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Trans-Afghan Pipeline: Another Loss for Iran in the Pipeline Diplomacy of the Caspian Region


Bahman Aghai Diba PhD. International Law

The issue of connecting central Asia to the high seas has a long history. This was the policy of Russians and later, the Soviet governments for the last two centuries. Access to the warm waters of high seas through Iran or the territories of present Afghanistan and Pakistan, were followed by the former Soviet Union as a part of Lenin's Testaments. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, several new states emerged in the Caspian Sea, which some of them are landlocked or even double landlocked (that means, they have to pass at least from two countries to get to the high seas). Exploration and exploitation of the vast energy resources in the Caspian Sea region and necessity of finding suitable arrangement to get them to the markets in the West and Far East, has given new meaning to the above struggle.

The best way for transportation of the Caspian oil and gas out of the region is construction of pipelines to the open seas. In this sense, Iran is, of course, the best natural way, and at the same time, the most economical way. But the policy of the Western states, especially USA, in the last decade is based on denying Iran and the Russian Federation from getting the upper hand. Although, this policy is changing as far as the Russian Federation is concerned as a result of the recent close relations of USA and Russia, but the case of Iran has remained as bad as it was in the last decade or so, if not worse. For the same reason, many other ways have been discussed and explored for transportation of the Caspian oil and gas resources to world markets.

One of those ways is the route of Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan. This route has been encouraged by all those states and also some countries like India and the Far Eastern states, partly because one of the main markets for the Caspian Sea's oil and gas is the Far Eastern region, especially Japan. The importance of this issue is reflected in the fact that immediately after the terrorist 9/11 attacks in US and American military operations in Afghanistan to topple the ruling Taliban regime and its terrorist allies, General Pervez Musharraf, the President of Pakistan suggested to the Americans in his first visit to the USA after the collapse of Taliban in Afghanistan, to revive the establishment of the pipelines from Afghanistan, now that the peace was returning to Afghanistan. Also, Karzai, the Afghan President, went to see Musharraf and Niyazov in May 30, 2002 in Pakistan. They have come to conclusion that it is to their interests to follow the case. They are now looking for financiers.

Meanwhile, Iran is acting as if nothing important is happening. Even an official of the Iranian foreign ministry has said that Iran supported this pipeline, because it helps the poor people of Afghanistan. But in reality, this is another serious loss for Iran in the pipelines diplomacy of the Caspian region, following the losses resulted from failure to convince other Caspian Sea littoral states to accept Iranian formulas for the new legal regime of the Caspian Sea.

Those other cases are:

  1. The delimitation of maritime borders between the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan according to the Russian formula of Modified Median Line (MML) which divides the seabed and leaves the superjacent waters as free for all navigation.

  2. Agreement between the Azerbaijan Republic and the Russian Federation on the principles of their Caspian maritime boundaries on the basis of the MML.

  3. Agreement between Azerbaijan Republic and Kazakhstan for using MML in their future maritime boundaries in the Caspian Sea.

  4. Start of the construction of the Baku-Jeyhan pipeline.

  5. Rejection of swap. Iran is very annoyed that the USA has been so effectively opposed to the Iranian route for transportation of oil and gas from the Caspian Sea region to the high seas. Iran has proposed a swap solution, according to which Iran will get the oil and gas produced in the Caspian states for its domestic consumption in the north of the country, and export an equivalent amount of its own production in the southern ports of Iran. Even such interesting suggestions by Iranian authorities have not been able to win the heart and mind of the West, especially the USA, and they have been continuously opposed to the Iranian route.

And now comes the Trans Afghan pipeline.

According to the news published in Alexander's Gas & Oil Connections, "The USA government would support the construction of oil and gas pipelines running from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan. US Deputy Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones told Turkmenistani President Sparmurad Niyazov during a visit to Ashgabat on Jan.31 (02) that Washington would support such projects as long as they were commercially viable. Jones said that while United States did not invest in pipeline, it would support private companies that chose to undertake such projects." (, 06/02/02)

Also, according to AP (BC-Turkmenistan-Afghan Pipeline July 9, 2002) Pipeline project through Afghanistan gets boost from Asian Development Bank. The bank will fund a feasibility study on the pipeline, chief economist at the bank Rajiv Kumar said at the meeting in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, which included ministers and government officials from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan, and a representative from the U.S. Embassy. "The dlrs 2 billion project calls for the construction of a 1,460-kilometer (907-mile) pipeline to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan's Dauletabad-Donmez field to Afghanistan and Multan, Pakistan. The United States welcomes the Asian Development Bank's decision to help fund the project, said Robert Hanzy of the U.S. Embassy in Turkmenistan. The pipeline has been viewed as a way for Washington to counter Russian and Iranian influence in the region with a transit route that skirts those countries."

