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Central Asia: Analysis From Washington--No Light At The End Of The Pipeline

Washington, 29 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Washington's decision not to oppose Western involvement in an Iranian pipeline project fundamentally changes the geopolitical situation in Eurasia even if it is unlikely to lead to a new outflow of natural gas anytime soon.

Over the weekend, American officials said that the United States had concluded that it has no legal basis for objecting to Western participation in the development of a pipeline system to carry Turkmenistan natural gas across Iran to Turkey.

These officials argued that the principle beneficiaries of this pipeline would be Turkmenistan and Turkey rather than Iran. And therefore, a White House spokeswoman said, this decision in no way represents "a change in policy or any signal regarding that policy."

But despite such denials, that step is likely to be seen across the region as a major shift away from an American policy of seeking to isolate Iran, long identified as a sponsor of international terrorism, by imposing sanctions on any firm doing business there.

And that perception in itself will have a significant, if sometimes contradictory impact on Iran, Iran's relations with its neighbors, and on Russian relations with the Caucasus and Central Asia and with the United States.

For Iran, this American decision represents both an important concession from its chief opponent on the international scene and an equally strong stimulus to continue the more moderate path it has pursued since presidential elections last spring.

The American decision, while explicitly limited to the current case, will inevitably create expectations that Washington will become even more forthcoming and will limit still further the American effort to keep the Europeans in line on the issue of isolating Iran.

And if such expectations lead Iranian leaders to move toward a more moderate course, this decision could prefigure a fundamental change in relations between Iran and the rest of the world on a broad range of issues.

Even more significant than its likely impact on the Iranians themselves is the effect this decision is certain to have on Iran's relationships with other countries in the region.

Few countries in the Middle East, Central Asia, or the Caucasus have been willing to follow Tehran's ideological lead, but all the countries in these regions have wanted to maintain good relations with Iran both because of its size and its location.

Many of them have felt constrained in pursuing such ties by the vehemence of American opposition to the Iranian authorities. And consequently, the latest American decision is likely to encourage some to step up their efforts in this direction.

But perhaps the most important consequence of this decision is likely to be the impact it will have on Moscow's ability to maintain its influence on the former Soviet republics that are now independent countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Many experts have pointed out that these eight countries would be far more independent of Moscow today than they are had they been able to export across Iran. But the radicalism of the Iranian authorities and American opposition to it limited their ability to do so.

Thus, American efforts to isolate Tehran, unintentionally had the effect of blocking efforts by these countries to pursue a more independent line.

That served Moscow's geopolitical purposes and also helped explain why the Russians have provided, over repeated American objections, military and even nuclear technology to the Iranian authorities.

Consequently, this shift in American policy, reflecting a U.S. desire to gain access to the enormous oil and gas reserves of the Caspian Sea basin, may appear to some in Moscow to be something very different, a direct challenge to Russian geopolitical interests.

And past and present Russian aid to Tehran may give Moscow the leverage in Iran to block the flow of Central Asian or Caucasian oil and gas across that country to the West. But any Russian efforts in this direction are likely to exacerbate divisions within the Iranian leadership.

Iranian radicals who will see the construction of such a pipeline and any further rapprochement with the West as a threat to their vision of the future may agree with the Russians.

Such conclusions might thus presage a number of shifts in the road and the pipeline before any gas actually comes across Iran to the West.