By: Omid Rahimi
Biden’s victory in the US presidential election and Trump’s departure from power have obscured the fate of the American projects in Central Asia. The Turkmenistan-Pakistan-India pipeline project (known as the TAPI) is one of the most important projects that did not succeed despite the efforts by the Obama administration and Trump's special emphasis on connecting Central Asia to South Asia.
In the last months of Donald Trump’s administration, it seems that all of his efforts to stabilize Afghanistan have failed. In a situation that Turkmenistan's relations with Russia has improved and a kind of balance has been created in the country's gas market following Gazprom’s addition to the republic's buyers list as well as failure of the TAPI project, the traditional actors such as the Islamic Republic of Iran will have the opportunity to return to Ashgabat’s gas game.
This, however, requires serious political measures as well as planning for implementation of joint projects. In This Futures study, we will analysis the future prospect of Iran's return to Turkmenistan’s gas game.
Why “gas game”?
The word "game" basically refers to a political phenomenon that has certain characteristics. First, the phenomenon should be a dynamic one which has passed recession. Second, the dynamism of changes should be predictable and based on a certain order. Third, all the actors must have the ability to influence and interact with the phenomenon, and the patterns of competition and cooperation can be applied simultaneously. And fourth, while the phenomenon is complex and interconnected, it must have the capability to distinguish between the interests and approaches of different actors.
By the end of 2018, when China was the sole buyer of Turkmenistan’s gas, one could hardly use the word "game" for Turkmenistan’s gas market. However, the resumption of gas imports by Gazprom from the beginning of 2019, rise of hopes for construction of a Caspian submarine pipeline with the green light of Tehran and Moscow in the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea (in August 2018) and rise of hopes for completion of the TAPI in the wake of the new afghan peace strategy, brought Turkmen gas market to a new dynamism with new players.
However, the Islamic Republic of Iran was not among the players of this gas game, due to different reasons such as the disputes over Tehran's gas debts to Turkmenistan, the special approaches of some Iranian entities towards Turkmenistan, and the emergence of some political problems. Now, following the changes in the US government as well as Iran’s political scene (which began with the change of Iranian parliament and will continue until the 2021 presidential election), it seems that Turkmenistan's gas game has entered a new phase in which Iran can play a more significant role.
The Afghan peace talks and the TAPI stalemate
Following the new round of the Afghan peace talks, Turkmenistan was one of the actors that explicitly supported the process, and shortly afterwards began to play a role independently. The meeting of Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry officials with the Taliban delegation in Doha in November 2020 can be considered as one of the most serious signs of this approach. At the same time, Ashgabat launched other independent approaches towards the governments of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and the United States. Turkmenistan has also begun active institutional partnership with the United Nations and even announced its readiness to host the next round of intra-Afghan talks in Ashgabat. During this period, the Turkmen institutions also held several international meetings on energy diplomacy and discussed about the advancement of the TAPI project as a performance bond for Afghan peace.
However, two weeks ago, Islamabad announced that the branch of Pakistan National Bank in Ashgabat, which was set up to facilitate the financing of the TAPI project, would soon be closed. The bank was established in 1997 with the aim of financing the TAPI and facilitating trade between the two countries. Closure of the bank came after Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India failed to fulfill their 15-percent share in financing the project.
In fact, Afghanistan's volatile security status and growing tensions in the country during the recent months (Which coincided with the peace talks) dissuaded these countries to pay their own share. Moreover, following the suspension of Turkmen gas exports to Iran and Russia in 2016, Ashgabat could not finance 85 percent of the project budget. Berdimuhamedow's intensive consultations with various countries - including Uzbekistan, Italy and Malaysia as well as the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf - have not also yielded any tangible result. Even Saudi Arabia's cash and non-cash assistance to Turkmenistan for completing some parts of the TAPI has been so small that it has failed to motivate other actors such as Pakistan and India.
Under such circumstances, it seems that the TAPI has reached a dead-end until the new US administration is fully established and Washington’s new strategy is redefined in the Biden administration. It should be noted, however, that Turkmenistan’s active energy diplomacy is still going on.
Political changes in Iran
In recent years, some of the Iranian ministries have taken a certain approach towards Turkmenistan, especially in the case of gas disputes with the government of Berdimuhamedow. These approaches, particularly in Ministry of Petroleum and the Iran National Gas Company, have been taken regardless of the very specific political behavior of the Turkmen government. But interaction with the Turkmen government requires a different kind of behavior, with unique considerations and more patience. So far, these approaches only led to more tension as well as retaliation by the Turkmen side.
While the two governments have also made serious efforts to improve the bilateral relations on several occasions, such as Mr. Rouhani's 2015 visit to Ashgabat and the mass release of Iranian prisoners by the Turkmen government but in the case of gas dispute, there were serious problems that exacerbated the disagreements.