The international oil companies started to take some tangible steps regarding the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan route in early 1990s, but they left it without any result later. May be they hoped to find a better way, including some progress in Iran-US relations, which directly may affect the energy routes questions in this part of the world. UNOCOL was active in this field and after 1998 they declined to follow it, and they said that they had no priority in it, and they have been investing in other places. It is interesting to note that The company had an agreement in Oct. 1997 for the establishment of a 1.9 billion dollar project of natural gas in Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan route, but later developments, including missile attacks by USA against Afghanistan, following the US embassies bombings in Africa, they pulled out.

Some sources believe: "Victory by US-led coalition and its Northern Alliance supporters would not only boost America's power and influence in this strategic Caspian Sea region, but it would reopen the door to a potential energy windfall for the West." (Jim Crogan, the oil war,".)

"During the final months of the Clinton administration, the Taliban was officially a rogue regime. After nearly a decade of fierce competition between the US-supported Unocal-CentGas consortium and Bridas of Argentina, neither company had secured a deal for a trans-Afghanistan pipeline. Immediately upon seizing the White House, George W. Bush resumed relations with the Taliban. Bush stocked his cabinet with figures from the energy industry with long-time ties to Central Asia (including Dick Cheney of Halliburton, Richard Armitage of Unocal, Condoleeza Rice of Chevron), and rode into office on the largesse of corporations with vested interests in the region (Enron). Suddenly, the prospects for a trans-Afghanistan oil and gas pipeline that would help ensure American dominance of Eurasia, described by Zbigniew Brezezinski as 'The Grand Chessboard,' began to improve." (Larry Chin,, March 10, 2002).

It is suitable to conclude that:

The effects of the trans-Afghan pipeline are undoubtedly very important. Some aspects of this issue are:

  1. The diversification of resources for Western countries and their allies, and finding alternative sources that can be used in case of endangerment of Persian Gulf resources, because of relations with Arab countries and the ramifications of Arab-Israeli conflict and the American policy.
  2. Finding a possible way for exportation of the Russian oil resources. Russia is seriously working to replace Saudi Arabia as the leading oil producer in the world. The specter of non-OPEC oil is very appealing to the West.
  3. Control of the West over routes of oil and gas, especially towards the Eastern Asian countries, including Japan and China. The main market for the Caspian oil and gas is the Indian continent and also the far Eastern countries. America can have a great influence on all concerned countries by maintaining strong hand on their lifeline.
  4. Control over gas resources in Afghanistan. Also, control over the new lifeline of Afghanistan as the transit country.
  5. The question of oil and gas resources of the Caspian region and their routes of transportation are valid points in the recent developments of Afghanistan.
  6. The current President of the USA is interested to follow the interests of oil and gas sector, like his father who had an eye to the same interests in the Persian Gulf War.
  7. Preparations for control of the Caspian-Persian Gulf region as a vital area to American interests are underway according to the Carter Doctrine (The carter Doctrine States that The Persian Gulf areas is a part of American vital interests that should be secured with any means including military actions).
  8. US wants to continue putting pressure on Iran to be careful about its policies that are opposed by the USA, (in other words: Trying to get weapons of mass destruction, helping terrorists and opposing the peace process in the Middle East) and the Trans-Afghan pipeline is another stronghold of this policy.
  9. The Russian Federation is another big loser in case Trans- Afghan pipeline is constructed. "If this project is realized, Moscow experts say, the Russian economy will face two unpleasant consequences. Firstly, Russian energy sector will lose Turkmenistan gas that is now being delivered to Russia and, in the long run perspective, also Uzbek gas... Secondly, if central Asian gas exports are directed south, across Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean, Russia will lose transit revenue." (,shtml,6/17/2002).

  10. Iran should try to stop the progress of the Trans-Afghan pipeline by improving its ties with the West, especially the USA. Also, Iran should try to use the Russian opposition to this pipeline as far as possible. The interested parties are desperately looking to find financiers for this project, and the developments in Iranian policy will affect the degree of their success.

About the author:

Dr. Bahman Aghai Diba is a consultant on international law affairs for several US companies, and at the moment he is in Virginia. His new book :"The Legal Regime of the Caspian Sea, with special reference to Iran" is under publication.

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