Turkmenistan-Iran gas dispute. The lost PR war

In the last days of 2016 and in early January 2017 a public row broke out between Iran and Turkmenistan regarding gas exports to the southern neighbor. It turned out that Ashgabat had repeatedly reminded Teheran over the course of last year of arrears amounting to some $2 or $1,8 billion. The Iranian side failed to settle the debt and on 1 January Turkmengas cut off the gas flow over the Turkmen-Iranian pipeline.

The debt was built up between 2007 and 2008 but it was not until now that the Turkmen side started claiming the debt. Though Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry officially claims they need money for technical purposes and ensuring gas supply, it should be mentioned that over the past 10 years the unsettled debt did not prevent Turkmenistan from supplying gas to Iran. It is most likely that Turkmenistan suddenly began to persistently claim the debt repayment because it urgently needs cash to fill holes in the budget caused by the severe economic crisis.

Iran, which has long been aware of the financial problems of its neighbor, decided to make the conflict public despite the fact that such disputes in the East are usually resolved without attracting attention.

According to Iran, while Turkmenistan was celebrating the New Year, the Iranian media outlets quite actively held a public awareness campaign devoted to the incident. Turkmenistan has just come to its senses by publishing the press release by the Foreign Ministry. Was it worth it?

What we have fought against

While Turkmenistan, which had eliminated local media outlets during the years of independence and does not have any loud speaking trumpet, was keeping silent, the Iranian information agencies disseminated its own version of the developments. Turkmenistan was portrayed as an unreliable partner that is ready to change the terms and conditions of the deal by threatening to cut off the gas flow and leave people without heating in the cold winter.

Ashgabat had nothing, or nowhere to be more precise, to respond as there are no professional media outlets in Turkmenistan. The official information agency TDH keeps covering up the conflict. The only way to present its own version of the recent developments to the public for Ashgabat is through the Foreign Ministry. At the same time, professional work with media outlets and diplomacy have never been characteristic features of statements by Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry.

This time the statement by Turkmenistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs was no exception.

In the last few days, contradictory information started to circulate in the mass media of Iran and other states concerning Turkmen-Iranian relations in the gas sphere. Some of them allege the unexpected and inconsistent with bilateral agreement termination of natural Turkmen gas supplies to Iran as of January 1st 2017. On the contrary, in other publications it is noted that Iran has signed a five year contract with Turkmenistan for the supply of Turkmen gas, � Turkmenistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs states.

However, there is no contradictory information published by the Iranian mass media. According to Iran, if one tracks the chronology of events it can be noted that from 27 to 30 December 2016 tough negotiations were held in Ashgabat, which resulted in extending the deal to supply Turkmen gas for 5 years. However, despite this, Turkmenistan, in violation of the agreement, halted gas supplies as of 1 January 2017, the official website of the National Iranian Gas Company reports.

At the same time, Turkmenistan's Foreign Office did not present its own version of the developments and did not deny the contract signing. The press release only says that the gas supplies were indeed terminated due to the unsettled debt. In the meantime, Iran does not deny the debt but the Iranian side had some questions with regard to the calculation of arrears, which will be carried out by representatives of the gas companies in the next two months.

Non-political issue?

The press release issued by Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry concludes with the statement that any attempts to politicize this issue regardless of the origin will be considered as unfriendly acts towards Turkmenistan and will be immediately disclaimed by the Turkmen side. However, the very fact that the statement was made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs rather than a spokesperson or CEO of Turkmengas suggest that this is a political issue.

Whether it was done deliberately or not, Iran has damaged the reputation of Turkmenistan as a reliable gas partner. It is crucial for Turkmenistan to lobby the construction of TAPI and the Trans Caspian gas pipeline with China being its only gas market. In its turn Iran, which has had all sanctions lifted, has repeatedly announced its intention to supply gas to Europe in the west and to Pakistan and India in the east. In other words, Iran becomes a direct competitor to Turkmenistan and at the same time it enjoys a much more favorable geographical position. To export gas to the west Iran does not need to build a gas pipeline on the bottom of the disputed Caspian Sea, and it borders Pakistan in the east, bypassing Afghanistan which poses a threat to the pipeline.

By forcefully attempting to get back its funds, even if legitimate, to resolve its short-term problems, Turkmenistan risks damaging its reputation as a reliable exporter in the long term perspective, which has already been mentioned by some professional specialized publications.

Source: Chronicles of Turkmenistan