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“Caspian bird in the air” instead of “Ukrainian feather in the hand:” what Šefčovič and partners were excited about in Ashgabat

Possible routes of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline. Photo by satoil. kz

The latest four-party meeting of the heads of the oil-and-gas sectors of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Turkey and Vice President for Energy Union, European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič in Ashgabat, as well as Šefčovič’s negotiations with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov late in the evening on April 30 were covered by media overzealously. The purpose of the negotiations was clear as early as in 2013-2014 when the European Union was only launching its campaign against Russia’s South Stream gas project. This has become evident after President of Russia Vladimir Putin announced in Turkey on December 1 2014 that Russia abandons the South Stream and embarks on a new project – Turkish Stream – to bring the Russian gas up to the borders of Greece via the European part of Turkey under the Black Sea. The competition of the future gas transportation projects grew stiffer, as Russia confirmed its decision not to extend the agreements with Ukraine on the transit of natural gas to Europe after 2019 and start pumping gas through the Turkish Stream in 2019-2020. The European Commission and Bulgaria had pretended for some time that the South Stream project that was abandoned by Moscow was still in force and Russia “just needed to accept” the dictate and the so-called EU’s Third Energy Package that was backdate.

At first sight, there is nothing inappropriate in Europe’s efforts to lessen its notorious “dependence on Russian gas,” except the concerns that Russia may use the “gas addiction” to get some political preferences. Such kind of interpretation - it was repeatedly made by both the former-president of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso and the current president Jean-Claude Juncker - is just childish attempts to avoid admitting the truth i.e. USA “directed” and “still directs” EU’s decision-making in the field. Just recall how many projects “emerged” suddenly and were forced upon Europe and the countries of the gas-bearing regions and it will become evident that all those games were not in favor of the EU countries, and much less for the ordinary consumers of gas in those countries.

Washington supports the construction of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline, United States Secretary of Energy, Dr. Ernest Moniz told reporters on April 27. In a strange way, Moniz’s statement coincided with another two messages: 1) on April 20, Ashgabat suddenly declared that it “does not trust the neighbor-states and fears they will be impeding the export of the Turkmen gas to the EU.” That is why, Turkmenistan plans to obtain UN security guarantees for the trans-national pipelines and turn them into facilities protected under the international law. It was not the first attempt to safeguard the gas pipelines by turning them into facilities protected under the international law. President Berdimuhamedov made a similar statement addressing the 63rd Session of the UN in 2009, but the issue was shelved then. 2) The so far diplomatic statement on USA’s aspiration for military presence in Turkmenistan and the so far hypothetical deployment of the U.S. contingent in the Caspian Sea region make one think about another anti-Russian and anti-Iranian axis to emerge: Kabul–Ashgabat-Baku-Tbilisi-Ankara. Anyway, we will return to USA’s plans later.

Šefčovič has made few achievements – after the negotiations in Ashgabat, the sides just initialed a Declaration to confirm their commitment to further active cooperation within international organizations to create effective mechanisms for energy security. The signed document looks to…“estimate the natural gas of Turkmenistan.” The sides agreed to setup a working group to establish a corporation to supply Turkmen gas to Europe. Šefčovič said the EU expects to start receiving gas from the Caspian Sea region as early as  in 2019-2020. He said that Turkmenistan is keen to join the “South Gas Corridor” project.

The West is well aware that any pipeline linking Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan will be closer to the southern part of the sea i.e. to Iran.  It was obvious that the U.S. and EU have already started “testing waters” to get Iran’s consent. For example, on April 9, Minister of Energy and Natural Resources of Turkey Taner Yildiz “on the heels” of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hasty visit to Tehran actually invited Iran to the TANAP project (Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline). Recently, haqqin.az, an Azerbaijani news website, unveiled a “little-known aspect” of the Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s visit to Baku dating back to November 2014: “In the course of the bilateral consultations in Oman, the United States suggested that Tehran get involved into the establishment of a common ‘energy corridor’ to Europe with Azerbaijan by joining TANAP in exchange for partial rescission of the sanctions, and to expand the operating gas pipeline Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum. The offer was so beneficial for Iran that when discussing the measures of pressure on Russia at the Security Summit in Istanbul, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was speaking about it as if it were an accomplished fact. However, Tehran refused to participate in the anti-Russian arrangement. This prompted hysteria of the American political establishment, which toughened its stand at the negotiations in Vienna in late 2014 to punish Iran.” 

It should be recalled that TANAP project’s standard-bearer is British Petroleum (BP), the operator of the Shah-Deniz field (28.8%).

It appears that Iran showed indifference to Turkey’s offer – Erdogan accepted Rouhani’s offer on mutual trade in the national currencies, while in Baku on April 11 they openly spoke about “TANAP’s serious problems.” Azerbaijan saw “the root of evil” in the “processes in the Athens and Rome that announced they may reconsider the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) - the project looked to supply gas from the Caspian Sea region and Middle East to Western Europe - in favor of the big dividends for the transit of Azerbaijani gas.” Actually, Minister of Economic Development of Italy Federica Guidi said at an Azerbaijan-Italy working meeting in Baku that Rome postponed the final decision on the project till late May. Bulgaria, in turn, tried to attract Tehran with the idea of Nabucco’s reanimation. To that end, at a meeting behind the closed doors on April 24, Iranian Ambassador to Sofia Abdullah Norouzi “was attacked” by four high-ranking officials of Bulgaria led by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. Bulgarian media reported that during the meeting the Iranian ambassador allegedly introduced a special offer of the Iranian side i.e. a new plan of cooperation between Tehran and Sofia that implies establishment of a gas hub on the territory of Bulgaria via which Iran would bring its gas to Europe. 

