With the world’s fourth largest gas reserves, Turkmenistan has enough to keep everybody happy. But for the remote Central Asia country and its suitors, taking the potential and turning it into a prize has proven persistently difficult.
Last week, the European Union’s energy boss, Maros Sefcovic, was in Ashgabat speaking positively – some might even say delusionally – about a $5-billion-plus trans-Caspian pipeline that would pump up to 30 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas underneath the world’s largest inland sea and onto markets in Europe. The link, Sefcovic said, in comments reported by AFP and Reuters, could be ready to pump by 2019.
But it was another proposal he made – about a pipeline across Iran – that has intrigued analysts.
Other than China, which imports upwards of 35 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen gas per year, Turkmenistan sells to Russia (4 bcm) and Iran (around 10 bcm). Both are net exporters and perennially threaten to cut their imports. Russia made good on its threat earlier this year by reducing imports from around 10 bcm.
While Sefcovic was talking up the Trans-Caspian Pipeline, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was playing down another connection viewed as vital to Turkmenistan’s ambitions: The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI) which has been on drawing boards since the 1990s and could cost as much as $10 billion.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tried to end uncertainty about Iran’s desire for Turkmenistan's gas during his first official visit to the gas-rich Central Asian country on March 11, promising an unspecified increase in imports.
Over the last few years, at least in terms of gas, Turkmenistan’s relationship with Iran has been second only to its relationship with Russia in volatility. Tehran makes occasional noises about boosting domestic production and doing away with a tiresome trade pickled with disputes.
But during his visit Rouhani confirmed that the Islamic Republic would up imports from Turkmenistan.
That must be music to Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s ears. The Turkmen economy has been struggling on the back of the sharp downturn in Russia and the slumping ruble; moreover, Moscow suddenly slashed imports of Turkmen gas last month.
Referring to increased transport links with Turkmenistan, such as the new Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway, Rouhani set an ambitious target for bilateral trade to grow by more than 15 times from its current $3.7 billion to $60 billion by 2020, his official president.ir website cited him as saying.
For his part, Berdymukhamedov was also effusive: “In recent years, given the growing cooperation in different fields, bilateral ties between Tehran and Ashgabat have taken on a new meaning,” said the Turkmen president, who also called Rouhani a “brother” in comments picked up by AFP.
The Damavand destroyer, which formally entered service in Iran's Caspian sea fleet on March 9, 2015. (photo: MoD Iran)
Iran's newest, most capable warship in the Caspian Sea has formally entered service following a March 9 ceremony at the port of Bandar-e-Anzali.
While Iranian officials played up the technical capabilities of the new ship, they also noted that one of its missions would be training, highlighting the fact that the Caspian remains a very secondary strategic priority for Tehran.
The ship, the Damavand, is a Jamaran-class destroyer with more sophisticated weapons than the original Jamaran, with "highly advanced anti-aircraft, anti-surface and anti-subsurface missile systems" and "capable of tracking and targeting aerial, surface and sub-surface targets simultaneously," Press TV reported. It entered sea trials in 2013.
"The operational radius of Damavand is so vast that it can sufficiently be used for all naval missions in the Caspian Sea," Head of the Self-Sufficiency Jihad Department of the Iranian Navy Rear Admiral Ali Qolamzadeh told Fars News Agency. But he added that it also could be used for "training missions," suggesting a rather less strategic focus. (The Caspian has traditionally been a site for Iranian naval training; during the Soviet era that was the sea's sole purpose for the Iranian navy.)
The Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, attended the inauguration and called the Caspian a "sea of peace, friendship and security." And he repeated the oft-made claim that "outside powers" (read: the United States) are trying to sow dischord on the sea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Iranian envoy Ali Akbar Velayati in January. (photo: Kremlin)
Iran may be admitted into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this summer if it makes progress in resolving disputes over its nuclear program, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has said.
It already seems clear that India and Pakistan, who have both long sought SCO membership, will be admitted at the organization's summit this July in Ufa, Russia. Iran -- which also has been trying for years to enter the SCO -- has been hampered by the fact that it is under international sanctions related to its nuclear program.
But when a senior Iranian official, Ali Akbar Velayati, visited Moscow in late January, he reportedly gained the Kremlin's approval for SCO membership.
"Velayati’s Moscow trip might signal that some kind of a significant change in relations is about to take place. Iran’s Mehr News reported that in Moscow, Velayati was able to secure Putin’s approval for Iran to 'upgrade its status' in the SCO," noted regional analyst Alex Vatanka. "As an observer state in SCO, Iran has since 2005 unsuccessfully sought to obtain full membership in the organization, but perhaps the Russians are about to entertain the idea of Tehran joining the alliance. Along these lines, the state-run Iranian media have been busy hyping the prospects of an SCO membership for Iran."
The defense ministers of Russia and Iran, Sergey Shoigu and Hossein Dehghan, sign an agreement in Tehran. (photo: MoD Iran)
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu has made a rare visit to Tehran, where he and his Iranian counterpart promised "accelerated" military cooperation between the two countries.
Shoigu's visit was the first to Iran by a Russian defense minister in 15 years, and both sides played up the potential geopolitical import of the trip. "Iran and Russia are able to confront the expansionist intervention and greed of the United States through cooperation, synergy and activating strategic potential capacities," said Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan. "The visit to Tehran is a geopolitical movement towards an alliance between Russia and Iran," wrote Rossiya Segodnya analyst Aleksandr Khrolenko. "It's not just the development of military relations between the two countries, but a continuation of Russia's pivot to the East."
