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Moscow and Tehran working in a tandem: Gas behind Turkey’s “stab in the back of Russia”

Vladimir Putin and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Photo: ISNA

Strange as it may seem, downing of the Russian Su-24 over Syria might be connected with the outcomes of the Third Meeting of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) held in Tehran on Nov 23. That event gave much food for thought, for instance, about what the regions somehow dealing with Russia and Iran - the key suppliers of gas in the global market - should be ready for. How could GECF and Syria bear any relation to the downed Su-24? It was Turkey and Qatar that initiated the project of an export gas pipeline from the Persian Gulf to Syria in 2010-2011. However, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad preferred the Iranian gas pipeline project extending via Iraq to the Syrian coast. Everyone knows what happened next: under pretext of the “Arab Spring” and “democratization,” Syria became a target for an unprecedented terror and aggression. The war that has been raging for almost five years claimed lives of nearly 300,000 people, whith millions fleeing the country.

Iran’s “Syrian project” was coordinated with Russia, because - if what Iranian media say referring to reconnaissance is true - the envoys of Qatar and Saudi Arabia did their best to somehow influence the Russian leadership’s stand on Syria up to the Sochi Winter Olympics. They even indirectly threatened with terror attacks forcing upon Moscow their “services” to provide security of the Olympic Games. The Arab blackmail was declined then. After the terror attack on the Russian passenger plane over Sinai, the Russian Federal Security Service has finally declassified the information that an attempt of similar terror attack on board of a passenger plane was prevented ahead of the Sochi Games.

Then, in Tehran, the leaders of Iran and Russia met Qatar’s representative face-to-face, listened to his usual complaints, and signed a package of important agreements they had agreed on yet long ago. This time, the blackmail of the United States’ devoted marionette did not work, as Russia and Iran showed accord, which no longer seemed surprising. The two leaders had a consensus also concerning investments and price policy in the gas field. Vladimir Putin said not only investors and producers but also consumers will have to bear responsibility for risks. This means that gas rate in the world – by 2035-2040 the global consumption of gas will increase by 32% reaching nearly 5 trillion cubic meters – will be rising.

The third meeting of GECF – many call it a “gas OPEC” though not all its participants advocate cartelization – showed the readiness of Russia and Iran to dictate their terms on the gas market. It is commonly known that it was Qatar that broke the joint initiatives of Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Algeria in the field in late 1990s – early 2000s “by the order” of the United States. Meantime, on Nov 23, though it is not connected with GECF, Iran set another demand to the West. Iranian Minister of Oil Bijan Namdar Zanganeh said OPEC should make room for increased Iranian crude production within its ceiling of 30 million barrels a day. At the same time, the minister said, Iran is not ready to refuse from the growth of output. “Immediately after lifting sanctions, it's our right to return to the level of production we historically had,” he said. The minister said he does not expect any new agreement on the output quota at OPEC meeting on December 4. The upcoming meeting will be discussing Iranian’s oils introduction into the world market after sanctions are lifted from Tehran. Experts say Iran will start supplying additional volumes of oil as early as in 2016. On the next day, Saudi Arabia hurried to say it is ready to participate in the negotiations around the given agenda. Consequently, the global oil price is rising.

Apparently, many in the West regret that the “plan” of U.S. and Great Britain to “press” Russia to bargain out (either from Tehran or from Moscow) anything concerning “Assad’s fate” was failed again. To make sure of it, one did not need to wait for speeches by Putin or his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani at the Third Meeting of the GECF. It was enough to listen to the statements by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at his meeting with the Russian leader – as everyone knows, he rarely receives any of the world’s leaders. It was quite telling when he said that Iran cherishes no illusions and does not trust U.S., unlike Russia. And now, S-300PMU2 missile systems are supplied to Iran. Russia and Iran weigh a land-based operation of Iran in Syria. Iran has approved Russia’s ideal to create a common bank, and Russia said it is ready to credit Tehran. After such news, the West waved off and Turks insidiously shot down the Russian Su-24.

No doubt, the relations of the Russia-Iran tandem with the West in Syria will face a row of such incidents in future. No less interesting is the question what the post-Soviet countries should do now. Notably, one of those with whom Putin did have a meeting in Tehran was Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov. They covered many subjects in their negotiations, including Russia’s using the air space above the Caspian Sea in its operations in Syria. They surely spoke about gas as well. In this connection, it is worth remembering that before Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev visited Georgia, its Energy Minister Kakhaber Kaladze, while commenting on the launch of talks with Gazprom about Russian gas supplies to Georgia, said that Azerbaijan has no opportunity to deliver commercial gas to Georgia.

