Iran Turkmen Pipeline Opens to Big Fanfare

KORPEDZHE–Turkmen’stan (Reuters)–The presidents of Iran and Turkmen’stan on Monday opened the first natural gas pipeline between the two countries – the first Turkmen gas to bypass Russia – and vowed to step up cooperation in the hugely lucrative energy sector.

The $190-million–200-km (125-mile) pipeline will have an initial annual capacity of four billion cubic meters of gas–which is expected to double by the year 2006.

The volume is small beer considering the impoverished desert state’s estimated natural gas reserves of 21 trillion cubic meters.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami–on his first overseas trip since taking office last August–was treated to a lavish display of Turkmen hospitality that included male folk dancers in traditional fleece hats and children reciting poetry.

Turkmen’stan’s strongman president Saparmurat Niyazov and Khatami then turned a wheel–opening valves to let Turkmen gas flow to Iran – the first gas to be pumped out of the former Soviet republic without going through Russia.

Minutes later a plume of flame leapt into the blue December sky above the Korpedzhe gas field–located under desert in the southwestern corner of Turkmen’stan near the Iranian border.

"The opening of this pipeline is a further step on the road to the broadening of our relations and the strengthening of our two friendly–fraternal states," Khatami told a gathering of engineers–students and foreign diplomats.

Until now Russia’s pipelines have been Turkmen’stan’s only gas export outlets and its sales–currently suspended due to a months-old row with Moscow over access and paymen’s–were mainly to cash-strapped former Soviet republics like Georgia.

Turkmen’stan–a country of only four million people which became independent after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union–wants to reduce its traditional heavy reliance on Moscow.

"This new pipeline is a sign of…the strengthening of the independence of your country and the diversification of your energy outlets," Khatami told Turkmens on Monday before flying home.

The pipeline accord–observed with great interest in Moscow–Washington and elsewhere–has wider implications for the Central Asian region as Islamic Iran–under Khatami’s moderate guidance–charts a more pragmatic course in diplomacy.

It coincides with the approval on Sunday of a feasibility study to be carried out by the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell on building a pipeline from Turkmen’stan to Turkey via Iran.

Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz held weekend talks in the capital Ashgabat and left shortly before Khatami’s arrival.

Khatami said on Monday Iran was interested in future onshore and offshore energy projects in Turkmen’stan.

"Of course today’s pipeline is not the first nor the last project to be realized through the cooperation of our two countries," he said.

At a banquet in his honor on Sunday evening Khatami said Iran wanted the vexed issue of the Caspian Sea’s legal status resolved as soon as possible so that the littoral states can start developing its huge hydrocarbon resources.

"There are two approaches to this issue. Either we sit down at a table and conduct negotiations until a just solution can be found or we give up trying to resolve the problem and chaos will reign," he said on television.

Iran and Russia officially treat the Caspian as a giant lake which should be developed jointly by the littoral states. But Turkmen’stan–Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan view it as a sea which should be divided into sectors and exploited separately.

On Sunday Yilmaz made clear Turkey–keen to import more Central Asian gas and oil–is also impatient to see the Caspian Sea deadlock broken.

Turkish and Turkmen ministers signed a memorandum covering the preparation of projects on the building of gas pipelines along the bottom of the Caspian Sea to Turkey via Azerbaijan.

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