Iran is taking new steps to increase its gas supplies from Turkmenistan after a difficult period in relations last year. The latest talks suggest that the conflict has passed, thanks in part to Turkmenistan's support for Iran in negotiations on the status of the Caspian Sea. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.
Boston, 27 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iran moved over the weekend to boost its gas imports from Turkmenistan at a time when Ashgabat is backing Tehran's position on dividing the Caspian Sea.
According to a news agency report, officials of Iran's National Gas Company met Saturday with Turkmen counterparts in Ashgabat to advance plans for at least doubling gas purchases this year.
The report on the increased Turkmen gas sales to Iran is one of many that have surfaced in the past year. The difference this time seems to be that Iran reportedly sought the increase only three days after a crucial meeting on the Caspian division issue in Tehran.
The Caspian meeting of deputy foreign ministers from the five shoreline nations ended inconclusively last week after Iran stuck to its long-held position with Turkmenistan's support, despite heavy pressure from Russia. The stalemate has left doubt about a summit meeting of presidents from the Caspian countries. The summit was originally scheduled for 8 and 9 March, but has now been postponed until April.
So far, Russia has won over Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to its formula for dividing the seabed into national sectors while keeping the water and its surface in common. But Iran has insisted on 20 percent of the entire Caspian, in part to keep the Russian navy at arm's length.
Turkmenistan's backing has spared Iran from isolation on the issue. Iran's reported "request" for more Turkmen gas at the meeting on 24 February in Ashgabat may be seen as a reward.
Officials have been working on a new gas agreement since last November, while simultaneous contacts on the Caspian were taking place. The negotiations have marked a quiet end to Iran's smoldering anger at Turkmenistan, which became evident last May when Iranian officials let it be known that they had cut imports of Turkmen gas by half.
The conflict has been over the terms of a 25-year gas deal that Iran signed with Turkmenistan in 1995. The agreement called for supplies of Turkmen gas and construction of a 200-kilometer pipeline from the country's Korpedzhe gas field to northern Iran.
The $190 million pipeline was built at Iran's expense and commissioned in December 1997, becoming the first new export line from a CIS country since the Soviet breakup. But the exports of Turkmen gas never lived up to the publicity.
Although first reports stated that the line would carry 4 billion cubic meters of gas to northern Iran in its first year of operation, Iranian official reports now say that Turkmenistan provided a total of only 6 billion cubic meters in the past three years. Iran complained that Turkmenistan never invested enough in the Korpedzhe field to make more gas available. The poor performance sparked anger because Turkmenistan was supposed to provide gas at no cost for the first three years to pay for the line.
Iran's annoyance seems to have grown because terms of the contract allowed Turkmenistan to charge off its debt at a rate that was higher than its tariff for Russia and Ukraine.
The conflict came to a head last April when Turkmenistan tried to negotiate an increase in gas exports to Iran in an apparent attempt to start a bidding war with Russia. Tehran responded by charging that Turkmenistan had never lived up to its commitments and cut its exports instead.
Since then, Turkmenistan has mended its ways by completing a gas processing plant to increase its deliveries. Iran has also reacted favorably to Turkmenistan's effort to pump gas at the rate of 20 million cubic meters per day in January.
It may also help that Turkmenistan recently succeeded in raising its tariff for Russia and Ukraine to the same rate that Iran has been paying all along.
The two sides have now returned to negotiating their original target of increasing Turkmen gas sales to 13 billion cubic meters per year. The current pipeline can carry up to 8 billion cubic meters. A second line is being discussed. Reports indicate that Turkmenistan will deliver 6 billion cubic meters this year, more than double last year's exports of only 2.7 billion.
Iran's interest in importing more gas may also raise questions about how much of the fuel it has available. The country needs gas for its northern power plants, industries, and consumers, ITAR-TASS and the official Iranian news agency IRNA said. But at the same time, it intends to start exporting gas to Turkey in July.
Iran is also interested in supplying gas to Azerbaijan. Although the country has the second-largest gas reserves in the world, they remain largely undeveloped. Most of Iran's largest fields are in the south. The country is working to develop those fields for export.