Richard Morningstar: Letter to a Wayward Classmate

Richard Morningstar: Letter to a Wayward Classmate


Un ancien co-étudiant de Harvard College, récolte de ’67, Richard Morningstar, est nommé par Hillary Clinton ambassadeur plénipotentiaire des Etats-Unis pour les affaires énergétiques ‘eurasiens.’ La nomination et la mission confiée à M. Morningstar révèlent un éclecticisme dangereux et/ou manque de politique coordonné dans l’équipe Obama.

par Gilbert Doctorow


Richard Morningstar: Letter to a Wayward Classmate


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


Contrary to the widespread notion in Cambridge, Massachusetts that graduates of Harvard College run the country, when they are not temporarily displaced by Yalies or put in the shadow by lowly Columbia men as represented by the present occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, my Harvard Class of 1967 seems to have produced relatively few national leaders and those who have emerged to garner the attention of the world media would be better left out of sight.


I think first of classmate Tom Ridge, who in the midst of the national hysteria following the attacks of September 11, 2001 agreed to serve as the country’s first Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, thereby sharing the ignominious distinction of spending several years implementing the greatest assault on our constitutional liberties since the wartime abridgements during WWII.


Now I note the recent appointment of Richard Morningstar by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to serve as her special envoy to the European Union for Eurasian energy issues. According to the State Department’s announcement of April 20th on its portal:

“Ambassador Morningstar and his staff will support the United States’ energy goals in the Eurasian region. He will work on key energy issues relating to Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Central Asia and the Caucasus. He will provide the Secretary with strategic advice on policy issues relating to development, transit, and distribution of energy resources in Eurasia.”

As we shall attempt to demonstrate in this essay, based on his past record and present actions, if Morningstar succeeds at his post, he will have single-handedly achieved the undoing of President Obama’s newly articulated policy on Russia and nonproliferation and will contribute mightily to setting the stage for more conflict-ridden international relations generally in the years ahead. I do not mean to suggest that responsibility for a future World War III may be laid at his door, but he surely will be doing his part.

According to Morningstar’s official biography as carried by the directory of the Stanford Law School from which he graduated in 1970 as well as in other internet resources, he appears to be very well prepared to take up his new duties. He had ample opportunity to become an expert in general issues of the Eurasian space during his three years as Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State for Assistance to the Former Soviet Union, 1995-1998. Then during 1998-1999, he served as Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State with responsibility for Caspian Basin Energy Diplomacy. In this capacity, “he was responsible for assuring maximum coordination within the Executive Branch of U.S. policy and programs relating to the development of oil and gas resources in the Caspian Basin.” And from 1999-2001 he served as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union.

It has to be mentioned that Morningstar was and is a political appointee, not a career diplomat. He earned his way to positions of influence by long-standing service to the Democratic Party. In the written entry he submitted to our 25th Anniversary Class Report of Harvard College in 1992, he listed his work in his home state of Massachusetts on behalf of the Barney Frank for Congress Committee, his help to the Dukakis National Finance Committee, his work as co-chair of the 1988 DNC National Finance Committee. Given that he also provided support to the Anti-Defamation League, Morningstar touched all the liberal, progressive bases of the party.

So how and why could we now find anything wrong with his latest appointment to a position of authority in the Obama Administration? The problem is that Democratic Party membership and support for the liberal or progressive wing of a party which is nominally left-of-center in U.S. politics is absolutely no guarantee of enlightened (meaning non-imperialist) views with respect to the conduct of American foreign policy. The U.S. State Department under the Iron Lady Madeleine Albright was no place for multilateralists or believers in a consensual, diplomacy-led world order. This was arguably the period when the USA intervened militarily abroad more often than at any other time in its history. Indeed, the difference in world view between Democrats in the foreign policy machinery of Bill Clinton’s Administration and Neoconservatives is virtually negligible. By that I mean an interventionist policy, meddling in the affairs of all countries everywhere whether or not vital US economic or strategic defense interests are at stake, in order to exercise hegemonic control and prevent any other power from enjoying regional dominance, not to mention presenting a challenge to the world’s only superpower on the global stage.

Mr. Morningstar brings to his new post not merely job titles on a CV coming from past service in closely related areas of responsibility but a record of writings and policy positions which tell us a lot about what we may expect from him. They constitute some pretty heavy baggage. As we shall see in a few moments, upon receiving his latest State Department appointment Morningstar “hit the road running” as we like to say in the USA, and began implementing just those policies, only with a certain tweaking – in a still more dangerous direction – to take into account present regional circumstances and opportunities for exercise of U.S. power.

