Iranian Gas for a Thirsty Turkey 1

The protests are the main story, but Turkey’s ever-increasing need for a natural gas supply is liable to play an increased role in the country’s future direction.

By: Nicholas Borroz

A man who is dying of thirst reaches out to a large glass of water right next to him, only to have his hand slapped away by his friend.

The man is Turkey. The glass is Iranian gas. The friend is the United States.

Admittedly, this metaphor is simplistic, and also incomplete. In reality, the man isn’t dying of thirst, but he has access to a giant jug owned by one huge water supplier called Russia. Additionally, a couple other trickles of water come in from Azerbaijan and elsewhere. 

Nevertheless, the metaphor captures the essence of the situation. For Turkey, natural gas is becoming an increasingly important part of its energy demand profile. As domestic oil use declines relative to gas, and as meeting increased electricity demand will necessitate more gas for plants, expanding gas supply will be one of Turkey’s greatest obstacles in upcoming years. Iran borders Turkey, and at least before the unconventional gas revolution, Tehran had some of the largest gas reserves in the world.

At the moment, Turkey is trying to wean itself off of dependence on Russian gas. Azerbaijan seems destined to help Turkey achieve this aim, and recent discussions between Turkish president Abdullah Gul and his Turkmen counterpart indicate that Turkmenistan may also finally begin exporting gas to Turkey.

However, the most obvious gas supplier that could help Turkey lessen Russia’s dominance over its gas supply is Iran. It is true that for a variety of reasons, Iran is not the most stable of suppliers. For instance, its infrastructure is inefficient and outdated, production varies with the seasons, supply contracts are sometimes not met, and political turmoil is never far away. Despite these shortcomings, the benefits of dealing with Iran outweigh the risks, as was shown by Iran’s ascent to become Turkey’s second largest supplier of gas before international sanctions fully came into play in recent years.  

And this is the crux of the issue. Gas imports from Iran have dropped in recent years due to international sanctions, largely pushed for by the United States. Turkey is still allowed to import some gas, but this is only because of the issuance of waivers by the United States. The latest waiver is due to expire in July, and the waivers are short-term exceptions that cannot be guaranteed to extend indefinitely into the future.

The benefits to Turkey of its relationship with the United States have arguably lessened since the end of the Cold War, particularly since the rise of Erdogan’s AKP and increasing engagement with the Muslim world. At the same time, at least in terms of energy, the cost of the relationship has risen from Ankara’s perspective. Both Iran and Kurdish Iraq border Turkey, and they have huge hydrocarbons stores, yet the U.S. consistently disapproves of or impedes growing energy ties between Turkey and these two areas.

If the United States plans to expand its partnership with Turkey, as has been often claimed in recent years, then being sensitive to Turkey’s growing gas demand would behoove the United States. In other words, Iranian gas should be allowed to flow to Turkey.

It would be politically impossible for the United States to reel back its sanctions on Iran without positive developments in the Iranian nuclear sector. It’s also debatable how much influence the United States has over Iran’s economic isolation in general as the EU and the UN have also imposed their own measures. Something concrete that the United States could do would be to continue renewing Turkey’s waivers every six months. More importantly, the United States would need to assure Turkey in backdoor conversations that these renewals will continue to happen.

Hand-shaking, rather than hand-slapping, is the way forward to strengthening the Turkish-U.S. relationship.

Photo credit: Flickr Commons

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