There are objective reasons to assume that Iran could not do it, as little time has passed since the November statements of President Rouhani, and the Lausanne talks on Iran’s nuclear program have brought no result, while the Iranian-Russian rapprochement (yet since the autumn decisions on the Caspian Sea region which Baku did not dare to object to) is simply unprecedented.

Although Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev assures that they have never considered their project as an alternative to the gas projects of Russia in Europe, it is obvious that the Trans-Caspian pipeline along with TANAP and TAP is a real alternative to both Russia and Iran. Incidentally, Turkey’s representatives also entrench upon the truth saying that TANAP allegedly “does not compete” with the Turkish Stream. They in Moscow are well aware of that.

Russia’s stand is clear – Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at the Russian parliament that “TANAP falls into the category of the projects that affect the interests of the countries not involved in the negotiations, particularly, Russia.” They in Moscow were well aware that European officials use TANAP project for political speculations. Meanwhile, Tehran has been repeatedly saying since 90s that the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline is economically unviable and environment damaging and it is better building an overland pipeline via its territory. Europe was not against it then, but the U.S. with its anti-Iranian sanctions spoiled those plans. Now, Šefčovič says in Ashgabat that the EU could receive the Turkmen gas via the territory of Iran. Although there are no specific plans for construction of a gas pipeline via Iran, but European Commissioner for Climate Action Miguel Arias Cañete has said recently they consider Iran as a potential transit country.

Meanwhile, Iran is implementing its own, sovereign gas projects too. The first one runs to India (via Afghanistan and Pakistan) and may reach China in future. The second runs to Syria to the Mediterranean via Iraq. The first project has been actively implemented for the third year already. The second was derailed after the West’s aggression against Syria and activation of the Islamic State in the north of Iraq.  Nevertheless, in January, Iran announced a renovated project of this gas pipeline – via the southern Shia regions of Iraq. Tehran has always avoided supplying its gas to Europe via Turkey. So, the probable Iranian-Russian arrangements on gas and gas pipelines are not the only factor that makes Iran to refuse from other projects. The point is that Iran has always strived for an independent role in the world market of natural gas, without any control, much less by Europe. That is why it is hard to believe that Iran could fall for Bulgaria’s promises to reactivate Nabucco or Turkey’s offers to join TANAP.

The time when Russia wants to start pumping gas via the Turkish Stream and the EU hopes to start receiving gas via Southern Gas Corridor from Turkmenistan coincides – 2019-2020. This goes to prove that like Nabucco the South Gas Corridor is nothing but a maneuver to distract the attention and resources of Russia and Iran and slowly destroy economy and energy security of the EU.   After all, along with Minister Moniz’s statement in support of the Trans-Caspian pipeline, there is another statement by Matthew Bryza, the ex-ambassador of the U.S. to Azerbaijan, the director of the International Centre for Defense and Security in Tallinn (Estonia), who said on April 15 that Washington decided to cut the financial aid to Azerbaijan and Turkey. In this light, Ilham Aliyev’s hasty visit to Saudi Arabia and his April 6 statement that Baku and the Islamic Development Bank are keen to “attract more partners to the bilateral cooperation” shows that there are neither funds nor investors in the Trans-Caspian pipeline project and the U.S. has no intention to fund construction of infrastructures in Eurasia.

Thinking that the U.S. is inconsistent would be a poor judgement. The U.S. is lobbying the construction of TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline. In March, Richard E. Hoagland,  Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, said the U.S. has reconsidered its approaches in the region: “Our long-term strategy is to make Central Asia, including Afghanistan, once again a crossroads of global commerce.”

The Department of State tries to recompense its withdrawal from Afghanistan with arms supply. In 2014, Turkmenistan received ammunition worth $13 million. Ambassador Richard Morningstar who occupied the post of the Special Envoy of the United States Secretary of State for Eurasian Energy in 2011 said the U.S. stand on Iran is unchangeable. He said the U.S. does not see the Iranian gas in the South Corridor under the current leadership of that country and amid the world community’s failed efforts to influence the Iranian nuclear program. Daniel Rosenblum, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Asia at the U.S. Department of State, said: "it is in America's interest to implement the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) rather than TANAP». Former U.S. Ambassador to Baku Richard Kauzlarich said in a press conference at Wilson Center that without the Caspian Sea demarcation and agreements with Moscow and Tehran on the one side, and an agreement between Baku-Ashgabat, and Tehran on the other side, it will be impossible to implement TANAP. Second, he said, it will be impossible unless the existing and potential conflicts in the region are resolved.

It is hard to escape a conclusion that the South Gas Corridor is a kind of “energy Ukraine” i.e. a project to distract attention and funds of not only Russia, but also Iran. Meanwhile, the U.S. is distracting the attention of the EU from the urgent and future problems of Europeans connected with suspension and reorganization of a truly sustainable system of energy resources supply from Russia via Ukraine that was plunged into war and chaos.

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