During his government service from 1995-2001, Morningstar’s major achievement was to push through the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline. The commercial purpose of this 1,100 mile long pipeline was and is to carry Caspian Sea (Azerbaijani) oil to world markets via a sea terminal on Turkey’s Mediterranean Coast. The pipeline finally became operational in July, 2006. However, that pipeline was only incidentally about commercial matters.

Let us begin with the written record, taking a brief sampling of readily available primary sources written by or quoting from Morningstar over the past decade.

It’s geopolitics, stupid

In an interview conducted by Tomas Valasek of the Centre for the Development of Enterprise dated November 5, 1998, Morningstar said everything we need to know: “…the actual oil, very little of the actual oil from the Caspian will actually get to the United States….We have some very important objectives in the region to enhance the sovereignty and independence of the new countries within the region.” Put in simpler language, the BTC pipeline was promoted by the United States to serve geopolitical rather than commercial objectives

In the same interview Morningstar addressed the question of the most important state which might be aggrieved by the U.S. directing paths to market in the region it considered its backyard. Morningstar acknowledged that “Russia is a Caspian state” with “a major interest in the region” but he claimed to believe that Russian companies could be persuaded to participate in the new pipelines and to profit from them by sending their own gas exports through….Georgia.

Those suggestions were preposterous given the clear Russians preferences for alternative routes on their own territory. Morningstar was also willfully ignoring the already well established tensions in Russian relations with Georgia over the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia. The mess which erupted into warfare in August 2008 thanks to reckless military adventure of Mikheil Saakashvili was put in place by his only slightly less chauvinistic predecessor as President of Georgia, Eduard Shevarnadze.

In a feature article by Richard Morningstar celebrating the opening of the BTC pipeline which was published in an internet journal of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins University dated 23 August 2006, he reiterated the primacy of geopolitical considerations guiding American policy on the pipelines serving the Caspian Basin. It was all about helping the new states in the region formed after the break-up of the Soviet Union develop as stable democracies.

With astonishing frankness for a Democratic stalwart, Morningstar prefaced the article with the following:

“The opening of the BTC pipeline was the successful culmination of a consistent, bipartisan United States policy relating to Caspian Basin energy resources that has spanned both the Clinton and Bush Administrations. The objectives that served as the framework for U.S. policy during the Clinton Administration remain equally valid today in this critical post-9/11 world.”

Indeed the policy was and is totally bipartisan among Neoconservatives registered in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Realists need not apply.

Secondarily, Morningstar claimed that by opening the new route to world markets for energy resources from the region the U.S. was increasing global resources that were critically needed given growing demand from India and China. Therein lay whatever lame strategic U.S. interest he could advance.

In the 2006 article, Morningstar introduced a further dimension to the geopolitical considerations which prompted backing for the BTC project: “The U.S. position was and still is that Russia should not have a monopoly on pipelines, and that no pipelines should go through Iran thereby subjecting these new resources to the whims of a dangerous government.”

As justification, he pointed to a problematic relationship with Russia, saying that except for “a brief post-9/11 honeymoon period” things were tenuous at best. U.S. policy would not allow all pipelines to pass through Russia: “No country should have an effective monopoly on Caspian resources and potentially limit the sovereignty of new states in the region.” So here we have the red line, the roll-out of a new Monroe Doctrine to cover Russia’s neighbors on its southeast frontier.

Still more revealing and relevant to his taking up leadership responsibilities today is Morningstar’s mention in that same article of the interest which he believed Europe should have in preventing a Russian monopoly, “given the dependence that it already has on Russian-sourced energy.”

A year later, in 2007, at the invitation of the Bertelsmann Stiftung, one of the key sponsors of The Brussels Forum, an annual gathering where the great and the good discuss European-American relations, Morningstar lightly reworked this article into a contribution for the “Transatlantic Thinkers” series to be made available to Forum participants. It now bore the eye-catching title “The New Great Game: Opportunities for Transatlantic Cooperation in the Caspian Region.” Essentially the only change in the text was to highlight why Europe should take an interest in the success of the BTC project and use it as a model for solving its energy needs going forward in close collaboration with U.S. policy-makers.

