Cascading Gas Games

by Joshua Foust on 1/14/2008 · 1 comment

Russia isn’t the only country to play games with LNG pricing and availability:

Last week, Turkmenistan made news by cutting off natural gas supplies to Iran… even though Iran buys natural gas, it also sells it. But this is an incredibly cold winter, and Iranians are freezing. The country needed those Turkmen imports. So it has cut off Turkey, which was supposed to receive 30 million cubic meters a day from Iran but is only getting about 5 million.

Except it’s also mighty cold in Turkey. So it has cut off Greece.

The poetic coda? The rescue squad is from Russia.

It isn’t just that Turkmenistan is finally standing up for itself, or that Iran precipitated Russia’s further advance into edging out other suppliers to European gateways, or that now South Stream seems like a really amazing idea to these countries. Thomas Grove, an Istanbul-based reporter for Reuters, notes in a comment to LeVine’s post:

The source for the news that Gazprom is bailing Turkey out (which it does admittedly every winter when Iran cuts off its gas to Turkey citing cold winters) is a Gazprom statement first picked up by Interfax. That says that the levels had been increased above contract levels starting in December, before Iran turned off the taps to Turkey.

Now there are other sources in the Turkish energy ministry saying that Gazprom is not filling the deficit, this was checked yesterday, but that it’s actually dropped its gas levels by a daily 5mcm [million cubic meters].

Alanna, a regular commenter here, asked if Turkmenistan’s gas cut-off has anything to do with the growing tensions with ethnic Turkmen in Turkey’s Northeast. Iran super-scholar Amir Taheri certainly thinks so:

It all started on Jan. 4, when a gunboat of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot and killed a 20-year-old Turkmen fisherman in the coastal waters of the Caspian Sea… As news of the incident spread, bands of angry Turkmen, some armed with daggers and sticks, attacked government offices and set vehicles on fire. One group attacked a police station; another tried to lay siege to the local Revolutionary Guard barracks near the fishing port of Bandar-Turkmen.

Eyewitnesses say the riots lasted until late Sunday night (Jan. 6), ending after reinforcements flew in from other cities. Over the two days, more than 300 people were arrested and taken away to unknown destinations. A spokesman for the Turkmen Human Rights Group said dozens were injured. How many might have died is unclear, because the Guard took some of the injured with them, ostensibly for hospitalization in other towns.

In the following days, anti-government demonstrations rocked a number of other cities, including Gonbad Kavous and Quchan, where Turkmens are a majority. A state of emergency remains in force in Bandar Turkmen and Gonbad Kavous.

The Turkmen anger appears to have been so strong and widespread as to oblige the government in Ashgabat, capital of neighboring Turkmenistan, to stop its flow of natural gas to Iran, provoking a diplomatic tussle with Tehran.

It seems the gas cutoff to Iran has legitimate reasons, and, if I read things right, be cyclical—just as Russia’s gas cutoffs had the cover of legitimacy coming in the dead middle of winter. That Stomatologbashi would do this cut off over some rioting in Iran sounds fishy, however—even if the anger was “strong” and “widespread.” It just doesn’t seem in character to take such a drastic step over a minority group with an apparently long history of revolt against Tehran.

But I could be wrong. Any ideas you guys?

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

Rasmus Elling January 16, 2008 at 4:10 am

Although I wouldn’t term myself “super-scholar”, I do research the politics of ethnicity in Iran, and I do not see any connection here. First of all, although it seems very fancy these days to link every incident or riot to the supposed “ethnic time bomb” waiting to explode in Iran, the Iranian Turkmens have – since the Islamic Republic – not been very active in separatist or autonomy-seeking movements. There has, apart from the recent incidents, not been much of the tension we’ve seen in other provinces populated by ethnic minorities such as Khuzestan, Azarbayjan or Baluchistan. So I dare challenge the description of Iran’s Turkmens as a “minority group with an apparently long history of revolt against Tehran”. Actually, it’s quite the opposite.

The recent incident should probably be seen in the context of general socio-economic despair in all peripheries of Iran, and not as an uprising against the Persian majority. This is about a poor people feeling marginalized in the economic policies of the center, and not about a transnational ethnic movement ready to split with Iran and join Turkmenistan. Such a theory can only be the wishful thinking of certain elements in the US.

I would rather speculate – as Alex Vatanka said to RFE/RL recently – that the cut in Turkmen supplies could be viewed within the context of US-led pressure on Iran (apart from the over-all new policy of pricing being tested by Karimov and Berdymukhammedov these days).

I simply cannot believe that leaders in Turkmenistan think that they would gain anything vis-a-vis their “Turkmen brothers” in Iran, or that they even care about them. What could the end-goal be? What would the Turkmen gov’ment achieve from cutting off the gas? “Turkmen brothers in Iran” is to Ashgabat what “Azari brothers in Iran” are to Baku: A rhetorical tool of populist politicians talking to nationalist voters, and not a serious aspect of foreign policy.

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