Ibrahim Usta/AP
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is saluted by his aid-de-camp as he arrives in
Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008. (AP)

Turkey Considers Oil and Gas Partnerships with Iran

August 22, 2008 02:30 PM
by Anne Szustek
Turkey’s energy minister is heading to Tehran to discuss cross-border oil and gas investment, but geopolitical issues may be in the pipeline.

Turkey–Iran Relations: More than Gas?

Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Güler announced on Monday he is heading to the Iranian capital within the next two weeks to mull with officials ways to invest in Iran’s South Pars gas fields and a pipeline project, despite disapproval from Western countries, particularly the United States.

Güler, part of the Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP), reiterated Turkey’s need for natural gas and said the country needs to “protect its own interests.” He said at a news conference, “Convincing the United States is out of the question, we’re an independent country.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Istanbul on August 14 for high-level talks with Turkish President Abdullah Gül. Energy relations and Iran’s supposed nuclear activities were on the agenda.

Background: Energy and Turkish geopolitics

Turkey, which, outside of an oilfield near the southwestern city of Batman, does not have significant hydrocarbon resources of its own, is reliant on its neighbors for its energy needs. The country already sources natural gas from Iran through an existing pipeline, but according to Forbes, “its flow is often sporadic during winters.”

The proposed pipeline between Iran and Turkey could possibly transport gas onward to Europe through pipelines strategically backed by the United States. It would have a maximum annual capacity of 40 billion cubic meters of gas.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the United States was a vocal advocate of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which transports oil from Azerbaijan’s capital through Georgia to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. The pipeline transports some one million barrels of non-OPEC oil a year without crossing Russian or Iranian territory.

A section of the pipeline in eastern Turkey was attacked on August 5. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) took responsibility for that attack, as well as one earlier this year on an Iranian-Turkish line. On August 11, during fighting between Georgia and Russia, Russian forces nearly hit a section of the BTC pipeline in Georgia.

Turkey and Russia have their own energy squabbles. Russia is Turkey’s top source of gas, obtaining 68 percent of the country’s annual gas demand of 38 billion cubic meters. Turkey has accused Russia of selling its gas at inflated rates; Russia rebuffed Turkey for backing four European countries on the Nabucco pipeline. Starting in 2013, the Nabucco pipeline would transport gas from the Caspian basin and Iran to Europe without crossing Russia.

What does get Russian support, however, is the Medstream, a pipeline that would transport Russian and Caspian hydrocarbons via Turkey through Israel and on to East Asian consumers via the Mediterranean. “This sort of project will have a positive effect on the process of strengthening peace in the Middle East,” said Israeli Energy Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.

Related Topic: Turkey and Iran: The similarities in their differences

But Ahmadinejad certainly disagrees with Ben-Eliezer, as evidenced by comments the Iranian president made on Turkish television before his August 14 visit, that “the Turkish people will say the same things I say” with regard to Israel.

While Turkish policy toward Israel under the AKP has grown more strained, Ahmadinejad’s statement reflects his sentiments rather than Turkey’s. In May, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan negotiated indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria in the Turkish capital Ankara. In addition, Turkey is one of the few countries in the region that accepts visitors travelling on Israeli passports. On the ground however, conspiracy theories that Israel has designs on Turkish territory carry some popular weight.

Iran and Turkey do share a fear that a semiautonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq may spark a desire for self-determination among their own countries’ Kurdish populations, although U.S-based Iranian foreign policy expert Kaveh L. Afrasiabi told the Council on Foreign Relations that “Iran’s concern about Kurdish separatism does not approach the level of Turkey’s.” Iran’s Kurdish community is much smaller—some 4 million, compared to Turkey’s 12 million Kurds. But the CFR maintains that unlike Iran’s other ethnic minorities, many of the country’s Kurds have “separatist tendencies.”

Turkey considers Kurdish separatist efforts a major threat; its battle against the Kurdish leftist PKK has claimed more than 35,000 lives since the mid-1980s, many of them Kurdish civilians. Many national governments, including those of Turkey and the United States, classify the PKK as a terrorist group.

The pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, or DTP, considered by some groups to be the political wing of the PKK, is under threat of closure by Turkey’s Constitutional Court, the same group that, by a one-vote margin, allowed the Islamist-leaning AKP to exist earlier this month despite allegations that the party was contravening secularism.

In 1997, Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan resigned amid allegations that he and his Islamist Welfare Party sought to undermine Turkey’s secular state. One of his main policy drives was seeking greater ties with Iran and Libya, then still considered an outcast by the West.

Turkish President Abdullah Gül pardoned Erbakan on August 20. Both the current president and the former leader were found guilty of embezzlement of party funds. Gül’s office defended the move under Article 104, which permits pardons against persons considered “chronically ill.” According to a presidential spokesperson, a medical professional verified his illness.

Many Turks from the rural provinces see Islamist parties—both during Erbakan’s administration as well as under the current ruling AKP—as a political voice for the country’s largely socially conservative electorate either living in the rural provinces or recently settled in and around Istanbul and Ankara.

The AKP’s policies have had social reverberations, both in terms of policy implementation and a shift in cultural attitudes. A 23.8 percent increase in alcohol prices, largely due to stiffer taxes, has played into a drop of alcohol consumption in Turkey by 12 percent over the first half of 2008.

“Green” resorts—so named for the color of Islam rather than ecological consciousness—have sprung up along Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, allowing observant Muslim women to wear bikinis away from the eyes of men. On other Turkish beaches, women are sporting “hasema” swimsuits in increasing numbers. The suits, which conform to conservative Islamic modesty standards, envelop the body from head to toe in material through which the wearer can tan. The fabric also does not as readily cling to the body when wet, compared to the old cotton dresses worn by some religious Turkish women when swimming.

Sema Bayrak, a 37-year-old woman whose family moved to Istanbul from Van, near Turkey’s Iranian border, told the Turkish Daily News, “If you don’t let (people participate fully in the economy and public life) you hurt the country, you restrict the country. … God willing [the AKP] will get rid of these taboos.”

But in Iran, where Islam, rather than staunch secularism, is the basis of the national constitution, there is a backlash among youth and members of the wealthy elite against religion’s role in daily life. This has sparked a crackdown by the Iranian government against “immorality,” arresting women for not wearing proper clothes or trying to obtain foreign movies deemed “indecent.”

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