/** headlines: 107.0 **/
Copyright 1997 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Turkmenistan Pipeline Plugs U.S. Bid To Isolate Iran
By Dilip Hiro, IPS, 30 December 1997
LONDON, Dec 30 (IPS) - Monday's inauguration of a Turkmen-Iranian pipeline by presidents Saparmurad Niyazov and Muhammad Khatami to carry Turkmenistan's natural gas to north-east Iran was a geopolitical as well as an economic achievement for both sides.
The deal underlines the rising economic importance of Iran to Central Asian states and the continuing failure of Washington to isolate Tehran diplomatically and economically.
The 200 kilometre pipeline from Korpeje, Turkmenistan, to Kord- Kui, Iran, to carry two billion cubic metres annually, is the first phase of a project that will ultimately take Turkmen gas to Turkey and destinations further west without touching any part of Russia -- the traditional 'Big Brother' of the Central Asian republics from whom Niyazov is trying gradually to distance himself.
Last May at the summit of the 10-member Economic Conference Organisation -- comprising the Central Asian republics, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan -- in Ashqabat, Niyazov signed a memorandum of understanding with the leaders of Iran and Turkey for the construction of a gas pipeline linking the three countries with Europe.
Eventually the pipes would carry 30 billion cubic metres annually, rivalling the total current production of Turkmenistan. Since Turkmenistan is the main source of natural gas to be exported to Europe, Niyazov's action was an important step in the realisation of an ambitious plan.
All phases of the seven billion dollar project, with Iran required to meet half of the total cost to be incurred for laying the pipeline in its territory, is expected to be finally completed by 2002.
There is another, equally important dimension to the ties between Iran and Turkmenistan, which share 1,500 kilometre border, since it impinges on other Central Asian republics as well.
In May 1996, Niyazov was one of the two chief guests to commission a rail link between the Iranian border town of Sarakhs and Tejan, Turkmenistan, the other being the then Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
This link connects the extensive ex-Soviet rail system with that of Iran, and provides access to the Central Asian states to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, and thus to international markets, thus freeing them from their hitherto total dependence on Russia.
Now, significantly, for the current Iranian president Khatami, his trip to Turkmentstan is his first foreign visit after assuming office in August, and it has taken place within a few weeks of the highly successful summit of the 55-member Islamic Conference Organisation in Tehran.
Having highlighted its diplomatic triumph, Iran seems to be stressing its economic importance in the region that encompasses not only the Middle East and Central Asia but also Afghanistan and South Asia.
The manner in which the project has been financed and executed by Tehran and Ashqabat shows the ineffectiveness of the American attempts to turn Iran into a pariah state like Iraq.
Since neither Iran nor Turkmenistan approached such international financial institutions as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- dominated by the United States -- for loans to finance the project, Washington never got a chance to veto it.
The agreement signed between Tehran and Ashqabat requires Iran to fund the 200 million dollar project, with Turkmenistan, currently short of foreign exchange, to repay the amount in gas deliveries, which will double to four billion cubic metres a year by 1999 -- but still only a fraction of its present output of 33 billion cubic metres.
As the Turkmen gas is being delivered to a remote area in Iran for local consumption, the present arrangement suits both parties. But this is only part of a bigger plan such as Iran's 23 billion dollar contract with Turkey, signed in August 1996, to supply it with natural gas over the next 20 years
As it happens, both Iran and Turkmenistan have surplus natural gas to export. Indeed, whereas the proven gas reserves of Turkmenistan at 2,890 billion cubic metres, are the seventh largest in the world, those of Iran at 21,000 billion cubic metres, are the second largest.
But on a per capita basis, Turkmenistan, with a population of about one-sixteenth of Iran's 65 million, has more natural gas.
That is one of the main reasons why President Niyazov has been able to ignore repeated warnings from Washington -- the very first one delivered by the then U.S. secretary of state James Baker in person in Ashqabat within two months of Turkmenistan's independence -- not to forge close ties with Tehran.
Nevertheless, in May 1992, Turkmenistan joined the Caspian Sea Cooperation Council, an economic organisation proposed by Iran.
In any case, once Russia, Ukraine and Georgia began defaulting on their payment for Turkmen gas, and ran up a total debt of 1.2 billion dollars, Niyazov had little option but to actively diversify his export market. And Iran with its large population figured prominently.
The commissioning of the gas pipeline on Monday therefore is the first material sign of a successful attempt by Ashqabat. It is also the final nail in the coffin of U.S. endeavours to keep Iran isolated.
[c] 1997, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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