Iranian President Hassan Rohani visited Turkmenistan on March 27-28 to meet with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
It was the first time the two leaders of the neighboring countries had met since the two governments had a major falling out at the start of 2017 over Turkmen natural-gas supplies to Iran. Tehran and Ashgabat have been threatening each other with international arbitration ever since, so it seemed fair to believe that some sort of breakthrough in ties would come from Rohani's visit.
But there was nothing of the sort, at least according to reports.
In fact, judging from media reports, there seemed little reason for Rohani to go to Turkmenistan at all, which raises some questions about what might not have been reported.
Iran has had good ties with Turkmenistan since the latter became independent in late 1991. In fact, Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, visited Iran on October 9, 1991, more than two weeks before Turkmenistan formally declared independence.
Two railway lines connect the two countries, there are two gas pipelines running from fields in Turkmenistan to areas in northern Iran, and Turkmenistan exports electricity to Iran. As important, if not more important for Tehran, Turkmenistan's policy of "positive neutrality" has meant that the Turkmen government has never been part of international criticism or sanctions against Iran.
Relations bottomed out at the start of 2017, when Turkmenistan shut off gas supplies that Iran used to power northern areas of the country that were not connected to Iran's gas pipeline network. Turkmen authorities, faced with the worst economic crisis the country has seen since independence, decided to lean on Iran to pay off a decade-old gas debt that Tehran says is more than three times higher than it should be.
It appears the subject of Turkmen gas supplies was discussed. "Iran and Turkmenistan have vast energy resources, they are strong energy powers, so we have agreed to bring our partnership in the area to a higher level...decisions will be made in this area at future meetings," Rohani said.
So essentially, no deal yet to renew Turkmen gas supplies.
Rohani said the two countries agreed to continue discussions on gas-swap arrangements and use of Iranian pipelines to neighboring countries. Turkmenistan does have a gas-swap arrangement with Iran that involves Azerbaijan and another one has been discussed with Armenia.
Rohani did not specify which neighboring countries but it is unlikely it involved Turkey, with which Turkmenistan had asked Iran for such a deal in 2017. Turkey, and possibly markets further west once the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) is completed, would be far larger market than Armenia and Azerbaijan.
But in late October 2017 Iranian National Gas Company director Hamid Reza Araki said, "We are against the sale of a rival country's gas to Turkey via swap operations."
Little To Show For Trip
On the second day of his visit, Rohani went to Mary in western Turkmenistan, the location of the power plant that will provide new electricity exports to Iran.
Past that there was little to show for Rohani's trip. The two governments signed 13 agreements covering cooperation in the areas such as culture, art, science, education, and sport. Iran signed similar agreements with Azerbaijan after Rohani left Turkmenistan and traveled to Baku.
Berdymukhammedov said he and Rohani discussed the potential of the newer railway line, the North-South line, that links Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran and started operations in 2014. The North-South line does have the potential to boost trade between Iran and Turkmenistan, and brings goods from both countries to areas much further away.
But it's worth remembering that in May 1996, President Niyazov and then-Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani opened the Tejen-Sarakhs-Mashhad railway that Niyazov said then would become the "junction of the planet," carrying some 500,000 people and 2 million tons of freight annually. Today the line is almost forgotten.
Berdymukhammedov also said he and Rohani discussed increased maritime trade across the Caspian Sea now that the new seaport at Turkmenbashi City is nearly complete.
But reports did not mention the two leaders discussing the legal status of the Caspian Sea, an issue Russia believes will be resolved later this year after more than 20 years of negotiations, but also an issue on which Tehran and Ashgabat have had nearly opposite stances.
Rohani and Berdymukhammedov did agree their two countries would participate in unspecified joint projects in the Caspian Sea. When Rohani went to Baku, the Azerbaijani Energy Ministry and the Iranian Oil Ministry signed a memorandum of understanding on jointly developing blocks in the Caspian Sea but such cooperation would be a big jump in Turkmen-Iranian cooperation at the moment.
None of this seems to merit a two-day visit by the Iranian leader, which raises questions about why Rohani went to Turkmenistan at all.
One possible reason is that Iran is rallying support as the U.S. administration and others implement harsher sanctions on Iran.
Another reason is that Turkmenistan has increasingly sought cooperation with Arab states. Admittedly, Turkmenistan is looking for money but Berdymukhammedov went to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates in mid-March and in 2017 the Turkmen president went to Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Iran has been losing influence in Central Asia in recent years as Arab countries have increased their presence there. Nowhere has this been more visible than in Tajikistan, a country that shares linguistic and cultural affinities with Iran but where the government has lately criticized Tehran's policies, including accusing the Iranian government of organizing assassinations in Tajikistan during the 1992-97 Tajik civil war.
If Rohani's reason for going to Turkmenistan was to dissuade Ashgabat from courting better ties with Arab states, it seems that was in vain. Given Turkmenistan's current economic situation and need for funds for new gas-exporting projects, there is little chance Turkmen authorities would forsake money from any quarter and currently Berdymukhammedov at least, seems to feel Arab countries are Turkmenistan's best chance for new investment.
Turkmenistan missed an opportunity also. Under the previous gas agreement, Iran paid for the first $3 billion of Turkmen gas with food, services, and equipment. That deal might not have suited Turkmen authorities in the past but with reports of shortages in Turkmenistan of basic goods, including cooking oil and sugar, it would have made sense for Ashgabat to agree to renew gas supplies to northern Iran while talks continue about Iran's debt.