In April 2023, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Rasit Meredow, the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Turkmenistan for a working meeting in Washington, D.C. The meeting followed the Blinken-Meredow meeting at the U.S.-Central Asia (C5+1) ministerial meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan in February 2023.
The U.S. statement on the meeting lacked detail but highlighted the officials discussed the need to “rapidly reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector,” which is a priority for in the U.S. administration’s climate action plan.
What might the envoys have discussed?
- The U.S. was probably pleased that Israel and Turkmenistan have upgraded relations and Israel now has an embassy in Ashgabat. Of concern to Ashgabat should be Iran’s reaction to what it may interpret as a change in the country’s policy of “permanent neutrality.” Iran has lately been aggressive towards Azerbaijan, implying Israel’s embassy in Baku will inflame tensions between Tehran and Baku. Is Turkmenistan in for the same treatment?
- Russia is supplying fuel products to Iran by rail, via Turkmenistan. Did the U.S. urge Turkmenistan to impede the rail traffic, or monitor it and report to Washington? Will the U.S. and Israeli attachés in Ashgabat cooperate to gather information on deliveries to Iran?
- Iran-Turkmenistan trade is increasing with trade in the first six months of 2022 greater than in all of 2021. President Berdimuhamedow visited Iran in June 2022 and the countries made several agreements so more trade is likely. Did the U.S. threaten sanctions if trade increases?
- Turkmenistan has been considered a possible natural gas supplier to Europe (via Turkey) for some time. Is that deal close to happening? Will the support the pipeline that will run under the Caspian Sea (to avoid crossing Iranian territory)? China loaned Turkmenistan $8 billion USD to expand its energy infrastructure and takes over 70% of its gas exports, so another source of financing and the opportunity to export to another large buyer will reduce China’s influence.
- The U.S. urged Turkmenistan to reduce methane emissions, which are some of the highest in the world. If Ashgabat can make progress on this issue, will it may buy U.S. cooperation, or at least non-interference, with stuff like trade with Iran? Ashgabat may remember the U.S. killed the EastMed natural gas pipeline that would have helped Europe diversify its energy sources as it clashed with America’s climate goals. Will the U.S. attack the pipeline if Turkmenistan cannot reduce methane emissions on Washington’s schedule? According to Scientific American methane capture technologies “are new and untested” so will the politics wait for the science to deliver? Though the U.S. and China jointly declared in 2020 “to bolster monitoring, management and research of methane emissions,” if China can commercialize methane capture technology first it will strengthen its position in Turkmenistan.
If Turkmenistan and the U.S. embark on closer relations, it may be part of Ashgabat’s policy to balance between the U.S., Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran, but will the U.S. expect “balance” to become “tilt” in its (and Israel’s) favor? Turkmenistan saw how casually the U.S. abandoned the Afghans after investing two decades and over $2 trillion USD in the failed effort and probably took the lesson about American insouciance in even the gravest matters.
Closer relations may run up against Turkmenistan’s declared policy of “permanent neutrality” that is recognized in a UN General Assembly resolution. And events, such as the recent visit of the commander of the U.S. Central Command, and the opening of the Israeli embassy may call that status into question. Turkmenistan’s Central Asian neighbors may not be concerned, but Iran will see the presence of more Americans and Israelis in the area as a prelude to an attack on its nuclear research centers and act accordingly.
What will Iran do?
Tehran probably won’t do anything too public or that will impede traffic on the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) which, by one estimate, will double its exports to Eurasian countries. Iran will also want to continue its “Look East” policy that has seen closer relations (and more trade) with the Central Asian republics, and will support efforts such as the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Iran railway that will make Iran’s ports of Chabahar and Bandar Abbas options to the Middle Corridor, the favorite of the Americans as it avoids Iran.
Iran may enlist the help of Russia and China, both with influence in the Turkmen capital to put in a word about the hazards of getting too close to the Americans, and that the hazards will come from Washington’s short attention span, not they.
Iran can bring pressure to bear on Turkmenistan via the “Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea” as the parties to the convention have resolved most, but not all the issues. The parties - Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan – resolved to call the oil- and gas-rich sea an area of "special legal status" rather than a “sea” or a “lake,” and use bilateral negotiations to define seabed boundaries, which may favor Iran’s greater diplomatic resources (and the fact that it has Russia and Iran on speed dial.)
The American actor Woody Allen once said, “80 percent of success is showing up” and that is something the American president has never done in Central Asia. The rulers of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and China, Xi Jinping, leave nothing to chance: Xj has visited every one of the republics and has been to Kazakhstan four times and Uzbekistan three times; Putin has visited Kazakhstan twenty-seven times (the countries share a 7,644-kilometre border), and has been to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan at least a dozen times each.
The leaders of the Central Asian republics have cordial relations with Putin and Xi and know their limitations. A visit by the American president would signal Washington’s intent see the Central Asian republics not as tools in struggles against Kabul, Tehran, Beijing, and Moscow but as viable potential political and economic partners in a part of the world it ignored until it needed help in Afghanistan.
By James Durso for Oilprice.com
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