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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.
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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.
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TAPI has been stalled by concerns about insecurity in Afghanistan and a lack of financing. Late last year supporters said it would be ready by 2018. But Ghani said on April 29 that 2020 was now more realistic.
This makes Sefcovic’s optimism about alternatives especially welcome news in Ashgabat.
But there are two big hitches to a pipeline under the Caspian Sea – Russia and Iran, two littoral states. Both have balked on giving the Caspian a clear legal definition that would clarify who owns the rights to the seabed: is it a lake or a sea? Without a clear status, the pipeline project is shrouded in uncertainty.
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The Kremlin also says it has ecological concerns, but few take those at face value: Keeping Turkmen gas out of Europe is essential to maintaining its own stranglehold on the continent.
So in the long-term, it may be a comment made by Sefcovic concerning another potential southern corridor bypassing Russia that is most interesting. Given that Europe’s relations with Iran are “developing positively” as both sides negotiate an end to Iran’s nuclear program and Western sanctions, the EU could also receive Turkmen gas via a pipeline overland through Iran to Turkey, Turkmen television quoted him as saying.
Sefcovic did not go into details. And even if sanctions were lifted, there would still be plenty of tension and mistrust between Tehran and Brussels to overcome. But for both the EU and Turkmenistan, a trans-Iranian pipeline would offer several advantages over a trans-Caspian one: It would traverse fewer countries and Russia would not be able to touch it.
By Chris Rickleton
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