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Caspian: Experts Urge U.S. Policy Change

The oil and natural gas waiting to be extracted from beneath the Caspian Sea is a subject of great interest among policy analysts in the U.S. as Americans contend with their current energy pinch. It was the subject at a forum on 24 May in Washington. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports that the analysts attending the event believe that the American government must modify its foreign policy or its citizens will not benefit from that wealth of energy.

Washington, 25 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Participants in a forum on Caspian Sea energy agree that the U.S. should modify its policy on the Caucasus and Central Asia. They say this would benefit not only the energy-hungry U.S., but also the two Eurasian regions.

U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska) began a forum on 24 May at the Brookings Institution -- a Washington think tank -- by urging what he called fundamental change in Washington's foreign policy toward the two regions.

Hagel said it should begin by repealing Section 907 of the Support of Freedom Act, which forbids U.S. aid to Azerbaijan because members of the U.S. Congress accuse Baku of ignoring its people's civil and political rights.

"We should repeal 907. In fact, I think it exacerbates the problem, it allows us limited influence [in Azerbaijan] and it's counterproductive to what we claim we would like to see over there."

Hagel said Washington also should reconsider economic sanctions against other countries, including Iran. He noted that Iran and Libya are the subject of one set of sanctions, the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996. But he argued that these two countries should not be equated. Besides, he said, unilateral sanctions seldom achieve their stated goals.

The senator said it is time to explore ways of improving relations with both Iran and Libya -- particularly with Iran. But he stressed that such improvement cannot come quickly or easily.

"Now I realize that this is a two-way street. We can't will that, we can't invent that, we can't unilaterally say, 'This is the way it will be.' But we can be more resourceful and more imaginative than we have been in the past."

Another participant was Suzanne Maloney, a Brookings analyst of Iranian and Central Asian issues, who said the U.S. might be pleasantly surprised if it made further positive overtures to Iran. She said she believes that Iran's reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, has made his country far more pragmatic than anyone expected. Therefore, if he is re-elected in next month's elections, she said he may very well be receptive to U.S. goodwill.

Maloney emphasized that her opinion is not shared by many other analysts. But she agreed that a positive approach to Iran is an essential part of a new U.S. foreign policy.

All the participants in the forum agreed that the best way to improve relations with countries in the Caucasus and in Central Asia is to help them improve their economies. And the best way to do that, they said, is to help them develop their most valuable natural resources -- Caspian oil and natural gas.

A third participant was S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University's campus in Washington. He said the most efficient way to develop Caspian energy is to move quickly to build the proposed Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline. The conduit would carry oil from Baku -- Azerbaijan's capital on the Caspian -- through Georgia, terminating at Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

But Starr and others said this pipeline and other ways of developing the region's oil wealth are hampered by instability in the region. This includes not only Georgia's internal strife in the Ossetia region -- which threatens to destabilize the Caucasus -- but also the continuing fighting in Afghanistan, which threatens Central Asia's stability. And they cited the long-standing friction between India and Pakistan, both of which have nuclear arsenals.

Starr said the pipeline's benefits to the energy-producing countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia go far beyond developing their oil wealth.

"We should be greatly concerned with issues of economic development as such. And why? Because the dominant, the overwhelming issue in the region -- and it's deepened [become more of an issue] -- is poverty, especially rural poverty."

According to Starr, this is the only way to ensure long-term stability in the region.

Starr agreed with Hegel that the U.S. must change its approach to the two regions. He said Washington should not be concerned that Azerbaijan and the Central Asian states are centers of Islam. In fact he said, the U.S. should disregard its negative experience with many other Muslim states and work with these countries within their Muslim context.

"The U.S., it seems to me, has a very real interest in helping these states as they seek a way of being Muslim, moderate, and modern."

But a fourth participant -- Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution -- told the audience that he is not optimistic that the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline will soon be a reality. He said the region is still too unstable, particularly because of Afghanistan and the antagonism between India and Pakistan.

"I'm not optimistic that we're going to see much movement on pipelines soon. It is, I think, still a pipe dream."

And all the participants said that whenever the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline becomes operational, they should not assume that Caspian energy will be destined mostly for the West. For example, Kazakhstan has indicated that it will continue exporting some of its oil through a pipeline in Russia. And there will be other customers seeking the petroleum products from the region: India, Pakistan, and even China.