Addressing the transatlantic community, Morningstar issued a set of policy and procedural recommendations to save Europe from its own shortsightedness in matters of energy independence, specifically its failure to appreciate the geopolitical dimension. Here he hammered home the point which was barely mentioned a year earlier and nowhere stated at the time when the BTC project was being launched, namely the need to overcome “Europe’s over-dependence on Russian natural resources.” The specific intent of this 2007 article was to issue a summons for US-European cooperation in promoting the development of Caspian natural resources brought to market by U.S.-approved routes, meaning outside of Russia and…Iran.

We will look at the question of Iran in a moment, but let us dwell a bit on the issue of “over-dependence” on Russia, which Morningstar mentions 5 times in 14 short pages. He states specifically that “the huge natural gas resources that can be found in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and the Western Caspian are critical, because they can ultimately lessen Europe’s over-dependence on Russian gas.”

He brings out the alarming figure that Europe gets 44% of its gas imports from Russia. Taking into account the still substantial gas production in the North Sea by the U.K., The Netherlands and Norway, the usual way of describing the position of Russia is as supplier of 25% of the EU’s gas needs; meanwhile Algeria provides 20% of those needs.

Yet in what is a remarkable violation of logic, Morningstar continues to pretend that his policies are not anti-Russian and that the Russians should see prospective benefit for themselves in losing the same major sources of supply which would now pass through other transit countries or would-be resellers like Turkey.

In this 2007 paper, Morningstar chided Europe for not doing enough to secure transit routes for the Caspian energy resources which their companies are helping to develop. He criticized the EU Neighborhood Policy adopted in 2004 for paying lip service to its energy dimension. And he urged Europe to follow the U.S. model and appoint special envoys to the Caspian region on energy diplomacy. Still more important, Europe should put together a coordinated energy policy which would include Caspian development.

Most pointedly, given the Bertelsmann sponsorship of his paper, Morningstar held up Germany as the bad boy of Europe for its pursuit of common energy policy with Russia as evidenced by the (Nord Stream) gas pipeline project under the Baltic Sea. This project, would, said Morningstar, further increase dependence on Russia while paying no heed to the interests of the present transit countries Poland and Ukraine, which then could be subjected to still greater political pressure from the Russians.

As for specific mechanisms of cooperation between the constituent elements of the transatlantic alliance, Morningstar urged the creation of cabinet level energy dialogue between the EU and America to draft an overall energy strategy which would include the Caspian region. High level U.S. and EU officials could jointly work with the respective Caspian and Black Sea countries. And the United States and the EU should see in Turkey a key partner and bridge to the Caucasus and Central Asia.

In a word, in his paper addressed to the Brussels Forum Morningstar laid out a program whereby the United States could take pathetic Europe in hand, give it some backbone and propel it onto the Caspian-Central Asian stage to play a geopolitical role which, for some reason the Europeans could not fathom on their own. This is in no way different from the thinking of prominent Republican Neoconservatives like Robert Kagan or Ronald Asmus whose writings I have otherwise explored on these pages.

The paper ends with a glowing snapshot of the future:

“The Caspian Region continues to be vital to the interests of the United States and Europe. Europe should make the Caspian region a top priority. Together we can benefit from the region’s resources, while at the same time enhancing the stability of the region and working to develop vibrant civil societies.”

There are problems with every one of his recommendations, beginning with his opening premise that the United States understands the energy security issues facing Europe better than the Europeans themselves. His promotion of Turkey as a key part ofthe solution flies in the face of the realities of EU-Turkish relations, which are very emotionally charged both geopolitically and commercially. Without going into any great detail here, suffice it to say that Turkey is using its frustration with the EU over accession, which France and other original Member States are intent on preventing, as well as related differences with Europe over the future of Cyprus, to make the EU pay a very high price for any energy cooperation in future. To be precise, Turkey has positioned itself as a reseller of gas from the Caspian and Central Asia to Europe at potentially high margins rather than a mere transit country earning a fixed commission. This is a non-starter which to this date stymies the kind of projects Morningstar will now be looking after.

Among friends, it’s the sentiment which counts, not economics

Before winding up this examination of Morningstar’s past positions on bringing Caspian Basin energy resources to market, let us look for a moment at the commercial issues surrounding the BTC pipeline which he chose to override.

