Modi in Central Asia: Goodbye TAPI, Hello TII?


Before he set out on one of the most substantive trips through Central Asia any Indian official has yet known, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed a handful of desired outcomes. He accrued further resource agreements with Kazakhstan, and discernibly improved relations with Bishkek and Dushanbe. He even opened a yoga center in Turkmenistan.

However, it appears that Modi was unable to finalize one project both New Delhi and Washington have desired for years: a firm start-date for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. While Modi and Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov made all the right gestures, said all the right things – Berdymukhamedov noted they were on the “threshold” of the project – the visit ended heavy on rhetoric, light on action. At this point, highlighting disappointments surrounding TAPI is akin to beat a dead horse; the refrain has grown old. And coming on revelations that Gazprom has failed to pay any of its 2015 gas bills to Turkmenistan, rumored to be upwards of $400 million, the lack of movement on TAPI may well have been doubly disappointing for a Turkmenistani government looking to buck Beijing’s stranglehold on Turkmenistan’s gas exports.

But where TAPI saw its latest frustration, events elsewhere may presage an answer to Turkmenistan’s export woes and India’s energy needs. With a deal finalized regarding Iran’s nuclear policies, a rapprochement between Iran and the West – and, by extent, an opening toward Central Asia – grows that much likelier. The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz has previously laid out the enticing possibilities for regional integration viz. Central Asia and Iran, the potential of which remains to be seen.

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However, while in Ashgabat, Modi hinted at the possibility of tying the two issues – TAPI’s lack of progress, and Iran’s gradual opening – together. According to The Economic Times, “Modi said [the] possibility of [a] land-sea route through Iran for the pipeline should be explored.” On its face, the possibility of a Turkmenistan-Iran-India (TII) line is an enticing one. Not only does it allow Turkmenistan the external client it clearly needs, and not only does India reap the dividends of Turkmenistan’s hydrocarbon largesse, but the pipeline skirts the rampant security concerns currently sapping TAPI’s potential. Washington’s support for such a pipeline remains unknown; the entire point of America’s TAPI support lay in stitching Afghanistan to Central Asia, an outcome that goes out the window with a TII line. And then there are the questions of logistics, funding, interactions with the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline, etc., all of which could derail the planned pipeline to the same extent TAPI has known.

But for the time being, a TII pipeline remains intriguing – all the more as Modi apparently believes in its potential. The push for TAPI may not be quite over yet, but it certainly looks to be in its final throes. Whether or not a TII line emerges from TAPI’s ashes remains to be seen – along with all of the other possibilities stemming for the geopolitical reshuffle Iran’s opening brings.

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