Recent travelers to the Caspian Sea littoral nations of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Turkmenistan report burning interest in the spiraling tussle between Russia and Iran over control of the Caspian, the largest inland sea in the world and repository of some of its richest natural resources – even to the exclusion of the nuclear aspirations of their southern neighbor and Caspian partner, Iran.
In Tiblisi, Baku, Ashgabat and Astana, high officials, political military, intelligence and financial, said in interviews to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources that Russian-Iranian relations started going downhill at President Vladimir Putin’s visit Tehran on Oct. 16.
A senior official in Baku said Putin and his Iranian hosts fell out less over Tehran’s disputed nuclear activities and much more over “Iran’s frustration at Moscow’s success in seizing control of 90 percent of the Caspian region’s oil and gas exports.”
The official said: “You will find Russia’s heavy hand on every source of revenue from oil and gas and on every tap controlling pipeline transport of oil and gas to Europe and China. Moscow’s expanding influence in Caspian republics has reached the point of jeopardizing Iran’s national interests.”
A senior intelligence source in one capital spoke bluntly, albeit anonymously, when he disclosed: “Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is telling his friends that Moscow has plundered the wealth of the Caspian.
“At the Caspian Summit in Tehran last month, Putin outmaneuvered the Iranian president by thwarting every attempt to carry a resolution regulating common exploration of the resources buried in the Caspian seabed.”
The Turkmenistan ruler’s convenient death
In the absence of this accord, the Caspian coastal nations are prevented from reaching the resources under their sections of the sea. In consequence, energy prices continue to rocket on the world market.
As seen by local sources in Caspian capitals, Moscow’s takeover was finally in the bag when the post-Soviet ruler of Turkmenistan, the eccentric Saparmurat Niyazov, died suddenly in Dec. 2006.
This five million-strong Muslim nation sits on the world’s fourth or fifth largest reserves of natural gas, ranging from 2 to 20 trillion cubic meters. Most of it is situated under the vast Kara-Kum (Black Sands) desert. Current production is roughly 70 billion cubic meters annually. This should be tripled by 2030.
Some informed sources privately hint at a rumor that elements close to Russian intelligence assassinated Niyazov, when he was on the point of breaking free of Russia’s grip and turning to the West. He wanted to import foreign experts to carry out offshore exploration in the Caspian Sea. One source in Ashghabat explained that the dead Turkmen ruler had grasped a fact only now dawning on Tehran that, in pulling the strings of his government’s energy and exporting policy, Moscow was solely motivated by its own regional and global interests.
“It is a fact,” the source told DEBKA-Net-Weekly, “that Moscow pays us $100 for a cubic meter of gas and flogs it to the Europeans for $280-300. When the Russians discovered Niyazov secretly casting about for Western patrons, they cooked his goose.”
It was therefore with astonishment that knowledgeable officials in the region learned that Niyazov’s successor, President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who took office in February, was being greeted in the West as more accessible and outwardly-oriented than his predecessor.
Energy capital homes in on Ashgabad
They maintain that the West has fallen for a cunning piece of deception contrived in Moscow and that the new ruler, a dentist by trade and former health minister, is in fact the Kremlin’s man acting out a part.
American businessmen were not deterred by his unpronounceable name from meeting the new president in New York this year. A Turkmen energy delegation was received in Washington and Houston. In mid-November, US secretary of energy Samuel Bodman and his European counterpart visited Ashgabat with a flock of energy executives.
Interest in exploration deals with Turkmenistan, which was closed for years to Western firms, comes from Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil, as well as European firms, some of whom are already heavily invested in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
Today, the extensive network controlled by Russia virtually monopolizes the region’s gas exports. Most analysts agree that the geopolitical struggle over energy resources in this coveted region is acute. In terms of geographic proximity, Russia has the upper hand over the Americans – especially since Washington decided to give ground to Moscow in its back yard under the influence of the new thaw between President George W. Bush and Putin (first revealed in DEBKA-net-Weekly 325 of Nov. 9: Bush seeks new Pact with Putin for Crackdown on Iran).
Full development of the Caspian gas fields following major discoveries is estimated in terms of decades. But even before a major network is developed, the pipeline battle has already begun.