In his capacity as senior advisor to the Administration and then Ambassador to the EU in the late 1990s, Richard Morningstar promoted the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan project over the objections of the immediate commercial producers of energy in the region and over the objections of key U.S. allies who were ostensibly to be its beneficiaries

In his 2006 article in the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, he forthrightly mentioned that the strongest opposition to the pipeline project came from the Azerbaijani oil companies AIOC and SOCAR which operated the main production sites in the Western Caspian. And what worried them was the cost of the proposed pipeline compared to other routes!

What were those alternative logistical solutions to bring the oil to international markets? Morningstar lists them. First, there was the old and still functioning pipeline from Baku to Russia’s Novorossiysk port on the north shore of the Black Sea. Next there was the relatively new existing pipeline from Baku to the Georgian port of Supsa operated by BP. Morningstar says the U.S. dismissed these two because they implied tanker traffic in the Black Sea and passage through the Bosporus, to which Turkey objected on grounds of safety, whereas Turkey was motivated to support the BTC because it would provide transit fees and bring much-needed economic activity to the economically disadvantaged eastern region of the country. Additionally, of course, it was not the U.S. intention to further increase transit via a Russian port. The U.S. had already supported one other project at the time, the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, to carry Kazakh oil from the Eastern Caspian to Novorossiysk, but then the American oil company Chevron was going to be a major beneficiary of that project.

The other possibilities for solving the route to market problem of Caspian oil was via Iran. This could be done either by building a pipeline through Iran or by what are called ‘swaps.’Morningstar freely admits that some oil companies would have preferred these Iranian solutions. However, the United States was opposed to any pipeline via Iran. As Morningstar explains:

U.S. officials argued that a pipeline though Iran would be foolhardy for both geopolitical and commercial reasons. Why would companies want to take the commercial risk of transporting oil through Iran? How could the U.S. grant a waiver under ILSA [the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act] that would subject new sources of oil to the whims of an Iranian Government?”

The U.S. Government also refused to allow ‘swaps’ of Caspian oil delivered to northern Iran for the dispatch of similar quantities from Iran’s southern ports:

“The U.S. was concerned that swaps could create the perception that BTC was not needed and could still subject Caspian oil to the whims of the Iranian Government.”

It must be noted that this U.S. policy barring the use of cheaper and readily available routes to market via Iran makes a mockery of Morningstar’s allegations over U.S. strategic interests. It is manifestly clear that merely expanding the flow of energy to world consumers was and is not sufficient motivation for U.S. diplomacy. We had and have the conflicting objective of putting a spanner in the works of our rivals on the world stage. Back in 1998 there was as yet no issue of an Iranian nuclear program and security risk to the United States and its allies from a rogue state and supporter of terrorism to wave in the air like a red flag as there is today. All that was at stake was a vindictive U.S. policy dating back to 1980 when our friend and ally in the region, Shah Pahlevi, was overturned by religious fundamentalists and the Islamic Revolution came in with a bang. In 1998, Iran, Europe and the world at large were being made to pay an exorbitant price for the hostage taking at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran of 1980. In this effort, Richard Morningstar was both a major strategist and key agent.

But where were our allies on the subject of the BTC back in 1998? The candor in Morningstar’s statements on this issue in 2006 and 2007 is quite astonishing.

“Western European countries, particularly Britain and France, voiced concerns about U.S. Caspian policy, particularly relating to Iran. French and British officials in private meetings took the position, similar to several companies, that we should not let politics interfere with commercial decisions.”

Ultimately the United States overcame the opposition of both allied governments and of the oil companies involved in the Caspian production by what Morningstar describes as a combination of beating them with sticks and holding out carrots. He describes these measures in detail in the 2006/2007 papers I have cited.

For a safer, more democratic world

This question of whether and how the U.S. backed pipeline project would contribute to regional peace was put to Morningstar in the 1998 interview by CDI’s Tomas Valasek. Morningstar answered that the cooperation put in place between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey for the sake of the given pipeline already created a foundation for regional stability. Add to that the generalized benefits of spreading prosperity in the region coming from the increased energy exports.

Valasek asked him to comment nonetheless on insurgencies in Georgia or local conflicts in Abkhazia or Nagorno-Karabakh which might impinge on the project and he asked what was being put in place militarily to protect the new infrastructure as well as to provide insurance cover for the substantial private investments at risk. Here Morningstar was more cautious in his appraisal, saying that “to date there has been no direct relationship between the…economic development of the region and the settlement of conflicts.”

