For the past few weeks, Central Asia watchers have been waiting to see the repercussions from the latest developments between Iran and the West. One of the biggest questions pertained to regional energy transit. After years of failing to implement the trans-Caspian pipeline, could Turkmenistan finally find a non-Russian route to transport its gas to European markets? All signs – or all rhetoric, at least – continue to point to increasing interest from Brussels to tap Turkmen gas.
But while no agreements have been signed, we may be beginning to see the signs of fallout elsewhere. On Wednesday Afghan President Ashraf Ghani noted that the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which would send Turkmen gas to the other three nations, would be pushed back until at least 2020, two years past its latest scheduled date. While he tried to maintain some optimism, a sense of urgency slipped into Ghani’s commentary: “If we don’t tap [the Turkmen gas], we are likely to lose it to other opportunities.”
To be sure, this isn’t the first time TAPI has been delayed. However, the latest pushback may well be the most disappointing one yet. While the consortium running the pipeline had been unable to select a hydrocarbon major earlier this year, the project had seemed to find a new burst of momentum over the past few months, compelled by both growing energy demands and Turkmenistan’s dawning realization that it had become a hydrocarbon client-state for Beijing. For the sake of energy security, Ashgabat needed to diversify its gas exports – all the more after exports to the Russian market had dried up nearly entirely. TAPI, suddenly, seemed like the only route feasible.
Until it wasn’t. With the slow opening of a potential Iranian route, Turkmenistan gains another card in negotiations, and possibly an even more lucrative route than TAPI could have provided. It’s still far too early to write off TAPI entirely, but as Luca Anceschi, a Lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow, recently said, the sole drive toward bringing TAPI to reality is lessened by the opportunities Iran could present. Ghani’s delay is not only the latest for the pipeline, but it may well be a harbinger of things to come.