Pipelines last a long time. Geopolitical relationships come and go.

Nov 19th, 1999

Pipelines last a long time. Geopolitical relationships come and go.

This is one of two problems with the overbearing US role in the signing last week of two pipelines from the Caspian Sea region to Turkey.

The other problem was manifest in the necessity that US energy Sec. Bill Richardson declare the oil pipeline, from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Ceyhan, Turkey, commercial.

That is a problem because commercial decisions belong to the companies that risk capital in projects under question. And companies have expressed doubt about economics of the Baku-Ceyhan oil line.

The purpose here is not to oppose projects to which governments agreed last week-the oil line and a trans-Caspian gas line from Turkmenistan to Turkey.

The purpose here also is not to express preference for any of the projects with which those pipelines compete.

And the purpose here is not to deny the inevitability or legitimacy of a political role in decisions about pipelines crossing international borders, especially touchy borders around the Caspian Sea.

The purpose here is to question the wisdom of using pipelines covering 1,200 miles each and costing $2.4 billion and $2.7 billion to further foreign policy objectives that are both complex and subject to near-term change.

US objectives are clear: to fortify an alliance with Turkey, to contain Russian influence in the Caspian, and to keep Caspian oil from transiting Iran.

A case can be made for each of those objectives-right now. But things can change quickly in foreign policy.

One US foreign-policy objective, an objective President Clinton pressed in meetings in Istanbul this week with Russian Pres. Boris Yeltsin, is peace between Russia and Chechnya. It is not inconceivable that the two sides in that now-bloody conflict might make sharing of pipeline transit fees part of some future amnesty. But the pipeline central to such an accord would be an existing one, the repair and expansion of which would compete with the Baku-Ceyhan line.

Would the US, in the interest of peace in Chechnya, let it happen? What, then, about economics of the pipeline through Turkey?

Nor is it inconceivable that Iran might finally resolve the issues that stand between it and normal relations with the US, then request that the US cancel its opposition to movement of Caspian oil across Iranian territory to the Persian Gulf.

Would the US find restoration of relations with Iran worth new competition to a pipeline in which it has staked so much? Would construction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline put Turkey and Iran into automatic conflict in US foreign policy?

If either or both of those surprises occurred now, would the US back away from the pipelines from the Caspian to Turkey? What, then, about relations with Turkey?

The oil and gas pipelines through Turkey have advantages, among them financial assistance arranged by the Turkish government. And the interests of Turkey in all this certainly deserve priority attention.

For its part, the US is right to pursue its interests in the region, including its alliance with Turkey.

The US mistake is addressing regional, contemporaneous foreign policy problems with 1,200 mile assets that someone will have to support financially for several decades.

If the pipeline materializes primarily for reasons of US foreign policy and not because investors decide it is economically superior to the alternatives, then both US foreign policy and the commercial interests involved will suffer in the long term.

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