[Marxism] As energy guzzlers meet on Iran, Pepe Escobar examines specifics of empire

Ralph Johansen mdriscollrj at charter.net
Thu Oct 1 12:01:15 MDT 2009

[Now that we've been schooled to pronounce/denounce Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 
how well will we do with Turkmenistan's Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov?] 
Tom Dispatch

posted 2009-10-01 11:13:19 Tomgram: Pepe Escobar, Pipelineistan's 
Ultimate Opera

Back before email, a world traveler who wanted to keep in touch and 
couldn't just pop into the nearest Internet café, might drop you a 
series of postcards from one exotic locale after another. Pepe Escobar, 
that edgy, peripatetic globe-trotting reporter for one of my favorite 
on-line publications, Asia Times, has been doing just that for 
TomDispatch readers as he explores the geography that undergirds our 
civilization, the pipelines that crisscross Eurasia through which flow 
energy -- and trouble. This, then, is his third "postcard" from what he 
likes to call Pipelineistan. The first in March began laying out a 
great, ongoing energy struggle across Eurasia via an embattled energy 
corridor (and a key pipeline) that runs from the Caspian Sea to Europe 
through Georgia and Turkey -- and the Great Game of business, diplomacy, 
and proxy war between Russia and the U.S. that has gone with it.

In May, he plunged eastward into tumultuous Central and South Asia and 
the devolving battleground that, in Washington, goes by the neologism 
AfPak (for the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater of operations). Now, he 
heads west toward Europe and another developing struggle, this time over 
just how natural gas from the Caspian Sea will reach Europe. Think of 
this as a story that lurks under so many other stories. For instance, 
this very day, the representatives of Russia, Germany, China, France, 
Britain, and for the first time, the United States, will be sitting down 
with Iran's representative in Geneva for what's billed as an historic 
exchange. On the table -- and in global headlines -- will be the Iranian 
nuclear program, a previously secret Iranian nuclear site, Iranian 
medium-range missile tests, sanctions of various sorts, the possibility 
of future attacks on that country's nuclear establishment, and so on. 
What won't be in the headlines, or the accompanying reams of analysis, 
is the approximately 15% of the world's natural gas deposits Iran 
controls. As it happens, for the Europeans and the Russians (and so for 
Washington), that's the story hidden under the Iranian imbroglio, which 
is why we need Pepe Escobar. Tom

Jumpin' Jack Verdi, It's a Gas, Gas, Gas Iran and the Pipelineistan 
Opera By Pepe Escobar

Brussels -- Oil and natural gas prices may be relatively low right now, 
but don't be fooled. The New Great Game of the twenty-first century is 
always over energy and it's taking place on an immense chessboard called 
Eurasia. Its squares are defined by the networks of pipelines being laid 
across the oil heartlands of the planet. Call it Pipelineistan. If, in 
Asia, the stakes in this game are already impossibly high, the same 
applies to the "Euro" part of the great Eurasian landmass -- the richest 
industrial area on the planet. Think of this as the real political 
thriller of our time.

The movie of the week in Brussels is: When NATO Meets Pipelineistan. 
Though you won't find it in any headlines, at virtually every recent 
NATO summit Washington has been maneuvering to involve reluctant 
Europeans ever more deeply in the business of protecting Pipelineistan. 
This is already happening, of course, in Afghanistan, where a promised 
pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India, the TAPI pipeline, has 
not even been built. And it's about to happen at the borders of Europe, 
again around pipelines that have not yet been built.

If you had to put that Euro part of Pipelineistan into a formula, you 
might do so this way: Nabucco (pushed by the U.S.) versus South Stream 
(pushed by Russia). Be patient. You'll understand in a moment.

At the most basic level, it's a matter of the West yet again trying, in 
the energy sphere, to bypass Russia. For this to happen, however -- and 
it wouldn't hurt if you opened the nearest atlas for a moment -- Europe 
desperately needs to get a handle on Central Asian energy resources, 
which is easy to say but has proven surprisingly hard to do. No wonder 
the NATO Secretary General's special representative, Robert Simmons, has 
been logging massive frequent-flyer miles to Central Asia over these 
last few years.

Just under the surface of an edgy entente cordiale between the European 
Union (EU) and Russia lurks the possibility of a no-holds-barred energy 
war -- Liquid War, as I call it. The EU and the U.S. are pinning their 
hopes on a prospective 3,300-kilometer-long, $10.7 billion pipeline 
dubbed Nabucco. Planning for it began way back in 2004 and construction 
is finally expected to start, if all goes well (and it may not), in 
2010. So if you're a NATO optimist, you hope that natural gas from the 
Caspian Sea, maybe even from Iran (barring the usual American blockade), 
will begin flowing through it by 2015. The gas will be delivered to 
Erzurum in Turkey and then transported to Austria via Bulgaria, Romania, 
and Hungary.

