Presidents Berdymukhammedov (left) and Ahmadinejad -- not so friendly anymore? (AFP)
Back in June, they were "the best of friends."
At least, that's how Turkmen media portrayed a Tehran meeting last year between President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and his Iranian counterpart, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. It was an assessment in line with a tradition of friendly ties with Iran maintained by Berdymukhammedov's late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.
It is a tradition that, six months later, appears dead.
In recent days, long-festering strains in the Turkmen-Iranian relationship -- which involves gas, electricity, fishing rights, and water sharing, as well as sensitivities surrounding northern Iran's 3 million ethnic Turkmen -- have been made public. And as Ashgabat and Tehran haggle over gas supplies and other issues, ordinary people in Iran and Turkey are bearing the brunt of the dispute during a winter of record cold.
Iranian-Turkmen talks on the price of gas exports broke down in December. Then, as the New Year began, Ashgabat cut supplies to Iran, blaming it on maintenance work on the pipeline.
But Iranian officials have now made it clear that the issue clearly involves price. Iranian Oil and Gas Minister Gholamhossein Nozari recently said that talks on raising the price for Turkmen natural gas, from the current $75 to $140 per 1,000 cubic meters, would resume only when the supplies were restored. Nozari added that if deliveries did not resume, Iran could refuse to buy Turkmen gas.
The Turkmen government responded that due to Iran's failure to pay for already-delivered gas, Ashgabat lacks the funds to repair the pipeline -- and hence, to resume the flow of gas to Iran.
Iran's national gas company has denied that Iran needed to pay any
arrears. And on January 15, Iranian Deputy Oil and Gas Minister Akbar
Torkan said Turkmenistan was trying to "put forth new claims" and
called the decision to cut supplies in the heart of winter "immoral."
It all marks quite a departure from typical Iranian-Turkmen ties. "Iran was one of the countries with which Niyazov had a charitable relationship," Russian-based political analyst Artem Ulunyan told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. "It's well-known to many that when there was talk [in Turkmenistan] about the [ethnic] Turkmen population in Iran, Niyazov said, 'don't even think about that, don't ask any questions that could be considered in Tehran as antagonistic,' or he personally would punish those who did."
Iran reciprocated by never speaking about the often bizarre behavior of Niyazov, whom Turkmen media gave a semi-divine status, or about Niyazov's book "Rukhnama" (Guide to the Soul) that Turkmen media and state officials spoke of as a second Koran.
Other Reasons Behind Gas Dispute?
There are other recent events that make the timing of Turkmenistan's suspension of gas supplies intriguing.
On January 4, a group of Iranian Turkmen was fishing illegally in the southern Caspian Sea when Iranian patrol boats spotted them and, according to some sources, rammed the boats and shot dead one of the fisherman. That sparked protests from the ethnic-Turkmen community, some of whom attacked government buildings and torched state vehicles.
After the riots, some 300 ethnic Turkmen were arrested and some reports say many of them are still in detention for antistate activities. Such reports may or may not influence Ashgabat's relations with Iran, but neither are they likely to hurry efforts to restore gas supplies to Iran.
Other potential irritants in the Iranian-Turkmen relationship include the use of water supplies in their border areas and perceived discrimination against ethnic Turkmen, who also complain of Iranian efforts to forcibly convert them from Sunni to Shi'ite Islam.
But the gas dispute is interesting for another reason, one that will not have escaped the notice of the Iranian government.
Over the last year, a succession of high-level U.S. delegations has visited Turkmenistan. The most recent was a visit by U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana) to Ashgabat on January 11-13, which came on the heels of visit by Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Erica Barks-Ruggles in December.
Alex Vatanka, a security analyst for Jane's information group, says it is still too early to say whether the United States might be pushing Turkmenistan to take a tougher stance with Iran, Washington's longtime foe. But he said such speculation is warranted, given the geopolitics and Iran's domestic situation.
"The supply of gas from Turkmenistan at this crucial time, winter period, not showing up will make Ahmadinejad more [domestic] enemies," Vatanka says. "And in the Iranian context, I think it's important because that gas from Turkmenistan is not destined for the big cities -- Tehran and so forth -- where Ahmadinejad has almost no support base. Where Ahmadinejad has some support base is in the provinces, like those regions that have been receiving Turkmen natural gas and rely on that gas. And if those people are not getting the gas then the point is, again, they'll be angry above all at the president. So, from a U.S. point of view, this is to undermine the presidency of Ahmadinejad, and I think, timing-wise, this is strategically important because you are only two months away from the parliamentary elections in March and you have presidential elections in 2009."
Vatanka said that if Washington does have enough clout to achieve such a feat, that alone would represent a major change in Central Asian politics. "If the United States has been able to compel or impel [Turkmenistan] to do this, to cut the gas to Iran, the big message obviously there is, wow, the U.S. suddenly has found its leverage in Turkmenistan, a Central Asian state that it has traditionally not been very influential in."
...Or Is Dispute Part Of A Wider Struggle?
But in a region famous for great-power tussles, the United States is hardly the only actor.
Aleksei Miller, the CEO of the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom, which buys most of Turkmenistan's gas, said in December that officials from the United States and European Union have been telling Turkmen officials that the price of Turkmen gas is too low. Miller made those remarks as Gazprom raised the price it pays for Turkmen gas from $100 per 1,000 cubic meters to $130 for the first half of 2008 and $150 for the second half of the year.
Last year, the EU resurrected the idea of a trans-Caspian pipeline to bring Turkmen gas to Europe, where consumers would pay a higher price than Turkmenistan's current customers, who are essentially Russia and Iran.
But there is at least one more theory on the gas cutoffs, which have prompted Iran in turn to reduce gas exports to customers in Turkey. Professor Mehmet Seyfettin Erol of Ghazi University in Turkey speculates that Russia could be behind Ashgabat's newly assertive energy stance.
"As far as I understand, improving ties between the U.S. and Turkey concerns not only Iran but also makes Russia feel uneasy," Erol says. "Russia's refusal in the last few days to increase gas exports to Turkey -- for the first time -- also shows that Russia has some role here. In a situation like this, I think Turkey is currently facing energy pressure led by Iran and Russia. I think there is not any serious problem between Turkmenistan and Iran; the role of Russia is important. I think, and as far as I understand, there is a new game being played, and Russia is the main actor behind this game."
Meanwhile, ordinary people in northern Iran and eastern Turkey are paying the price for the gas cuts. In both areas, temperatures have dropped to record lows ranging from minus 3 to minus 27 degrees Celsius.
(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service and Radio Farda contributed to this report.)