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Turkey: Reports Raise Doubts About U.S. Support For Pipeline

Turkish news reports have raised doubts about the future of U.S. support for the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. But RFE/RL correspondent Michael Lelyveld writes that so far, the evidence for a sweeping change in policy appears to be weak.

Boston, 8 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Concerns have been rising in Turkey over the future of a Caspian Sea pipeline since U.S. President-elect George W. Bush named his choice for energy secretary last week.

The speculation is over the planned Baku-Ceyhan oil route, which was backed strongly by the outgoing administration of President Bill Clinton.

Last week, The Turkish Daily News cited "negative signals" from the incoming U.S. administration on the project, which would pipe oil from Azerbaijan to the Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

According to the paper, the clearest sign of trouble for the pipeline plan is Bush's decision to nominate former U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham to head the government's Energy Department. The article cited Abraham's past support for Armenia and his reported reference to Baku-Ceyhan as "a dream."

The analysis also pointed to recent studies by two independent research groups in Washington, urging a change in U.S. policy on Baku-Ceyhan. The reports by the CATO Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace criticized the economic justification for the pipeline, urging consideration of Russian and Iranian alternatives.

The story apparently prompted an aide to Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer to issue a statement last week (Friday), voicing hope for the pipeline project and stressing that there has been no official word of any U.S. policy change.

It is certainly too soon to expect such a notification. President Clinton remains in office until 20 January, and his successor has made clear that he intends to hold back on foreign policy statements until his term begins. In the normal course of events, any new administration would be expected to conduct a series of full-scale policy reviews, a process that could take months to complete.

Whatever the outcome, the Turkish attempt to read signals at this stage seems to be based on weak evidence. Attempts to reach Abraham, who has closed his Senate office, were unsuccessful. But there are reasons to avoid policy predictions about Baku-Ceyhan that are based on Abraham's past statements.

Robert Ebel, director of the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said, "one quote in the paper is really not enough to draw a conclusion." Ebel also noted that officials must respond to different pressures and concerns once they take on new government tasks.

As energy secretary, Abraham would have authority to implement, and perhaps influence, foreign policy rather than to change it. His predecessors in the Clinton administration actively promoted the Baku-Ceyhan project, but the strategy was set in the White House.

Last week, the Financial Times predicted that Abraham will spend much of his time dealing with domestic energy issues. The paper said that oil diplomacy is more likely to be handled by the two top Bush administration officials with Middle East experience, Vice President-designate Richard Cheney and Bush's choice for secretary of state, retired General Colin Powell.

As top security officials during the Persian Gulf War with Iraq, both have first-hand experience with Turkey as an important ally. Other Bush advisers during the campaign are known to have supported Azerbaijan and the Baku-Ceyhan plan.

Both Cheney and Powell are also expected to shape the debate about the future of U.S. sanctions. As an oil industry executive, Cheney often opposed restrictions on dealing with Iran. But since becoming a vice presidential candidate, Cheney has been silent on the issue. Other Bush advisers have supported sanctions on Iran.

It remains to be seen whether the outcome will affect Baku-Ceyhan, but the question of U.S.-Iran relations is far more important than any pipeline. While Iranian officials have recently indicated that they are open to an improvement in relations, it has never been clear how fast or how far they are willing to go.

At least one theme of the Bush campaign suggests that there could be continued support for the pipeline. Bush has spoken repeatedly of the need for new energy sources and exploration to meet U.S. demand. That focus could translate into an even greater push for Caspian development.

The alternative would be to treat the project as a purely commercial venture that must succeed on its own. In the past, some Bush advisers have criticized the Clinton administration for defining the pipeline as a vital strategic interest, arguing that its importance to U.S. security has been overblown. Observers will be watching closely to see whether Bush renews the office of Caspian adviser, a post that Clinton created.

The new administration may continue to see the need for several routes from the Caspian, but at a minimum, it seems likely to formulate its own definition of what the Clinton administration has called a "multiple pipeline policy."

As for the reports of independent institutes arguing against Baku-Ceyhan, many of the same objections have been raised before. Robert Ebel said that administrations are rarely swayed by such recommendations. Future policy is more likely to be determined by an internal review of regional goals.

The biggest question for Baku-Ceyhan remains the amount of Caspian oil that will be available for the pipeline. Unless enough oil is found to fill it, the project seems unlikely to be profitable, whether governments decide to support it or not.