At the same time he reminded his interlocutor that “no pipeline route is going to be risk free.” State subsidized political risk insurance could be made available through the Overseas Private Investment Corps, an organization which Morningstar knew through-and-through having served as Senior Vice President there from 1993-1995, prior to moving over to the Executive Branch. And he remarked that NATO military assistance could be considered via its Pipeline Committee and its infrastructure logistics division. He said he was in discussions with NATO officials about these very issues.

Nonetheless he professed optimism:

“I think we have to be patient, this isn’t an overnight process, but I do believe with economic growth there will be incentive to settle some of these conflicts and to participate in the fruits of the development of the region; countries are going to have to put aside their differences and work together to grow.”

From the perspective of 2009, we know that this optimism was misplaced if ever it was genuinely meant. You do not violate the laws of nature and get away scot-free. The entire exercise surrounding the BTC pipeline and the central importance it gave to Georgia notwithstanding the open wounds from its civil conflict of the early ‘90s over breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia only exacerbated regional tensions, gave false expectations of U.S. military support to irresponsible local actors and ultimately set the stage for the Caucasus war of August 2008 which threatened to upset the world order.

What about democracy? In 1998 Morningstar spoke of defending the “sovereignty and independence” of the six former Soviet republics in the region by means of the BTC pipeline. The word “democracy” was not part of his vocabulary. However, in his 2006-2007 papers, promotion of democracy was cited as an integral part of the energy policy he advanced in the Caspian Basin: “U.S. policy was to help these new states develop as stable independent countries that would ultimately become market democracies in an uncertain part of the world.” However, he graciously conceded that “democratization in most of these countries has been slow.”

Indeed, looking at all the borderlands of the former Soviet Empire, particularly in the Caucasus and Central Asia, but even in the Baltic States which are now EU members, it would be fair to say that they resemble not so much ‘young democracies,’ the euphemism popularized by President George W. Bush, as they do old satrapies.

Prosperity has spread out unevenly among the republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. But even in those which have benefited the most from the energy boom such as Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan no one would come forward today and say, hand on the Scripture, that fair and open elections are being held or that the Government in power is anything other than authoritarian. Least of all would this be true of the new energy super-power Turkmenistan, where both the EU and the United States have been compelled to hold their noses and drop all talk of human rights and democratic reforms for the sake of invitations into country to reopen discussion of energy cooperation.

Cooking with gas…

So far the writings of Morningstar which I have cited relate primarily to the one successful project for which he could rightfully claim responsibility – the BTC oil pipeline. However, that was not the only Caspian project which was being promoted during his watch as responsible adviser and diplomat in Caspian energy matters. There was also the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline (TCP) which was designed to take gas from Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea to Baku, where it would then follow the BTC route into Turkey. This project never got launched. Morningstar blames the eccentric President of Turkmenistan in that period, Saparmurad Niyazov, for this failure to connect, since his country was supposed to be the main supplier.

A stay-at-home who was absorbed in the creation of a cult of personality as the self-styled Turkmenbashy or ‘Father of all the Turkmen,’ Niyazov did not wish to stray from the familiar energy supply agreements with the Russians and did not go for the America bait. At the time there was also resistance to the TCP project from Azerbaijan, which had its own dispute with Turkmenistan and its own competitive interests.

On the other hand, on Morningstar’s watch there was one less ambitious gas pipeline project which did succeed: the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum project to bring Azerbaijani natural gas from the Caspian into the Turkish gas distribution grid. Like the BTC, it became operational in 2006. It provided Georgia with full energy independence from Russia and it provided a precedent for another much more ambitious project which is the single most important item on Mr Morningstar’s plate today, Nabucco.

This is surely the essential experience which the Financial Times Brussels Blog had in mind when it wrote on 21 April 2009, with respect to Morningstar’s just announced appointment: “there is no one better placed to give the Europeans the benefit of US advice on Nabucco, a project some energy analysts think may be doomed to failure unless resolute action is taken soon to finance it, secure the necessary gas supplies and get it up and running.”

So what is the Nabucco project? Whereas the BTE pipeline served to bring Azerbaijani gas to Erzurum to meet Turkish domestic needs, Nabucco would proceed from Erzurum across Anatolya and into the Balkans, transiting Bulgaria and Romania before ending in Austria where it would link up with the Central European grid and provide a major alternative supply to the predominant Russian feed of today.