Why, you might ask, is the pipeline meant to save Europe named for a 
Verdi opera? Well, Austrian and Turkish energy executives happened to 
see the opera together in Vienna in 2002 while discussing their energy 
dilemmas, and the biblical plight of the Jews exiled by King Nabucco 
(Nebuchadnezzar), a love story set amid a ferocious struggle for freedom 
and power, swept them away. Still, it's a stretch to turn aluminum tubes 
into dramatic characters.

Of course, the operatic theater here isn't really in the tubing, it's in 
the politics and strategic implications that surround the pipeline. In 
Eastern Europe, for instance, Nabucco is seen not as a European economic 
or energy project, but as a creature of Washington, just like the 
Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey that 
President Bill Clinton and his crew backed so vigorously in the 1990s 
and which was finally finished in 2005. For those who have never 
believed the Cold War is over -- the Eastern Europeans among them -- 
once again it's the good guys (the West) against the commies... sorry, 
the Russians... at an energy-rich OK Corral.

The Great Borderless Gas Bazaar

Russia's answer to Nabucco is the 1,200-kilometer-long, $15 billion 
South Stream pipeline, also scheduled to be finished in 2015; it is 
slated to carry Siberian natural gas under the Black Sea from Russia to 
Bulgaria. From Bulgaria, one branch of the pipeline would then run south 
through Greece to southern Italy while the other would run north through 
Serbia and Hungary towards northern Italy.

Now, add another pipeline to the picture, the $9.1 billion Nord Stream 
that will soon enough snake from Western Russia under the Baltic Sea to 
Germany, which already imports 41.5% of its natural gas from Russia. The 
giant Russian energy firm Gazprom holds a controlling 51% of Nord Stream 
stock; the rest belongs to German and Dutch companies. The chairman of 
the board is none other than former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Put this all together and Russia, with its pipelines running in all 
directions and firmly embedded in Europe, spells trouble for Nabucco's 
future and frustration for Washington's New Great Game plans to contain 
the Russian energy juggernaut. And that's without even mentioning Ukhta 
which, chances are, you've never heard of. If you aren't in the energy 
business, why should you have? After all, it's a backwater village in 
Russia's autonomous republic of Komi, 350 kilometers from the Arctic 
Circle. Built by forced labor, it was once part of Alexander 
Solzhenitsyn's Gulag archipelago. By 2030, however, you'll know its 
name. By then, a pipeline from remote Ukhta will be flooding Europe with 
natural gas and the village will be one of Nord Stream's key transit nodes.

While Nabucco as well as South Stream remain virtual, Nord Stream is a 
Terminator on the run. By 2010, it will be tunneling under the Baltic 
Sea heading for Germany. By 2011, it should be delivering the goods and 
a second pipe -- 12 meters wide, 100,000 tubes long -- will be under 
construction to double its capacity by 2014. Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller 
pulls no punches: this, he says, will be "the safest and most modern 
pipeline in the world."

How can Verdi lovers possibly compete? In the middle of a global 
recession, Gazprom is spending at least $20 billion to conquer Europe 
via Nord and South Stream. The strategy is a killer: pump gas under the 
sea directly to Europe, avoiding messy transit routes across troublesome 
countries like Ukraine. No wonder Gazprom, which today controls 26% of 
the European gas market, is expected to have a 33% share by 2020.

In other words, in many ways, the Nabucco versus South Stream energy war 
already looks settled. Nabucco is, at best, likely to be a secondary 
pipeline, incapable, as Washington once hoped, of breaking the EU away 
from energy dependence on Russia.

Brussels, predictably, is in its usual multilingual policy mess. Most 
bureaucrats at its monster, directive-churning body, the European 
Commission, publicly bemoan the "pipeline war." On the other hand, Ona 
Jukneviciene, chairwoman of the committees at the European Parliament 
dealing with Central Asia, admits that Nabucco cannot be the only option.

As for Reinhard Mitschek, managing director of the Nabucco consortium, 
he tries to put a brave face on things when he stresses, "we will 
transport Russian gas, Azeri gas, Iraqi gas." As for the top European 
official on energy matters, Andris Piebalgs, he can't help being a 
pragmatist: "We'll continue to work with Russia because Russia has 
energy resources."

 From a business point of view, it's tough to argue with South Stream's 
selling points. Unlike Nabucco, it will offer cheaper, all-Russian 
natural gas that won't have to transit through potential war zones, and 
while Nabucco will always deliver limited amounts of Caspian natural gas 
to market, South Stream, given Russian resources, will have plenty of 
room to increase its output.

