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Turkmenistan: Ashgabat Backs Tehran in Caspian Dispute

As Turkmenistan backs Iran in a dispute with Moscow over dividing the Caspian Sea, President Saparmurat Niyazov is hoping that his support will be rewarded with a new deal on gas exports to Iran. But so far, Turkmenistan's gas sales to Iran have been small, and it is unclear whether the Caspian understanding will heal a rift over previous deals. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 29 November 2000 (RFE/RL) --Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov may be on the verge of a deal to sell more gas to Iran in exchange for taking Tehran's side in its dispute over dividing the Caspian Sea.

Last Friday in Ashgabat, Iranian Transport Minister Mahmoud Hojjati and Turkmenistan Deputy Prime Minister Khudaikuly Khalykov signed a memorandum of understanding that would reportedly increase exports of Turkmen gas to Iran. The agreement followed a meeting of a joint economic commission, the Iranian official news agency IRNA said.

Three days later, on Monday, Iran's deputy foreign minister, Ali Ahani, also appeared in Ashgabat to confirm his country's common position with Turkmenistan on dividing the Caspian. The two countries made clear that they oppose a Russian solution to the ownership controversy that has thrown a legal shadow over oil development for the past six years.

At Ahani's previous stop in Baku, he tried to convince Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev not to endorse Russia's formula for a pact among the five shoreline states. The Russian plan calls for dividing only the seabed into national sectors, keeping the water and its surface in common. Kazakhstan has already signed onto Moscow's idea. But Iran objects, insisting it is entitled to 20 percent of both the seabed and the waterway.

In an apparent sign of the emotions that the issue has stirred in Iran, the country's army chief warned Sunday that the military must be ready to repel an attack in the Caspian. Major-General Mohammad Salimi said, "Israeli and NATO forces are in the Caspian sea, as prospecting for oil is in progress at that region," IRNA reported. No such forces in the region are known to exist.

Aliyev had previously indicated that he was preparing to sign a Caspian cooperation agreement with Russia this week during a scheduled visit by President Vladimir Putin. While it is unclear whether Ahani changed Aliev's mind, Putin's trip has now been postponed until January, according to Azerbaijan's AssA-Irada news agency. The delay may be a sign that Baku needs more time to decide, under competing pressures from Moscow and Tehran.

But Niyazov's steady support for Iran's position may be helping it to avoid isolation on the Caspian issue. Still, it remains unclear how grateful Tehran will be.

While the memorandum of understanding calls for increasing Turkmen gas exports to Iran, initial reports said only that Ashgabat would supply gas to the Iranian town of Daragaz. The community, which lies on a secondary road about 12 kilometers from the Turkmen border, is likely to be a very minor market for exports. The reports did not specify what volumes of gas would be delivered or what, if any, price would be paid.

Later reports stated that the two countries plan to draft documents for a more meaningful increase in Turkmen gas exports. These are intended to be ready for a visit by President Mohammad Khatami to Turkmenistan at a date to be fixed "in the next few months."

The prize of a big increase in gas sales to Iran has so far eluded Niyazov, although his support for Tehran in the Caspian may help in striking a deal.

Despite publicity over a pipeline opened between the two countries in 1997, Turkmenistan's gas deliveries have been meager. While it was scheduled to deliver 5 billion cubic meters of gas to northern Iran this year, it has pumped only 2 billion so far, IRNA said.

Under an agreement last year, Turkmenistan pledged to deliver 8 billion cubic meters this year and was negotiating for an increase to 13 billion. Last March, Niyazov claimed that Iran was ready to accept 30 billion cubic meters. But his ambitions for exports have proved to be far greater than his abilities.

IRNA reported last May that the National Iranian Gas Company had decided to cut imports from Turkmenistan by half as of April 1. The report cited a dispute with Turkmenistan over the price of the gas, which was being used to repay Iran for its $190-million cost of building the pipeline from Turkmenistan.

Iranian officials complained that Turkmenistan had failed to make needed investments in its Korpedzhe gas field to feed the pipeline, making supplies undependable. To make matters worse, Turkmenistan was charging Iran $40 per thousand cubic meters in order to pay off its debt for the pipeline. Turkmenistan has been selling gas to both Russia and Ukraine for less. Iran responded by cutting its purchases.

In the past six months, Niyazov has tried repeatedly to mend the rift and boost gas exports, but without success. Even a restoration of the export target of 5 billion cubic meters could now be seen as a partial victory. But Iran may see no reason to pay any more than Turkmenistan charges to Moscow and Kyiv.

It is unclear whether Niyazov can win the even greater prize of pumping gas through Iran to Turkey in order to meet his commitment to supply 16 billion cubic meters a year to Ankara and 14 billion more to Europe. In light of Turkmenistan's current low level of exports through Iran, the chances seem remote.

In October, Niyazov also pledged to the Turkish president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, that he would support a plan for a trans-Caspian pipeline for gas deliveries, but there has been no sign of activity. For the moment, Niyazov seems intent on pursuing his Caspian strategy with Iran.