Official estimates of the cost of the Nabucco pipeline are presently 7.9 billion Euros. Since spare production from Azerbaijan is inadequate to justify the investment in this very long and expensive route, the long term objective of its backers has been to take sources of supply back into Turkmenistan in Central Asia through a new Trans-Caspian pipeline project. This undersea pipeline would cost a further vast amount. On top of that there would be infrastructure development costs within Turkmenistan to tap into its underground wealth and channel it in a new direction of export, to the south or west.

An independent audit of Turkmen gas fields released in October, 2008 revealed that the country’s proven reserves position it as second largest in the world, not far behind Russia and well ahead of Iran. With this changed reality, the New Great Game over energy resources definitely heated up substantially.

At the same time, the stakes of the existing players on the European energy market also went up geometrically. Whereas the supply of Azerbaijani oil to world markets via Turkey or the supply of Azerbaijani gas to Turkey for its domestic needs with incidental supply of both to Georgia en route were only minor irritants to Russia, direct competition with Europe over contracts for Central Asian supplies plus new Azerbaijani gas supplies at source is a vital threat to the Russian economy which recently recovered from a decade-long collapse only thanks to its energy exports.

For an overview of the competing pipeline projects today, I refer the reader to “Turkmenistan: The October Revelation” an Analysis piece dated 3 December 2008 written by Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) Renaud Francois for the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center (Brussels) and published online ( In this article Francois also goes into the geopolitical dimension, highlighting the shared interest of China, Iran and Russia to counteract and eject U.S. influence in Central Asia for reasons of both military and economic security.

The 2009 diplomatic calendar of Eurasia has been punctuated by energy summits involving all the major players among producer and consumer nations. In the past month of April we have seen an acceleration of this pace with major gatherings in Sofia and Ashkhabad. In between we know there are intense bilateral negotiations between producers and would-be project leaders of gas pipelines from Central Asian and Caucasus production fields.

The most critical talks have probably been with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. These are the potential suppliers whose participation in or opting-out from the competing pipeline projects have make-or-break importance.

A year ago it appeared that Vladimir Putin’s victory in Turkmenistan was complete. The new Turkmenbashi Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov who acceded to the presidency following the unexpected death of Niyazov and who promptly set about extracting the country from its relative isolation, agreed with the Russians to allocate to them the lion’s share of new gas production. In return he won a hefty rise in the prices paid, to as much as $340 per 1,000 cubic meters for 2009 deliveries. At that time plans for new export pipelines heading north into the Russian grid were agreed.

However, the good news of his country’s status as energy eldorado in October and the flutter of foreign suitors which followed seem to have gone to the Turkmenistan President’s head. During April 2009 Berdimuhammedov went back on the agreements with his Russian friends in what might be called a classic double-cross. At the time when a pipeline deal with the Russians was scheduled to be signed off, his government instead declared an open international tender on a gas pipeline which could just as easily feed not into the Russian grid but into Nabucco should that project go ahead. The Russians immediately cut their import of Turkmen gas by 90%, setting off a crisis in relations which Western pipe-dreamers now hope to exploit.

On the other hand, in the very same time frame, President Ilham Iliyev of Azerbaijan seems to have moved into the Russian orbit. During his April 2009 visit to Moscow, he reached an understanding with the Kremlin over assignment of export from his country’s latest and most significant gas fields in the Caspian to Gazprom. The bilateral commercial negotiations are underway as we write. If successful, this deal would deprive of Nabucco of the initial supply flows it needs to be commercially viable pending the longer term development of Central Asian fields and development there of missing infrastructure.

For an overview of the personalities, as well as the geopolitical and commercial stakes in Azerbaijan, I refer the reader to another analytical essay by the ESISC’s Research Associate specialized in the region, Lieutenant Colonel Francois: “Azerbaijan: Ilham Aliev Reelected…As Expected,” dated 22 October 2008.

Let’s Play the Iran Card, Shall We…

No sooner was Richard Morningstar appointed to his post at the State Department than he was on his way to the energy summit which opened in Sofia, Bulgaria on 24 April 2009. His statements to journalists outside the conference sessions created a sensation. He made it clear that he was not just coming along for the ride but was the messenger of a potentially very significant change in U.S. foreign policy in the region. At issue is an overture to Iran.