The fact is that, as of now, Nabucco still has no guaranteed sources of 
gas. In order for the gas to come from energy-rich Turkmenistan, to take 
but one example, the Turkmen leadership would have to break a deal 
they've already made with Russia, which now buys all of that country's 
export gas. There's no way that Moscow is likely to let one of the 
former Soviet Republics do that easily. In addition, both Russia and 
Iran could well be capable of blocking any pipeline straddling the floor 
of the Caspian Sea.

Gazprom will pay to build South Stream, and then distribute and sell gas 
it already controls to Europe; Nabucco, on the other hand, has to rely 
on a messy consortium of six countries (Austria, Hungary, Romania, 
Bulgaria, Turkey, and Germany) simply to finance one-third of its 
prospective costs, and then convince wary international bankers to shell 
out the rest.

The Pentagon does the Black Sea

So what does Washington want out of this mess? That's easy. Rewind to 
then-prospective Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her Senate 
confirmation hearings on January 13, 2009. There, she decried Europe's 
dependence on Russian natural gas and issued an urgent call for 
"investments in the Trans-Caspian energy sector." Think of it as a 
signal: The new Obama administration would be as committed to Nabucco as 
the Bush administration had been.

What is never spelled out is why. Enter the Black Sea, that crucial 
geo-strategic stage where Europe meets the Middle East, the Caucasus, 
and Central Asia. Enter, thus, Bulgaria, home to a new Pentagon air base 
in Bezmer, one of six new strategic bases being built outside the U.S. 
and as potentially important to Washington's future games as the 
stalwart air bases in Incirlik, Turkey, and Aviano, Italy have been in 
the past. (Aviano was the key U.S./NATO base for the bombing of the 
Bosnian Serbs in 1995 and the 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia in 

With the Pentagon's bases already creeping within a stone's throw of 
Southwest and Central Asia, it doesn't take a genius to imagine the role 
Bezmer might play in any future attack on Iran (something the Russian 
defense establishment has already taken careful note of). With both 
Romania and Bulgaria now part of NATO, Article 5 of the alliance's 
charter now applies. NATO can take action "in the event of crises which 
jeopardize Euro-Atlantic stability and could affect the security of 
Alliance members."

In this way, Pipelineistan meets the American Empire of Bases.

Young Turks and Wily Russians

Why is everyone so damn hooked on Central Asian oil and gas? Elshad 
Nasirov, deputy chairman of the state-owned Azerbaijani oil company 
SOCAR, sums the addiction up succinctly enough: "This is the place where 
there is oil and gas in abundance. It is not Arab, not Persian, not 
Russian, and not OPEC."

It's the Caspian and, unfortunately for Europe, the region could, in 
energy terms, turn out to be not the caviar for which it's renowned but 
so many rotten fish eggs. No one knows, after all, whether the EU will 
ever be able to buy Iranian gas via Nabucco. No one knows whether the 
Central Asian "stans" have enough gas to supply Russia, China, and 
Turkey, not to mention India and Pakistan. No one knows whether any of 
their leaders will have the nerve to renege on their deals with Gazprom.

Ever since a 2008 British study determined that Turkmenistan may have 
natural gas reserves second only to Russia on the planet, the European 
Commission has been on a no-holds-barred tear to lure that country into 
delivering some of its future gas directly to Europe -- and not through 
the Russian pipeline system either. Turkmenistan's inscrutable leader, 
the spectacularly named Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, just has to say the 
word, but despite the claims of EU officials that he has agreed to send 
some gas Europe-wards, he's never offered a public word of confirmation. 
No wonder: with Nabucco unbuilt and a pipeline from his country to China 
still under construction, Turkmenistan can play Pipelineistan games only 
with Russia and Iran. In fact, Russia essentially controls the flow of 
Turkmen gas for the next 15 years.

Should Gurbanguly someday say the magic word -- and assuming the 
Russians don't throw a monkey wrench into the works -- he can marry 
Turkey, as the key transit country, with the EU and let them all sing 
Verdi till the sheep come home. In the meantime, angst is the name of 
the game in Europe (and so in Washington).

A declassified dossier from the FSB, the Russian heir to the KGB, is 
adamant: considering Nabucco's shortcomings, "Russia will remain the 
primary supplier of energy to Europe for the foreseeable future." Call 
it a matter of having your gas and processing it, too. Prime Minister 
Vladimir Putin has been making the point for years. If Europe tries to 
snub it, Russia will simply build its own liquefied natural gas (LNG) 
plants, to facilitate storage and transport, and sell its LNG all over 
the world.

Anyway it's worth paying attention to what the St. Petersburg State 
Mining Institute (where Putin earned his doctorate) has to say. 
According to the institute, Russia has only 20 years' worth of its own 
natural gas reserves left. Since Russia plans to sell up to 40% of its 
gas abroad, "Russian" gas may in the future actually mean Central Asian 
gas. All the more reason for the Russians to make sure that those 
massive Turkmen and other reserves flow north, not west.

