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Caucasus/Central Asia: Iran's Terrorism Ties Pose A Threat

Washington, 1 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Senior U.S. officials reject the concept of spheres of influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, but their fear seems to be Iran more than Russia as a source of untoward influence in the oil rich region.

The American government's two top officials dealing with the former Soviet republics and the Secretary of Energy Thursday laid out the U.S. Administration's views on the region before the House of Representatives International Relations Committee.

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for the Newly Independent States, Stephen Sestanovich, told the committee the U.S. rejects the concept of spheres of influence in general, but especially in the Caucasus and Central Asian areas.

He called it an "overriding" American goal and said it has been presented to Russia both publicly and diplomatically. It doesn't mean that countries in the region should not have good relations with Russia, but that Moscow's influence should be constructive.

There are those in Russia who are "nostalgic for the imperial past," said Sestanovich, but most, including President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, favor creating a democratic state playing a constructive role on the global stage.

The big U.S. concern, however, is Iran, acknowledged Sestanovich. He said that despite some "promising signals" from Iran's new president, Mohammad Khatami, Tehran still supports terrorism and its policies pose a threat to its neighbors and the region.

"Even should Tehran's behavior improve," he said, the "Caspian states would be ill-served by becoming dependent on energy-producing Iran to get their gas and oil to market."

He said the concept of multiple pipelines to carry Caspian sea oil is especially important to foster economic development and regional cooperation. However, he said, none should pass south through Iran and at least one should be east-west, under the Caspian and then westward from Baku to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

This approach, he said, is "key to preventing Iran from undermining the kind of Central Asia we are seeking."

U.S. Energy Secretary Federico Pena agreed, saying the development of an east-west corridor along with other non-Iranian pipelines would be the "glue that binds" all the countries of the region together into a prosperous whole.

The east-west corridor, he said, would benefit all the Caspian sea basin nations by getting their oil and gas to hard-currency markets directly. Russia would benefit too, he said, because it would open more routes for its goods and services to other markets.

While underlining that any pipeline built in the region must be economically viable and will have to be constructed by private companies, the U.S. believes the east-west route has particularly important advantages, especially for natural gas.

Turkey suffers chronic shortages of gas and would be a strong, hard-currency market for gas from countries like Turkmenistan, said Pena. Georgia and Armenia could also be good customers for Turkmen gas, making that route more economically advantageous than one through Iran which would be shorter and less costly to build. Pena said relying on Iran is dangerous too because Iran has gas and oil of its own to sell "and if you're dealing with a competitor, you don't want to put all your eggs in one basket."

Richard Morningstar, Special Advisor to the U.S. President and Secretary of State on the New Independent States, added his voice as well, saying that an east-west pipeline would "limit Iran's ability to destabilize the region."