement will be inked by the two sides on the Caspian Sea legal regime," as reported by Iran's official IRNA news agency.

Niyazov, the self-styled Turkmenbashi, or head of the Turkmen, had said that the two nations stood "on the threshold of an important and historical event." But the outcome suggests something more modest in scope.

The Niyazov statement, made during a welcoming ceremony with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, confirmed speculation that the purpose of the visit was to close ranks in the long-running negotiations over the oil-rich sea. Since the Soviet breakup, the five shoreline states of Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran have debated endlessly over how to divide the Caspian's resources.

Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan have ringed the northern and western shores with bilateral border pacts, leaving Iran as a holdout with support from an unpredictable Turkmenistan. Ashgabat's reluctance to join its former-Soviet neighbors in drawing a median line has aided Iran in demanding a 20 percent share, although its coast covers only 13 percent. Russia has repeatedly pressed Iran to alter its stand.

The Niyazov trip was expected either to cement a Caspian alliance between the two countries or move toward an overall settlement by declaring joint development in bordering oil fields. It did neither, for reasons that have yet to emerge.

It seems that Khatami also anticipated an agreement. At the welcoming for Niyazov, Khatami said that "nine different documents on bilateral cooperation will be signed." But at the end of the visit, there were only seven memorandums of understanding. Most were run-of-the-mill, dealing with subjects such as search-and-rescue operations at sea and cultural ties.

A joint communique, carried on Turkmen television and transcribed by the BBC, said only, "The sides also discussed issues relating to the Caspian Sea's legal status and expressed their readiness to cooperate in all issues of the Caspian Sea." There was no mention of an agreement. Yet, Niyazov and other officials referred to the issue several times.

After a wreath-laying ceremony at the tomb of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Niyazov said that joint utilization of the Caspian was at "the center of discussions." On the eve of the visit, an unnamed Turkmen government official told both Interfax and the Russian newspaper "Vremya Novostei" that the top topics would be the Caspian and an increase in Turkmen gas exports to Iran.

The hoped-for increase in gas deliveries from the 195-kilometer Korpeje-Kordkuy pipeline to northern Iran also failed to materialize, suggesting that it may have been the other missing agreement on the shortened list. A further implication is that a new gas deal was part of the price for a Caspian pact, which did not come off.

Iran's need for more Turkmen gas is open to doubt, since Turkey's cutbacks in Iranian gas imports over the past year should have left it with surplus supplies. Iran is believed to have the second-largest gas reserves in the world after Russia, although much remains undeveloped.

Although Turkmen gas exports to Iran reportedly rose to 5 billion cubic meters in 2002, the pipeline trade has repeatedly fallen short of predictions since it opened in 1997. The Turkmen side often promotes the idea of raising deliveries to the capacity of 13 billion cubic meters, but plans for the increase are years behind.

The failure of the Caspian trade-off, for whatever reason, leaves the division issue stuck at a standstill. Predictions of a breakthrough in Baku at a February meeting of deputy foreign ministers were dashed when Iran conceded only that it would not ask other nations take equal 20 percent shares, as long as it could secure such a share for itself.

The Niyazov visit is likely to have been complicated, if not upstaged, by preparations for a large trade and economic delegation led by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov at almost the same time. The nearly overlapping mission brought renewed assurances that Russia would continue to assist Iran's nuclear power program, an issue more pressing to Tehran than the deadlocked Caspian talks.

Links with Russia may have soothed Iran's fears about the regional risks of a possible war with Iraq. Given the timing, any agreement between Iran and Niyazov to cooperate against Russia's Caspian formula would have come as an awkward welcome for Ivanov. But that does not explain why Iran ever planned for the Turkmen and Russian paths to cross.

In a studiously neutral statement, Hassan Rowhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, met with Ivanov and called for closer cooperation between the five shoreline states to settle the Caspian issue. But the task is already sufficiently complicated by the conflicting interests of Iran.

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