Considering the long enmity between Washington and Tehran which Morningstar internalized and acted upon for most of the past decade, considering the threats of a US military strike against the Iranian uranium enrichment centers which the Bush Administration ‘left on the table’ as viable options to enforce its policy of nonproliferation as recently as last summer, what we appear to be witnessing is a dazzling reorientation in American policy.

In Sofia, Morningstar spoke of Iran as a potential supplier to Nabucco and said the U.S. was trying to reach out to Tehran. He went on to say that the U.S. was now waiting for some reciprocal accommodating move on the part of Iran to take these first dance steps further.

Meanwhile at another major energy conference held at the same time in the Turkmenistan capital Ashkhabad, the U.S. delegate, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Krol said very much the same thing, suggesting that the United States was ready to accept the possibility of gas from Central Asia transiting Iran on its way to Europe.

What has happened? Perhaps the masters of the universe in Washington, with some help from a re-energized Mr Morningstar, have finally looked closely at the map of Central Asia and realized that the only possible way to Europe for Turkmen gas which is not subject to a veto by Russia is in fact Iran.

Without intending to be especially prescient, I pointed out this obvious fact on these Blog pages several months ago. The notion of a Trans-Caspian pipeline route as hitherto promoted by the U.S. runs up against the regrettable fact that all five littoral states including Russia must sign off on the project. Under present political conditions, that is unlikely to happen any time soon.

That leaves Iran, a border state with Turkmenistan, as the route of choice if the U.S.’s geopolitical objective is to poke the Russians in the eye. It would now appear as it confronts the dilemma of strengthening one or another of its global adversaries, Russia and Iran, the Obama Administration as represented by Richard Morningstar is possibly opting for Iran.

And while the new U.S. President is eloquently grandstanding about a new pragmatism in American foreign policy and about reasserting “American leadership” which the Bush Administration supposedly forfeited by its in-your-face unilateralism, a less charitable observer might say that what is happening in U.S. policy on Caspian Basin and Central Asian energy resources is just a scramble by the United States to catch up with events. Both its friends and some of its erstwhile enemies have proven themselves to be more nimble and more adult than Uncle Sam ever foresaw in solving the conundrum of routes to market.

The Chinese have lost no time in claiming for themselves a very substantial part of the gas flow out of Turkmenistan’s new fields. The figure appearing in the international press is a commitment to Beijing of 40 bcm of gas via a pipeline which China is now very actively constructing, with completion scheduled for as early as year’s end.

Iran is already an importer of Turkmen gas and has concluded agreements to raise the volume to 10 billion cubic meters annually, which would represent roughly one-fifth of Russia’s recent take-up of Turkmen gas. Moreover, Iran has reached a tentative deal to develop a gas field in eastern Turkmenistan. And it has been in discussions with Turkey about routing Turkmen gas to Europe via Turkey using an existing pipeline.

At the same time, the vast potential of Turkmenistan fields has given new life to plans to build pipelines heading south to feed the energy grids of Afghanistan, Pakistan and ultimately India. Turkmenistan is at least one of the Central Asian republics which clearly does not need American assistance to help it pee. And it appears quite capable of defending its sovereignty without NATO forces on its soil.

By way of conclusion

In an op-ed contribution first published April 22, 2009 in The Washington Post and appearing internationally on syndicated basis former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger issued a very gentle tap on the wrist to the Obama foreign policy and security team. It was so coded as to appear perhaps pointless to the casual reader. Allow me then to decode the message: Kissinger was suggesting that present U.S. foreign policy is eclectic, focused on separate issues and lacking a global concept or architecture to pull it all together into something coherent and adequate to the formidable tasks on the world scene today.

In light of the appointment of Richard Morningstar and his first steps in his new post, it would appear that Dr Kissinger’s warning was very well taken. It now appears that one of the first tentative achievements of President Obama’s foray into summitry, the new opening to Russia celebrated at his April 1st meeting with Russian President Medvedev is being called into question. It is improbable the U.S. will find a new accommodation with the Russians over shared interests in nonproliferation, anti-terrorism and stabilizing Afghanistan among other issues when it simultaneously wages economic warfare against the Russians by taking the leadership baton on alternative pipeline routes. After all, up to this point the New Grand Game in Central Asia and the Caspian Basin is a zero sum game.

© Gilbert Doctorow 2009-2010


G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book  Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12 is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.