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Turkmenistan: Analysis From Washington-Flows Of Gas And Of Words

Washington, 7 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Iran and Turkey are now prepared to build a pipeline between the two to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan to Europe, according to Western press reports.

Part of a $23 billion agreement signed between Iran and Turkey last year, the pipeline would carry natural gas from Turkmenistan to Turkey and Europe.

The United States has put pressure on Ankara to pull out of this deal and has argued that Turkey should import Turkmen natural gas via another yet-to-be-built pipeline, this one passing under the Caspian Sea, through Azerbaijan and Georgia and then into Turkey itself.

Turkey's decision to go ahead is being treated by some analysts as a significant American defeat given Washington's efforts to isolate Iran, a country Washington has identified as a sponsor of terrorism.

But there are three important reasons to be avoid rushing to a conclusion on the basis of this latest announcement that the United States has lost this fight and that Turkmenistan's natural gas will soon be reaching the West via Iran.

First, the United States has been extremely successful in blocking Iran's efforts to arrange financing for the development of oil and gas infrastructure in that country.

Tehran may be able to find the money for this project somewhere else, but Washington has made it very clear that it will look with disfavor on any country that does provide Iran with such funds.

There is little reason to think that Washington will change its approach on this question any time soon or that it will be any less successful than it has been in the past.

Second, constructing a pipeline from Turkmenistan to the West via Iran or the Caucasus would be difficult and slow. That will allow ample time for tensions between Iran and Turkey to flare up again.

Only last week, for example, Turkey and Iran were engaged in a tit-for-tat set of diplomatic expulsions following Ankara's criticism of the Iranian regime.

Despite Turkey's new Islamist government, Ankara has not found it easy to deal with Tehran; and as Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said on Monday, there are a variety of "hidden and visible hands" ready to disturb ties between the two.

And third, there really are a number of countries interested in blocking any such flow of Turkmen gas to the West via this or another route.

In addition to the United States, there is the Russian Federation. To date, Moscow has opposed both the Turkish-Iranian route and the Caucasian route, arguing instead that Turkmenistan natural gas should flow through Russian pipelines.

Such a Russian route, of course, would give Moscow important leverage over Turkmenistan and other Central Asian countries and thus limit their ability to act independently of the Russian Federation.

By sponsoring a variety of sides in the conflicts of the Transcaucasus, the Russian government has made the Caucasian route sufficiently unattractive in the short term at least that Iran and Turkey have decided to pursue an alternative.

But there are a variety of forces that can be put in play to make that route problematic as well. In the past, Moscow has played the Kurdish card against Ankara and could do so again.

Moreover, the Russian government has important leverage in Tehran as a result of Russian sales of nuclear equipment to that country. Moscow is likely to find many Iranian allies on this point because Iran itself is an important exporter of natural gas.

Were Turkmen natural gas to flow via the Iranian-Turkish route or via the Caucasus, its movement would have the kind of economic and geopolitical consequences that have already sparked so much interest in the latest announcement.

But for the time being at least, the flow of words about it is likely to be far larger than any flow of natural gas.