Behrouz Ghezel

Gas Game: Evaluating Turkmenistan’s Foreign Policy Behavior Pattern

Date of publication : February 8, 2017 16:59 pm
Heads of states attend a photo session during the third Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) summit in Tehran, Iran, on November 23, 2015
Heads of states attend a photo session during the third Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) summit in Tehran, Iran, on November 23, 2015
After the gas supply of some Iranian northern provinces was suddenly cut off in the winter of 2008 by Turkmenistan and the unexpected reactions of this state to some problem of the Caspian Sea, and the sudden disruption in affairs of the Iranian transit fleet in recent months, now the gas game of January 2017 can be considered a turning point in feeling the need to assess Turkmenistan’s behavior pattern in dealing with Iran, a pattern in which the unexpected performance of the Turkmen side, on the one hand, and the shock of the Iranian side, on the other hand, can be seen.  
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran was one of the first states to recognize Turkmenistan as an independent state, and in January 1993, just a few months after she declared her independence, Iran established her embassy in Ashgabat. The first decade of Turkmenistan’s independent political life and under Niyazov, the relations between the two states witnessed an increasing growth in various political, economic and social areas. During this period, special geopolitical factors such as the ethnic bonds on both sides of the common border of the two states played a positive role as a factor underlying the development of bilateral relations. No need to clarify that political and economic issues arising from the collapse of the Soviet centralized administration system and the requirements of the transition period were also effective on the increasingly improved relationship. Maintaining security and socio-political stability, overcoming crises and economic problems, attempting to complete the process of nation-state building and, in a word, trying to ‘be’ was the main concern of the Turkmenistan’s governing body during these years.
After passing through certain issues of transition period, and relatively establishing the security and economic stability that seemingly coincided with the rise of the second President of Turkmenistan, Berdimuhamedov, to power, some rumor about the continuity and change in the domestic and foreign policies of Turkmenistan were heard. The young and new President of Turkmenistan, who acted with extraordinary accuracy and deliberation on domestic issues, showed more dynamism in foreign policy. One of his first different measures was to suddenly cut off the export gas flow to Iran. The emergence of clear differences between Turkmenistan and the Russian state-owned company Gazprom, the purchase of weapons from China (as the non-Russian arms supplier and with regard to Turkmenistan’s foreign policy of neutrality), the establishment of Turkmen Navy in the Caspian Sea, the completion of eastern gas transmission pipeline towards China, the development of relations with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, the establishment of the Zionist embassy in Ashgabat and the efforts to revive the TAPI project and (the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP)), all are signs of some change occurring in Turkmenistan’s foreign policy orientation and the important role of her “unique” decision-making structure. A situation that can be mentioned in the form of a shift from “being” to being “seen”. The interesting point of this transition is that in most cases, Iran has experienced less than favorable consequences.
As mentioned, there is a direct relationship between the process of political-economic stability of Turkmenistan, on the one hand, and the “non-Iranianization” of the political-economic interactions in the field of foreign relations, on the other hand. Turkmenistan stated this process in the form of the general principle of diversified foreign relations and the control of the monopoly of one-sided political-economic relations, while an inverse relationship is seen between diversified foreign relations of Turkmenistan and the Iranian contribution in this relationship. In other words, the implementation of diversified foreign policies resulted in a wider gap between potential capacities and the visible reality of the Iranian contribution in political relationship, foreign trade and the energy transit of this state. In the meantime, Turkmenistan, despite higher costs and lower safety factor, has tried to replace Iran with Afghanistan. For example, the effort to construct the transit route of Afghanistan-Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan which is supposed to replace the Iranian land route by crossing the Caspian Sea (Turkmenbashi-Baku), the rapid expansion of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan railway (while the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway, being operationalized, is still far away from its true capacities), the implementation of Southern gas transit route through the Afghan soil as Turkmenistan’s priority for energy policy and etc. can be considered as signs of the replacement policy. The interesting point of this new approach in the area surrounding the north- east of Iran is that the efforts to “non-Iranianize” the Turkmen projects in recent years has not been affected by the structural pressures, but this policy has been pursued within the framework of local tendencies.
Another point in Turkmenistan’s foreign policy behavior that clearly showed itself in her relationship with Iran is the effort to take advantage of politics for non-political issues in the bilateral relations between the two states. In other words, regardless of the legal or technical nature of some issue between the two states, Turkmenistan’s actions are done within a certain time and place framework which is bringing about political and even certain security implications, especially in her domestic politics. The gas game of 2008 and the recent gas game can be analyzed and understood within the framework of the mentioned claim.
One of the unique features of relations between Iran and Turkmenistan is the presence of the Turkmen Iranian near the shared border between the two states on the Iranian side. The Turkmen Iranian in this region, quite distinct from other border regions of Iran, do not have a demanding approach to the neighboring state - Turkmenistan -, but rather they have a critical approach. Regardless of ethnic similarities, the sectarian and tribal identities of the Turkmen Iranian are also important. They are more from the “Yomut” tribe, while the dominant tribe in Turkmenistan is the Teke and the Yomut have no considerable share in power. The importance of this issue becomes more obvious when we remember that tribal social foundations are still among the most effective elements in the structure of political power in Turkmenistan. In particular, this aspect of the mentioned feature is noteworthy that the Turkmen Iranian are located in the vicinity of the Yomut settlement province of Balkan, Turkmenistan. However, perhaps some aspect of the harsh and aggressive behavior of Turkmenistan toward the Iranian fishermen in the mentioned regions can also be analyzed. On the “gas game” of Turkmenistan, this aspect of the game should always be carefully considered that due to the geographical location of this pipeline, the first group affected by the interruption in the flow of gas is the Turkmen Iranian.
The imposition of Turkmenistan’s will over a powerful, vast and populous neighbor state like Iran can also pave the way for the increased acceptability and the promoted “prestige” of the Turkmen authorities. However, in recent years, social problems in this state, even in her affluent cities such as Ashgabat, have increased. In addition to these factors, the decline in the prices of energy carriers in the global market and consequently, the reduced revenue of Turkmenistan are also important. More than 80 percent of Turkmenistan’s government revenue is provided from the sale of hydrocarbon resources, and the reduced price seems to create problems for financing ambitious projects such as the construction of the 2017 Asian Olympic sports town. Therefore, the tolerance of Turkmen decision-makers is also affected. If the claim for nearly $2 billion is met, this can ease some of the financial pressures for the continued implementation of these projects. So, serious efforts to achieve - true and accurate - patterns of Turkmenistan’s foreign policy behavior, along with the announced macro policies, should be done based on more complex layers of political culture, geopolitical requirements and their consequences in terms of security aspects of domestic policy of this state.

Behrouz Ghezel, a PhD candidate in Central Asia and Caucasus Studies at University of Tehran, is the fellow at IRAS.

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