Whatever Washington thinks, the Europeans know that energy independence 
from Russia is, in reality, inconceivable. Bottom line when it comes to 
natural gas: Europe needs everything -- Nord Stream, South Stream, and 
Nabucco. The bulk of the natural gas in this Pipelineistan maze may well 
turn out to be Central Asian anyway and a substantial part could be 
Iranian, if the Obama administration ever normalizes relations with Iran.

That, then, is the current state of play in the European wing of 
Pipelineistan. Russia seems to have virtually guaranteed its status as 
the top gas supplier to Europe for the foreseeable future. But that 
brings us to Turkey, a key regional power for both the U.S. and the EU. 
As President Obama has recognized, Turkey is both a real and a 
metaphorical bridge between the Christian and Muslim worlds. It is also 
an ideal transit country for carrying non-Russian gas to Europe and is 
now playing its own suitably complex Pipelineistan game.

Chances are that, like Ukhta in far off Siberia, you've never heard of 
Yumurtalik either. It's a fishing port squeezed between the 
Mediterranean Sea and the Taurus mountains, very close to Ceyhan, the 
terminal for two key nodes of Pipelineistan: the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline 
from Iraq and the monster BTC pipeline. Turkey wants to turn 
Yumurtalik-Ceyhan into nothing less than the Rotterdam of the 

Even as it dreams of future EU membership, however, Turkey worries about 
antagonizing Moscow. And yet, being aboard the Nabucco Express and 
already fully committed to the functioning BTC pipeline puts the country 
on a potential collision course with Russia, its largest trading 
partner. Of course, this does not displease Washington.

On the other hand, the Turkish leadership draws ever closer to Iran, 
which provides 38% of Turkey's oil and 25% of its natural gas. Ankara 
and Tehran also have geopolitical affinities (especially in fighting 
Kurdish separatism). Together, they offer the best alternative to the 
Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia) in terms of supplying Europe with Iranian 
natural gas. All this, of course, drives Washington nuts.

Needless to say, the Nabucco consortium itself would kill to have Iran 
as a gas supplier for the pipeline. They are also familiar with 
realpolitik: this could happen only with a Washington-blessed solution 
to the Iranian nuclear dossier. Iran, for its part, knows well how to 
seduce Europe. Mohammad-Reza Nematzadeh, managing director of the 
National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), has insisted Iran is Europe's "sole 
option" for the success of Nabucco.

Is Russia just watching all this gas go by? Of course not. In October 
2007, Putin signed a key agreement with Iranian President Mahmoud 
Ahmadinejad: If Iran cannot sell its gas to Nabucco -- a likelihood 
given the turbulence of American domestic politics and its foreign 
policy -- Russia will buy it. Translation: Iranian gas could end up, 
like Central Asian gas, heading for Europe as more "Russian" gas. With 
its European and Iranian policies at cross-purposes, Washington will not 
be amused.

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to "rethink 
Nabucco" if the tricky negotiations for Turkey to enter the EU drag on 
forever, EU leaders got the message (as much as France and Germany may 
be against a "Europe without borders"). Pragmatically, most EU leaders 
know very well that they need excellent relations with Turkey to one day 
have access to the Big Prize, Iranian gas; and that puts Europe's energy 
and EU membership inclinations at loggerheads.

Last July in Ankara, Nabucco was formally launched by an 
inter-governmental agreement. The representatives of Turkey, Austria, 
Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary were there. Obama's special Eurasian 
envoy, Richard Morningstar (a veteran of the BTC adventure), was there 
as well. The Central Asian stans were not there.

But crucially, Gurbanguly, ever the showman, finally made an entrance 
without ever leaving Turkmenistan, (almost) uttering the magic words in 
a meeting with his ministers in the capital, Ashgabat, on July 10th: 
"Turkmenistan, staying committed to the principles of diversification of 
supply of its energy resources to the world markets, is going to use all 
available opportunities to participate in major international projects 
-- such as, for example, [the] Nabucco project."

At the Vienna headquarters of Nabucco the mantra remains: this is "no 
anti-Russian project." Still, everyone knows that Russia's leaders are 
eager to kill it, and not a soul from Brussels to Vienna, Washington to 
Ashgabat, knows how to link Central Asia to Europe via a non-Russian 
pipeline, at the cost of more than $10 billion, without some assurance 
that Turkmeni, Kazakh, Azerbaijani, and/or Iranian natural gas will be 
fully (or even partially) on board. Who would be foolish enough to 
invest that kind of money without some guarantee that hundreds of miles 
of aluminum tubes won't remain empty? You don't need Verdi to tell you 
this is one hell of a quirky plot for a global opera.

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times and analyst for 
the Real News. His latest book is Obama Does Globalistan. He may be 
reached at pepeasia at yahoo.com.

Copyright 2009 Pepe Escobar

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