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Jumpin' Jack Verdi: It's a Gas, Gas, Gas

Iran and the Pipelineistan opera.

| Thu Oct. 1, 2009 3:21 PM EDT

Young Turks and Wily Russians

Why is everyone so damn hooked on Central Asian oil and gas? Elshad Nasirov, deputy chairman of the state-owned Azerbaijani oil company SOCAR, sums the addiction up succinctly enough: "This is the place where there is oil and gas in abundance. It is not Arab, not Persian, not Russian, and not OPEC."

It's the Caspian and, unfortunately for Europe, the region could, in energy terms, turn out to be not the caviar for which it's renowned but so many rotten fish eggs. No one knows, after all, whether the EU will ever be able to buy Iranian gas via Nabucco. No one knows whether the Central Asian "stans" have enough gas to supply Russia, China, and Turkey, not to mention India and Pakistan. No one knows whether any of their leaders will have the nerve to renege on their deals with Gazprom.

Ever since a 2008 British study determined that Turkmenistan may have natural gas reserves second only to Russia on the planet, the European Commission has been on a no-holds-barred tear to lure that country into delivering some of its future gas directly to Europe — and not through the Russian pipeline system either. Turkmenistan's inscrutable leader, the spectacularly named Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, just has to say the word, but despite the claims of EU officials that he has agreed to send some gas Europe-wards, he's never offered a public word of confirmation. No wonder: with Nabucco unbuilt and a pipeline from his country to China still under construction, Turkmenistan can play Pipelineistan games only with Russia and Iran. In fact, Russia essentially controls the flow of Turkmen gas for the next 15 years.

Should Gurbanguly someday say the magic word — and assuming the Russians don't throw a monkey wrench into the works — he can marry Turkey, as the key transit country, with the EU and let them all sing Verdi till the sheep come home. In the meantime, angst is the name of the game in Europe (and so in Washington).

A declassified dossier from the FSB, the Russian heir to the KGB, is adamant: considering Nabucco's shortcomings, "Russia will remain the primary supplier of energy to Europe for the foreseeable future." Call it a matter of having your gas and processing it, too. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been making the point for years. If Europe tries to snub it, Russia will simply build its own liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants, to facilitate storage and transport, and sell its LNG all over the world.

Anyway it's worth paying attention to what the St. Petersburg State Mining Institute (where Putin earned his doctorate) has to say. According to the institute, Russia has only 20 years' worth of its own natural gas reserves left. Since Russia plans to sell up to 40% of its gas abroad, "Russian" gas may in the future actually mean Central Asian gas. All the more reason for the Russians to make sure that those massive Turkmen and other reserves flow north, not west.

Whatever Washington thinks, the Europeans know that energy independence from Russia is, in reality, inconceivable. Bottom line when it comes to natural gas: Europe needs everything — Nord Stream, South Stream, and Nabucco. The bulk of the natural gas in this Pipelineistan maze may well turn out to be Central Asian anyway and a substantial part could be Iranian, if the Obama administration ever normalizes relations with Iran.

That, then, is the current state of play in the European wing of Pipelineistan. Russia seems to have virtually guaranteed its status as the top gas supplier to Europe for the foreseeable future. But that brings us to Turkey, a key regional power for both the U.S. and the EU. As President Obama has recognized, Turkey is both a real and a metaphorical bridge between the Christian and Muslim worlds. It is also an ideal transit country for carrying non-Russian gas to Europe and is now playing its own suitably complex Pipelineistan game.

Chances are that, like Ukhta in far off Siberia, you've never heard of Yumurtalik either. It's a fishing port squeezed between the Mediterranean Sea and the Taurus mountains, very close to Ceyhan, the terminal for two key nodes of Pipelineistan: the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline from Iraq and the monster BTC pipeline. Turkey wants to turn Yumurtalik-Ceyhan into nothing less than the Rotterdam of the Mediterranean.

Even as it dreams of future EU membership, however, Turkey worries about antagonizing Moscow. And yet, being aboard the Nabucco Express and already fully committed to the functioning BTC pipeline puts the country on a potential collision course with Russia, its largest trading partner. Of course, this does not displease Washington.

On the other hand, the Turkish leadership draws ever closer to Iran, which provides 38% of Turkey's oil and 25% of its natural gas. Ankara and Tehran also have geopolitical affinities (especially in fighting Kurdish separatism). Together, they offer the best alternative to the Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia) in terms of supplying Europe with Iranian natural gas. All this, of course, drives Washington nuts.

Needless to say, the Nabucco consortium itself would kill to have Iran as a gas supplier for the pipeline. They are also familiar with realpolitik: this could happen only with a Washington-blessed solution to the Iranian nuclear dossier. Iran, for its part, knows well how to seduce Europe. Mohammad-Reza Nematzadeh, managing director of the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), has insisted Iran is Europe's "sole option" for the success of Nabucco.

Is Russia just watching all this gas go by? Of course not. In October 2007, Putin signed a key agreement with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: If Iran cannot sell its gas to Nabucco — a likelihood given the turbulence of American domestic politics and its foreign policy — Russia will buy it. Translation: Iranian gas could end up, like Central Asian gas, heading for Europe as more "Russian" gas. With its European and Iranian policies at cross-purposes, Washington will not be amused.

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to "rethink Nabucco" if the tricky negotiations for Turkey to enter the EU drag on forever, EU leaders got the message (as much as France and Germany may be against a "Europe without borders"). Pragmatically, most EU leaders know very well that they need excellent relations with Turkey to one day have access to the Big Prize, Iranian gas; and that puts Europe's energy and EU membership inclinations at loggerheads.

Last July in Ankara, Nabucco was formally launched by an inter-governmental agreement. The representatives of Turkey, Austria, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary were there. Obama's special Eurasian envoy, Richard Morningstar (a veteran of the BTC adventure), was there as well. The Central Asian stans were not there.

But crucially, Gurbanguly, ever the showman, finally made an entrance without ever leaving Turkmenistan, (almost) uttering the magic words in a meeting with his ministers in the capital, Ashgabat, on July 10th: "Turkmenistan, staying committed to the principles of diversification of supply of its energy resources to the world markets, is going to use all available opportunities to participate in major international projects — such as, for example, [the] Nabucco project."

At the Vienna headquarters of Nabucco the mantra remains: this is "no anti-Russian project." Still, everyone knows that Russia's leaders are eager to kill it, and not a soul from Brussels to Vienna, Washington to Ashgabat, knows how to link Central Asia to Europe via a non-Russian pipeline, at the cost of more than $10 billion, without some assurance that Turkmeni, Kazakh, Azerbaijani, and/or Iranian natural gas will be fully (or even partially) on board. Who would be foolish enough to invest that kind of money without some guarantee that hundreds of miles of aluminum tubes won't remain empty? You don't need Verdi to tell you this is one hell of a quirky plot for a global opera.

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