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Turkey Gets Boost from Pipeline Politics July 18, 2009

Posted by Helena Cobban in Uncategorized.

Analysis by Helena Cobban*

WASHINGTON, Jul 17 (IPS) – The political geography of the modern Middle East has been affected for one hundred years by the appetite of westerners and other outsiders for the region’s hydrocarbons.

On Monday, the region’s “pipeline politics” took another step forward with the signing in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, of an agreement to build a new, 3,300-kilometre gas pipeline called Nabucco, running between eastern Turkey and Vienna, Austria.

The project underlines the new influential role that Turkey, a majority Muslim nation of 72 million people, is playing in the Middle East, and far beyond.

The new project’s name was chosen, Austrian officials said, after the Verdi opera that representatives of the five participating countries – who include Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary, along with the two terminus states – saw together during an earlier round of negotiations in Vienna.

But the name also gives clues to two intriguing aspects of the project’s geopolitical significance. The theme of the opera is the liberation from bondage of slaves held by the ancient Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (‘Nabucco’) – and it is a widely discussed feature of the Nabucco project that many European nations want access to a gas source that is not under the control of Russia.

Last winter, several European nations suffered severe gas shortages after Russia, locked in a tariff dispute with transit-country Ukraine, closed off the spigots completely.

But the other implication of the name is more strictly Middle Eastern. The modern-day home of Nebuchadnezzar is Iraq. Washington has given strong support to the Nabucco project – and one of the reasons U.S. officials give for this support is their hope that once Nabucco is up and running in 2015, Iraq can be one of the nations that reaps large profits by feeding gas into it.

However, construction of the pipeline is estimated to cost some eight billion dollars, and many officials in the participating countries are still unclear where they will get enough gas to make it economically viable.

The Nabucco participants had been hoping that a key feeder state would be one of Turkey’s eastern neighbours, Azerbaijan. But on the eve of the project’s inauguration in Ankara, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev took the CEO of the vast Russian gas company Gazprom to Azerbaijan, where they signed a contract with the state gas company that will force Nabucco to compete hard against Gazprom for any purchase it wants to make from Azerbaijan.

One fairly evident other source for Nabucco’s would be Iran, which is reported to have considerable amounts of new gas coming online in the next five years.

Paul Stevens, an energy specialist with London’s Chatham House think-tank, recently told the Christian Science Monitor that an Iranian deal alone could put the Nabucco project close to operating in the black. But he noted that the current political crisis in Iran makes that less do-able and thus, “makes the immediate commercial goals dimmer for Nabucco”.

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy for Eurasian energy, Richard Morningstar, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington that, “This would be the absolute worst time to encourage Iran to participate in a project like Nabucco, when we have received absolutely nothing in return.”

He did, however, argue that the prospect of inclusion in Nabucco could be one incentive used to help persuade Iran to cooperate with the international community.

Regardless of whether that comes about or not, this week’s formal birth of the long-negotiated Nabucco project underlines modern Turkey’s steady emergence as a significant player in Middle East politics, as well as its continuing role as a bridge between Europe and the countries of the Middle East and the Caucasus.

In many of the Arab countries of the Middle East, as in Bulgaria and some other countries in the Balkans, there was until recently much lingering hostility towards Turkey, based on the resentment earlier generations felt about the harsh way they were treated by the former Ottoman Empire.

But the present-day Turkish republic replaced the Ottoman Empire in 1923 and in the Arab Middle East, the earlier hostility towards Turkey now seems largely to have dissipated.

Even in Syria, which for several decades nursed a strong sense of grievance against Turkey for its 1938 annexation of the northwestern province of Alexandretta (now Hatay), that grievance has now been replaced by generally warm ties – and much admiration of Turkey’s recent economic progress.

In Iraq, there was also for decades strong resentment of Turkey, among both the country’s majority Arab population and from its minority of Kurds, who are concentrated along Iraq’s mountainous northern border with Turkey.

But the moderately Islamist ‘Justice and Development’ Party (AKP) that has governed Turkey since 2002 has built good relations with Iraq’s central government in Baghdad.

It has also built a decent working relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) – in spite of the sympathy that many Iraqi Kurds feel with their fellow Kurds inside Turkey, who for a long time were treated very badly by Ankara. (In Turkey’s 2007 general election, however, the AKP attracted a clear plurality of support from Turkey’s Kurds.)

Turkey now holds several significant levers of power over Iraq. It controls the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which together are vital to the wellbeing of Iraq’s people. It provides an important existing pipeline that takes Iraqi oil to a shipping terminal on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

It is the only one of Iraq’s neighbours apart from Iran that has a military capable of deterring other powers – inside or outside Iraq – from launching aggressive military adventures inside the country as the U.S. military draws down its presence there.

Turkey also projects considerable “soft power”- both in Iraq and in the rest of the Muslim Middle East. It strongly opposed the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, a stance that most Iraqis today strongly appreciate. But it also remains on good terms with Washington, as a much-valued member of NATO. And most Iraqis probably appreciate that pragmatism, too.

The AKP also provides an interesting example, to Islamist parties both in Iraq and further afield, of how an intelligent Islamist party can succeed both at home and abroad.

At home, the AKP government has shown moderation and toleration. In foreign affairs, it remains committed to strengthening Turkey’s ties with the west, including by continuing Turkey’s push to join the European Union.

Now, with the launching of the Nabucco project, Turkey has added to the influence it can exert with many Middle Eastern – as well as European – countries.

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