Minister Ehud Olmert's overnight visit to Turkey has focused
attention to the strategic dialogue between the two democratic
nations in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey is a powerful,
pro-Western, not Arab but definitely Muslim country and Israelis
had hoped for years that its expanding relations would break
the impression that the Muslim world opposed the Jewish state.
The Turks were initially cautious, but came round about a
decade ago when they reassessed their policies. They felt that
dangerous neighbors and hotspots of instability were across
their borders, and believed that Israel's influence in the United
States could help especially in countering Greek and Armenian
lobbies in Washington. The Turkish army's Deputy Chief of Staff
Gen. Ergin Saygun was in Israel late last year discussing plans
and more such visits are expected following Olmert's visit.
But there seems to be much more at stake than mere diplomatic
photo opportunity exchanges between Turkey and Israel.
Virtually unnoticed, the inauguration of the Ceyhan-Tiblisi-Baku
(BTC) oil pipeline, which links the Caspian Sea to the Eastern
Mediterranean took place on the 13th July 2006, at the very
outset of the Second Lebanon War. The official reception took
place in Istanbul, hosted by Turkey’s President Ahmet
Necdet Sezer in the Çýraðan Palace. Many dignitaries
among them, British Petroleum’s CEO Lord Brown and BP
leading the BTC pipeline consortium of western oil companies
and senior government officials, top oil ministers and leaders
of western oil companies, from Britain, the US, Israel and Turkey
were all present at the ceremony.
1,770 km Baku Tbilisi Ceyhan pipeline, simply known by the acronym
BTC, is one of the world’s longest and cost US$4 billion
to build. It snakes its way from the Sangachal oil and gas terminal
south of the Azeri capital of Baku on the Caspian Sea through
neighboring Georgia and some of the most mountainous regions
of the Caucasus to finally reach the Turkish port of Ceyhan
on the Mediterranean.
The BTC pipeline totally bypasses the territory of the Russian
Federation. as it transits through the former Soviet republics
of Azerbaijan and Georgia, both of which have become US ‘protectorates’,
firmly integrated into a military alliance with the US and NATO.
Moreover, both Azerbaijan and Georgia have longstanding military
cooperation with Israel. Israel has a stake in the Azeri oil
fields, from which it imports some 20% of its oil.
BTC pipeline dominated by British Petroleum and American
interest, has dramatically changed the geopolitics of
the Eastern Mediterranean, which is now linked , through
an energy corridor, to the strategic Caspian sea basin.
In April 2006, Israel and Turkey announced plans for four underwater
pipelines, transporting water, electricity, natural gas and
oil to Israel, by-passing Syrian and Lebanese territory. The
pipeline is aimed bringing water to Israel, by pumping water
from upstream resources of the Tigris and Euphrates river system
in Anatoli has been a long-run strategic objective of Israel
to the detriment of Syria and Iraq.
In its context, the BTC pipeline dominated by British Petroleum
and American interest, has dramatically changed the geopolitics
of the Eastern Mediterranean, which is now linked , through
an energy corridor, to the strategic Caspian sea basin. But
there is more at stage here.
The geographical fact is that Ceyhan and the Mediterranean
port of Ashkelon are situated only 400 km apart. Oil can be
transported to that port in tankers or through a specially constructed
under-water pipeline. From Ashkelon the oil can be pumped through
already existing pipeline to the port of Eilat at the Red Sea,
which had been very active during betters days between the Shah's
Iran and Israel during the Sixties. From Eilat oil it can be
transported to India and Far Eastern countries in tankers, thus
outflanking the vulnerable Hurmoz straits.
Last May, the Jerusalem Post published an article that Turkey
and Israel are negotiating the construction of a multi-million-dollar
energy and water project that will transport water, electricity,
natural gas and oil by pipelines to Israel, with the oil to
be sent onward from Israel to the Far East. Antalya Mayor Menderes
Turel mentioned this in a press conference. The project, which
would likely receive foreign economic backing, is currently
undergoing a feasibility study sponsored by the Luxembourg-based
European Investment Bank.
The United States' ultimate strategic design is intended primarily
to weaken Russia’s role in Central Asia and the Eastern
Mediterranean, while isolating Iran from this important energy
Iran being not only a major oil producing country is also a
direct stepping stone between the Caspian region and the Persian
Gulf. As such, it would certainly like to see Caspian oil flowing
through its territory rather than through Turkey. Moreover,
having full control over the Persian Gulf shipping lanes, through
its military control on the strategic Hormuz strait, Iran could
virtually strangle, at will, all international oil supplies,
if political pressure on its nuclear program intensifies.
Iran's claim to Caspian oil dates back to the last century
when the Russian Empire and Persia, later Iran signed agreements
in 1921 and 1940 recognizing the Caspian Sea as a lake belonging
to and divided between them. Following the dissolution of the
Soviet Union, Iran wanted this agreement to continue despite
assertions of independence by the breakaway states of Kazakhstan,
Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.
Five years ago, the official Iranian news agency IRNA quoted
a statement of the Iranian Oil Ministry as saying that it protests
prospecting by foreign companies in Iran's claimed 20 percent
sector of the Caspian Sea. The warning came a day after Iran
summoned Azerbaijan's charge d'affaires in Tehran to protest
plans by the state-run oil company of Azerbaijan, Socar, to
carry out oil exploration studies with foreign companies at
the Alborz oil field "in Iran's sector of the Caspian Sea."
Iran even threatened with military action if its warnings would
remain unheeded and indeed, on July 23, 2001 in blatant violation
of international law, an Iranian warship and two fighter jets
forced a research vessel working on behalf of British Petroleum
(BP)-Amoco in the Araz-Alov-Sharg field out of that sector.
In fact, the BTC pipeline is far from secure by itself. Western
intelligence reports indicate that Iran republican guards (IRGC)
are carefully expanding support for subversive elements in Armenia,
a country which is still technically at war with Azerbaijan.
It is well known, that in the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh
the conflict between Armenian and Azeris is still going on.
Armenian nationalists might decide to attack the BTC in order
to hurt Azerbaijan, which derives most of its income from oil
sales. The pipeline route passes through or near seven different
war-zones. Its route passes just 10 miles from Nagorno-Karabakh,
the area of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenia, where a bloody conflict
killed at least 25,000 people It passes through Georgia, which
remains unstable, with separatist movements in Abkhazia and
South Ossetia – movements which the Georgian government
tried to violently suppress during the 1990s. Just across the
border into Russia, and still only 70 miles from the BTC pipeline
route, the horrific conflict in Chechnya continues. The region
also saw related conflict in neighboring Dagestan in 1999, and
fighting between the Russian republics of North Ossetia and
Ingushetia in 1992. In Turkey, the BTC route passes through
the edge of the area of the conflict between the Turkish state
and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), now known as Kongra-Gel.
And Russia, by all means, is unlikely to view this new American
strategic move without adequate response.
Moscow defense ministry sources pointed out recently, that
the planned Russian naval base in Tartus
will enable Russia to solidify its positions in the Middle East
under the pretext to ensure security of Syria. Moscow intends
to deploy an air defense system around the base - to provide
air cover for the base itself and a substantial part of Syrian
territory. It could also conduct underwater activities to sabotage
submerged pipelines, or at least threaten to do so, if its demand
will not be adhered to. A dangerous situation could emerge,
if Israeli and Russian activities in the Eastern mediterranean
could clash with each other on matters of highly strategic interests.
Read David Eshel's past commentary here