The two sides signed an agreement on defense cooperation, which called for joint exercises, port visits by naval vessels, and a joint fight against piracy in the Caspian. But those things were already going on, and it's not clear what new forms of cooperation might be in the works.
The presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran have opened a long-anticipated railroad link connecting landlocked Central Asia to the Persian Gulf.
On the Turkmen-Iranian border, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan, Hassan Rouhani of Iran, and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan donned white gloves to bolt together a final section of track that was symbolically colored gold, the Associated Press reported, inaugurating the last stage of the freight link that they hope will herald a boom in trade between the three Caspian littoral states.
Highlighting those expectations, the first cargo to cross the border between Turkmenistan and Iran on December 3 was a wagonload of wheat from Kazakhstan.
The line – which carries only freight but may carry passengers later – has an initial capacity of 5 million tons per year, projected to rise to 12 million tons. Forecasts suggest the new line could triple trilateral trade in the short term from 3 million to 10 million tons, and double it again by 2020 to 20 million.
Russia's Grad Slavyansk corvette, to be used for the first time in joint exercises on the Caspian Sea next year. (photo: mil.ru)
The Caspian Sea will see its first -- and probably the world's first -- naval biathlon next summer, with all five littoral states taking part, the Russian Defense Ministry has announced.
The naval biathlon appears to be a spin-off of the tank biathlon that Russia inaugurated in 2013 and expanded into a blockbuster event this year. And the principle will be the same, with ships racing and shooting at targets. Missing a target will result in a penalty lap.
"Such a naval competition is unparalleled in the world," said Russian Caspian Flotilla Commander, Captain 1st Class Ildar Akhmerov, according to TASS.
Each country will compete with one ship and one reserve vessel. Armored personnel carriers will also be part of the competition (it's not clear how) and there will be an athletic portion of the contest, as well, with sailors competing in rowing, weightlifting, swimming, and tug-of-war. The competition will take place over several months, starting in March and ending in August.
Also not yet clear: which ships will be used and what they will shoot with. The naval capabilities of the five countries on the Caspian -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- vary widely. In the tank biathlon almost all participating countries used Russian-provided tanks, but that wouldn't seem to be a workable solution here; it's unlikely the Russian navy would just hand over the keys of one of its ships to Turkmenistan, for example.
Iran, it seems, was calling Turkmenistan’s bluff earlier this summer when Tehran said it no longer needs gas from its northern neighbor. Now a top official says Tehran will keep buying.
That is good news for Turkmenistan, which is so dependent on its main gas customer, China, that it is starting to look like a client state.
Iran is committed to increasing its own domestic gas production to up to a billion cubic meters per day by 2017, a target one industry analyst thinks is possible but unlikely within such a tight timeframe. But supplying Iran’s northern regions with domestic gas is complicated by its lack of infrastructure. So, since 1997, Iran has bought gas from Turkmenistan to service its north, and sold its own gas abroad.
Deputy Oil Minister Hamid Reza Araqi said this week that his boss and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov had met in Ashgabat this month to hammer out a new purchase agreement. According to regional news agency AKIpress, the meeting happened November 7.
“The deal makes it possible to raise the amount imported from Turkmenistan in cold months of the winter; starting in the beginning of the current year, Turkmenistan has exported 24-25 million cubic meters of natural gas to Iran [daily],” said Araqi, in comments carried in English by Iran’s Mehr news agency on November 19.
The agreement contains a provision to increase this to 30 million cubic meters daily, he added.
Russia and Iran, comrades-in-sanctions from the West, are connecting with each other . . . through a railway. And Azerbaijan intends to be the crucial middle link.
The Russian State Railroads Company earlier this week announced plans to build a railway link from Russia, across Azerbaijan, to Iran. An intergovernmental agreement on building the railway is expected to be signed in July next year and the Russian firm said it will foot the bill for the project.
Azerbaijan has its reasons to be suspicious of both countries, but, so far, has given no sign of skittishness about the deal.
How successful Azerbaijan will be in juxtaposing an Eastern train project with a Western one is unclear, however. The idea is not likely to earn warm support in the West, with which Baku already has a relatively schizophrenic relationship — chummy when it comes to energy and assistance for NATO in Afghanistan; far cooler when it comes to reported Azerbaijani abuses of civil rights.
Perhaps that last factor, at least to some degree, contributeAzerbaijan to think it's time to explore what it has in common with Russia and Iran, and express it through rail.
Russian Duma Speaker Sergei Narishkin, in Tehran from November 16-17, made no bones about the project being a slapback at the West.
The presidents of Azerbaijan and Iran, Ilham Aliyev and Hasan Rouhani, at an official dinner in Baku. (photo: president.az)
Iran President Hasan Rouhani completed a visit to Baku, and while the two sides didn't announce anything too newsworthy, the visit underlined how tension between the two countries has considerably diminished over the course of this year.
Rouhani visited Baku November 12-13, and his delegation also included senior presidential aides and ministers of oil, foreign affairs, roads, communications and information technology and economy, as well as the governor of the Central Bank of Iran. And it followed a visit by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev to Tehran in April. "Indeed, the fact that the two presidents met four times over a period of nine months was a milestone in the history of the two countries’ ties," wrote the Iranian website mehrnews.com in an analysis of Rouhani's trip.
That analysis dated the decline in the two countries' relations to what it called "the Eurovision 2012 misunderstandings," when Baku hosted the European song contest, there were rumors that a gay parade would be held in connection with that, and Iran withdrew its ambassador from Baku.