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Turkmenistan: President Niyazov To Visit Iran

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov will make a rare trip outside his country on 10 March, when he travels to neighboring Iran. Niyazov is likely to discuss gas deliveries and the legal status of the Caspian Sea with his counterpart Mohammad Khatami. RFE/RL looks at the close relationship between the two states and Turkmenistan's place in Tehran's Central Asian policy.

Prague, 7 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov is due to travel to Iran 10 March. He and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami are expected to consider an increase in Turkmen natural-gas exports to northern Iran and to compare attitudes on the status of the Caspian Sea, among other issues.

Artem Malgin is the deputy director of the Center for Post-Soviet Studies at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. He told RFE/RL that Turkmenistan is seeking to expand its foreign contacts at a time when Western states and the Commonwealth of Independent States have effectively frozen relations with the Central Asian country. "I think it's a significant visit. And to some extent, it marks the foreign activity of Turkmenistan that started a year or two ago. [Last December, the Turkmen government] signed an agreement with Pakistan and Afghanistan on a trans-Afghan [gas] pipeline. I can guess that this visit to Iran will aim at the same field on cooperation -- I mean energy cooperation with Iran," Malgin said.

Malgin pointed out that the issue of the delimitation of the Caspian Sea -- a long-standing point of contention among the five shoreline states: Russia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Iran -- is likely to be discussed during the visit. "[Turkmenistan] needs to coordinate with Iran its position on the legal status of the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan, Russia, and Kazakhstan have already agreed and signed bilateral agreements [among] themselves about the Caspian status. Turkmenistan and Iran need somehow to coordinate their positions in order to achieve a kind of multilateral agreement," Malgin said.

Hooman Peimani, a Geneva-based independent consultant, characterizes the visit as a confirmation of the "continued friendship" between the two countries and of the economic importance of Iran for Turkmenistan. "Despite the problems that Turkmenistan has had with other countries in the region, such as Azerbaijan, Iran has remained a friend of Turkmenistan. It provides a land access to landlocked Turkmenistan through which the Turkmens have exported cotton. And since 1997, they have also been exporting gas to the northern part of Iran," Peimani said.

Since 1997, the 200-kilometer-lomg Korpej-Kurt-Kui gas pipeline and the Tejen-Serakhs-Meshkhed railway have boosted bilateral trade turnover. According to Turkmen statistics, trade turnover has increased almost sixfold in the past five years to about $440 million in 2002. The balance of trade was $280 million in favor of Turkmenistan.

The main Turkmen export is natural gas via the pipeline. The "Turkmenistan" daily newspaper reports that exports of gas to Iran rose by 13.1 percent in 2002 to about 5 billion cubic meters. This is still well below the pipeline's capacity. This year, exports are expected to rise to 7 billion cubic meters.

Peimani said bilateral trade has the potential to double in the coming years. "If the current ties continue, and especially if the hope of the Turkmen leader to increase sales of natural gas to Iran [is realized], which is going to be another issue to be discussed in Tehran, Turkmenistan is going to expand the value of its economic relations with Iran. And I think the two countries are hoping that over the next few years they can expand it to about $1 billion," Peimani said.

Tehran is also trying to ensure that it gets a share of the region's oil wealth. Analysts say they expect Niyazov to talk with Iranian officials on the possibility of building an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to Iran via Turkmenistan.

Iranian companies have already invested some in Turkmenistan's infrastructure, including the construction of liquefied-gas terminals in the port of Turkmenbashi, as well as at the Serkhetabad and Seraskh railway stations.

Davood Hermidas Bavand, a Tehran University professor, said Iran's vision for Turkmenistan goes beyond economic interests. He said the country views Turkmenistan as a cultural bridge to Central Asia. "For Iran, Turkmenistan is of crucial importance. This is why I hope this trip will be fruitful. This visit is likely to be a key element in the development of political and economic relations, and above all in the field of culture. Turkmenistan belongs to the basin of Iranian culture. From Turkmenistan, we can enter more easily in[to the] whole Central Asian region," Bavand said.

The visit is expected to last one day.