The insistence of Iran on pursuing the dispute through the legal processes, the agreement of the two countries in March 2016 to liquidate parts of Iran's debt to Turkmenistan via exchange of goods and services and non-implementation of it, the opposition of Iran Ministry of Petroleum to an agreement with Türkmengaz in April 2016, and Failure to implement the agreements resulting from Chief of Staff of Iran President Mahmoud Vaezi’s visit to Ashgabat in September 2018, are all the events that have brought the relations between the two countries to the current situation. Recurrence of these gas disputes can also be seen in Turkmenistan's decision to limit the transit routes as well as trade ties with Iran.
However, since the beginning of this year, a new parliament has been formed in Iran. In the new parliament, we can see new approaches in terms of foreign policy, including in terms of Turkmenistan. At the same time, Iran is preparing for presidential elections in the next six months. All of these factors have provided the mental and psychological grounds in the Turkmen government for a political change in Iran. In other words, even if we do not see a significant change in the attitude of the new government and parliament in Iran towards Turkmenistan, the resulting psychological atmosphere can be considered as an opportunity. In such circumstances, it is possible to start serious negotiations for Iran's return to Turkmenistan's gas game.
Iran's participation in Turkmenistan’s gas game
In November, the financial reports of some Iranian oil and gas companies was published. According to this reports, Iran has continued to buy Turkmenistan’s gas until 2018 and exporting it to Iraq and Turkey. Iran has also imported about 1.44 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan in 2018, for which it owed $129 million. This sets the final price of each cubic meter of Turkmenistan’s gas for Iran about 12.3 cents. At the same time, the price of Iran's gas exports to Turkey and Iraq has been respectively set at 27 and 30 cents. In other words, Iran Ministry of Petroleum has exported gas to Turkey and Iraq at 2 or 2.5 times higher than the price it was paying to Turkmenistan. This means a significant profitability of gas imports from Turkmenistan, which finally led to complaints from both Turkmenistan and Turkey. The head of the Energy Commission of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce stressed that the import of cheap gas from Turkmenistan could be a very good opportunity for Iran which was missed.
Regarding that China and Russia are the only buyers of Turkmen gas, giving a strategic concession to Turkmenistan to diversify its gas markets could have other benefits for Iran besides economic benefits. Also, in recent years, a lot of money has been spent on the construction of gas pipelines between the two countries, and this is a very serious advantage for using Turkmen gas for domestic use. In fact, this advantage is the main problem of the Turkmen government in the TAPI project. Therefore, Iran’s return to the buyers list of Turkmenistan’s gas is one of the serious issue that should be followed in the new political situation. Of course, before doing so, it is necessary to resolve the current disputes through political means and outside the frameworks of the past
Another important alternative solution can be gas swap. This has already been done in a very limited scale by the private sector. The participation of the private sector in limited transfer of Turkmenistan’s gas is a key factor that can pave the way for the Iranian government’s long-term projects. In the meantime, one of the serious approaches can be creation of alternatives for the TAPI. In fact, the Iranian private sector can begin exporting Turkmenistan’s gas to Afghanistan and Pakistan as a pilot project. Such a plan can be implemented alongside larger projects such as the Peace Pipeline as a functional approach. This is especially important for Afghanistan, which is in dire need of gas imports in the current security and infrastructure situation.
According to the CEO of the Iranian National Gas Company, the initial plan for gas exports to Afghanistan has been designed and this is going to be done by the private sector. If such a plan comes to reality, using Turkmenistan's gas resources can be put on the agenda.
The political situation of Turkmenistan’s gas game is changing. Since the beginning of 2019, Gazprom has resumed gas imports from Turkmenistan and is considered as the second largest buyer of Ashgabat’s gas after China. The TAPI was the third strategic option of Berdimuhamedow 's government, which is now in a state of ambiguity. Following the closure of Pakistan National Bank and the uncertainties regarding the Afghan peace process, it seems that the TAPI has reached a deadlock, at least temporarily. In such a situation, there are two other options for Turkmenistan to create a balance in its gas market:
First, pursue the so-called Trans-Caspian projects, which have been achieved with the green light of the coastal countries (including Iran and Russia) in the August 2018 convention. However, given the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the high cost of submarine pipelines, and the ambiguities that exist in the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea regarding the sea borders, this project is virtually impossible to be launched in the next 10 years.
Second, resume exports to Iran and return to pre-2015 conditions.
It seems that Turkmenistan has set two preconditions for this issue. First, achieving the goal of gas exports within the framework of western strategic propositions, in order to balance the country's gas game with the presence of China and Russia (Iran's addition to this game without any western alternative, can overshadow this country’s neutrality in the new political situation). Although this plan does not seem to be feasible in the short-term in the TAPI and Trans-Caspian, it can be achieved through alternative options. And second, the settlement of the gas dispute with Iran.
So, it seems that in parallel with the new political changes in Iran, a special care must be taken to resolve this dispute through new frameworks and via a "special" way.
Omid Rahimi, is a Researcher at the Institute for East Strategic Studies