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Central Asia/Caucasus: A Mission To Deter Iranian Connections

Washington, 11 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A senior U.S. official has warned energy- rich countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia against reliance on Iran for export routes.

The U.S. State Department's Special Adviser on the newly independent states, Stephen Sestanovich says he told top officials in the region it would be a mistake to build pipelines through Iran and asked them to consider alternative routes.

Sestanovich said in an RFE/RL interview Monday that U.S. concern about Iran was a central issue in all the countries he visited recently.

He returned last week from a ten-day swing through the five Central Asian states, as well as Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Sestanovich said he went to share U.S. perspectives on regional stability and development and reach a common understanding about Iran, as well as review what he called "a rich agenda" of bilateral relations and common international interests.

It was Sestanovich's first trip to these countries since he was appointed Special Adviser earlier this year, replacing James Collins, now U.S. ambassador to Russia.

As the State Department's chief policy coordinator for the former Soviet republics, Sestanovich expects to visit all routinely and has already made trips to Ukraine and Russia, in addition to the just concluded tour .

He said the United States supports each country's independence and wants to develop strong bilateral relations. Sestanovich said the U.S. is also committed to expanding economic ties and promoting trade and investment with the Central Asian and Caucasus countries in international organizations. But a major part of his mission was to deter these states from making the Iranian connection.

Sestanovitch said he conveyed the U.S. view that "energy pipelines through Iran are a bad idea," that "such a reliance on Iran is unwise," and "a mistake," adding that "it is our view that countries that felt they did not do well when they had to rely on Russia for the export of their energy will not do any better to rely on Iran."

He said that given Iran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, support for international terrorism and extremist movements "that will only cause trouble in the future."

In talks with the presidents and foreign ministers of the eight countries, Sestanovich urged them to consider other options. He said the U.S. believes "a strong East-West axis of energy transportation...would help the independence of those states."

The U.S. has long advocated pipeline routes leading through the Caucasus to Turkey as a preferred option but seems willing to support almost any route that does not involve Iran.

Sestanovich said the pipeline route question topped his agenda in Turkmenistan. President Saparmurat Niyazov's government is considering a huge pipeline project that would carry Turkmen gas more than 1200 kilometers through Iranian territory to Turkey.

The U.S. would like his government to give serious consideration to a western export route, or as Sestanovich put it "a cross-Caspian pipeline...or alternatively, an eastern route (through China) that would help Turkmenistan position itself in Asian markets."

He also mentioned a possible route through Afghanistan, saying the lack of stability there " is a reason to pursue peace in Afghanistan very actively." Sestanovich said the Afghan situation was discussed in several meetings he had in the region. He did not elaborate.

Sestanovich said the Central Asian governments view Iran, in his words "very realistically" and will continue to exchange views with the United States on pipeline routes. He said that "for all the countries of this region, how they export their energy is still an open question -- the energy export network is being developed."

The issue is expected to be further discussed when Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev comes to Washington next week for a meeting of a joint U.S.-Kazakh economic commission. Called the Gore-Nazarbayev Commission after its co-chairmen U.S. Vice President Al Gore and the President of Kazazakhstan, it is scheduled to convene in Washington next Monday and Tuesday.

In the Caucasus, ending ethnic conflicts was a major issue in Sestanovich's talks with Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian leaders.

He said that in Tbilisi, he discussed with President Eduard Shevardnadze the presence of Russian troops keeping the peace with the breakaway Abkhazia province. Sestanovich said "the issue of Russian troops -- has very great importance in Georgian politics...and between Georgia and Russia," adding that "international efforts to find a solution to the conflict in Abkhazia are directly related to this question."

Sestanovich said there is a renewed international effort to break the deadlock over Abkhazia and that a meeting in Geneva next week sponsored by the United Nations, in his words "could be a very valuable first step toward a real negotiation."

He said Abkhazia has not shared in any of the economic revival now taking place in the rest of the country and the thrust of Georgian policy, coinciding with the U.S. approach, is to emphasize the economic benefits of negotiating a lasting settlement.

Sestanovich said the U.S. Congress is considering giving five million dollars for Abkhaz refugees and this money can be used for humanitarian assistance as soon as legislators in Washington give their final approval and the U.S. president signs it into law.

The provision is part of a larger bill on foreign spending that is still being debated but the funds for the Caucasus are expected to make it through the process unchanged.

Sestanovich said a larger fund of more than $200 million, includes $70 million for economic reconstruction in Abkhazia. But that fund is contingent on a peace settlement. If there is no settlement, the money is to go to other countries of the former Soviet Union.

In Yerevan, Sestanovich said he and Armenian President Lev ter-Petrossian exchanged views on a peace settlement that would serve the interests of all parties.

Asked about a later complaint from ter-Petrossian that he was being pressured into accepting a settlement, Sestanovich said the U. S. does not believe imposed settlements work and that "only a peace which seems to serve the interests of all the parties will endure."

He said the so-called Minsk group of U.S., French and Russian mediators, sponsored by the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, is working on a formula for negotiation based on what will work for the parties themselves. "What is involved here is not pressure from the outside but an attempt to discover what a stable basis for negotiations and then for peace would be," Sestanovich said.

Another State Department official (unnamed) told our correspondent that "an active process is at work" to bring Armenians and Azerbaijanis to a settlement of their conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh province, a breakaway region in Azerbaijan populated largely by ethnic Armenians.

The official said the current international effort will be an issue at the regular annual meeting of OSCE foreign ministers in Copenhagen in mid-December.