The Georgian minister said this immediately after the negotiations with Energy Minister of Armenia Yervand Zakharyan over electricity transit and a possibility of cooperation with Iran in the gas field. “At present, the situation with Iran is fundamentally different and our relations are at a high level,” Kaladze said. “In future, Georgia will be able to import gas via Armenia and Azerbaijan, we have no alternative. It is a long-term project. We will be discussing it.”

As for Azerbaijan, Kaladze said, Georgia was not going to discuss the possible deal with Gazprom during Aliyev’s visit. “Georgia previously had relations with Gazprom, we bought gas for commercial facilities,” Kaladze said. “We buy it now as well. Perhaps, we will be doing it in future too.” In fact, for Georgia the gas supply issue is very relevant and as much politicized. The government of Georgia has enough reasons to think that Azerbaijan has no sufficient gas resources to supply gas to Georgia. It is logical that to import more gas, Georgia needs to cooperate with Russia. The opposition in Georgia says there is a risk of becoming economically dependent on Russia. They say all this will inevitably increase Russia’s influence in Georgia.

Now they offer a certain formula of gas supplies from Iran. Iranian Minister Zanganeh does not rule out possible gas supplies to Georgia. It is noteworthy that Kaladze proved right and Aliyev during his visit to Georgia did not drop a single word about either Georgia’s talks with Gazprom or possible gas supplies from Iran. Instead, at the meeting with his Georgian counterpart Giorgi Margvelashvili, Aliyev said Azerbaijan’s gas will be sufficient for the domestic needs, for the neighbors and the entire Europe for a period of one hundred years. “Azerbaijan has large reserves of gas. Even in 100 years, Azerbaijan will be supplying gas not only to itself, but also to its neighbors and the entire Europe,” the Azerbaijani leader said. Given how intensively Baku’s propaganda machine began confirming Aliyev’s absurdities about “gas for Europe for 100 years,” one can understand that the ideas of Kaladze and Zanganeh like the fact of Georgia’s talks with Gazprom aroused concerns of both Azerbaijan and certain circles in the West that not only have been sponsoring the construction of pipelines in the Transcaucasia to Turkey for already 20 years, but also trying to drive the region out of the influence of Russia and Iran by means of the Caspian pipeline to Turkmenistan.

It was not for nothing that on November 24, the leading Western mass media said that someday tensions may emerge in the relations of Moscow and Tehran, but now Syria is cementing their relations. Meantime, the relations of Russia and Iran were cemented yet before the Syria crisis - the two countries consistently confirm their commitment to the peace process in Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2014, the Russia-Iran tandem pushed through a comprehensive agreement between the countries of the Caspian region on the status of the Caspian Sea – to prevent deployment of troops in the Caspian waters from the non-regional countries. Another factor cementing the Moscow-Tehran relationships are the confidential agreements on gas, after which Iran adopted a decision to build a gas pipeline with a smaller pipe section area to Armenia.

What about Georgia? Its ex-prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili speaks of the need to buy gas from Moscow and Tehran. First Deputy Prime Minister Kaladze sets specific terms – he anticipates an agreement with Gazprom as early as in December. It is a step towards diversification of gas supplies, of course, through Russia and Iran. Leading Georgian experts, particularly, Malkhas Gulashvili, the head of Georgian Times media holding, also speaks for the diversification of gas supplies. All this shows that they in Tbilisi see the strategic importance of the moment and do not want to ignore the alliance of Russia and Iran, the world’s leaders by the natural gas reserves. Second, Georgia does not trust in Aliyev’s victorious reports about Azerbaijan’s unlimited gas reserves. By the way, the Georgian politicians and statesmen addressed Armenia in their arguments. For instance, Deputy Prime Minister Kaladze touched upon construction of a gas pipeline via Iran and Armenia: “We are waiting to see how our relations with Iran will be developing in this direction. We will discuss this issue, if there is such an opportunity, of course,” he said. However, there is a problem – U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Ian Kelly who apparently approved Georgia’s efforts to diversify gas supplies but said that Washington is concerned that the alternative suppliers will be Russia and Iran. Is there any other alternative, Mr. Kelly?

Anyway, the current situation makes the Transcaucasia “drive” towards stronger ties with Russia and Iran, not looking back to the West. There is no need to predict what and how Russia and Iran will decide about, for instance, Turkmenistan and Armenia, to ensure a reliable fuel and energy pool in the Transcaucasia and control it toughly. Everything is possible: improvement of Armenia’s pipeline capacities and extension of the pipe to Georgia, swap supplies schemes, and even involvement of some energy agreements of Iran and Armenia.

Sergey Shakaryants, political analyst (Yerevan), for EADaily

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