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Energy Rivalries Exacerbate Tensions in the Middle East

  • Edward Yeranian

FILE - A general view of a petrochemical complex in the South Pars gas field in Asalouyeh, Iran, on the northern coast of Persian Gulf, Nov. 19, 2015.

Rivalries over oil and gas exports between adjacent Middle Eastern states and their allies have been exacerbating tensions across the region. Rival pipeline projects across the Levant may also have been a key factor in disturbing already unstable regional fault lines.

Qatar and Iran share the largest known gas field in the Middle East, and both are actively seeking to export their gas resources to the region, Europe, Asia and beyond. Some experts argue that those riches are fueling latent regional conflicts in places like Syria and Iraq.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country is Europe's top gas supplier, intervened in Syria in September 2015, ostensibly to prop up the regime of embattled President Bashar al-Assad, but quite possibly to prevent other regional and world powers from taking advantage of its strategic location.

Putin has told Western states to take Russia's national interests into consideration in their actions, insisting that other disagreements would fall by the wayside. He has warned them that they must consider others and respect the interests of others.

Qatar is an ally of the West, and Iran is an ally of Russia. Qatar's North Dome gas field and Iran's South Pars field, which lie side by side, were discovered by Shell Oil Corporation in 1974. Neither Qatar nor Shell was pleased by the discovery at the time, since they had been searching for oil, and it was not an easy field to exploit, former Qatar Energy Minister Abdallah al-Attiyah told a Gulf energy forum.

Development came later

He said that Shell decided not to exploit the field and that Qatar was not able to exploit it for several decades until international oil and gas company Maersk took over the project and used advanced techniques, including horizontal drilling, to extract gas from the irregular-sized layers of deposits.

FILE - The giant LNG ship Al Nuaman, which carries 200,000 cubic meters of liquefied gas, arrives in the Baltic port of Swinoujscie, Poland, Dec. 11, 2015, after 21 days of travel from Qatar.
FILE - The giant LNG ship Al Nuaman, which carries 200,000 cubic meters of liquefied gas, arrives in the Baltic port of Swinoujscie, Poland, Dec. 11, 2015, after 21 days of travel from Qatar.

The former Qatar energy minister said Qatar is the world's largest producer of liquefied natural gas, with an output of 77 million tons a year. He said European markets were eager to buy and Qatar was ready to export, selling to Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom and Poland, with its own fleet of 55 ships.

Iran was engulfed in a brutal conflict (1980-88) with neighboring Iraq, however, making oil and gas exports a low priority for the regime. It was not until the late '90s and the era of reformist President Mohamed Khatami that South Pars became a target for exploitation.

A 25-phase project for exploiting South Pars began slowly and continued off and on, amid international sanctions, which crippled Tehran's energy sector.

Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, a former president and finance minister of Iran, told VOA that Iran shares eight oil and gas fields with its Gulf neighbors, including Qatar, which he complained has been taking advantage of the Islamic Republic. He said Qatar produces twice as much gas as Iran, although the disparity used to be larger. He added that Iran's neighbors didn't respect Iran's rights.

But, despite prickly relations between Iran and Qatar, Bani-Sadr said he didn't think the two states were major rivals in getting their product to market. He said Qatar does not need to go through Syria or Iraq to export its gas, since it would be cheaper to build a pipeline via Saudi Arabia, while Iran would be better off to sell its gas via pipeline to Turkey, rather than via Syria or Iraq, which would cost twice as much.

Syria's Assad, however, during a state visit to Turkey in 2009, several years before a sectarian conflict erupted and relations with Turkey soured, insisted that Syria would be an ideal transit country for a pipeline from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.

Triggered war?

In a December 2016 interview, Assad claimed that it was possible that the existence of rival gas pipeline projects between Iran and Qatar could have ignited his country's six-year-old civil war.

He said there were two routes crossing Syria. One was north-south, related to Qatar, and the other was east-west to the Mediterranean, which crossed Iraq from Iran. "And at that time, we embarked on building the one going east-west, and I think many countries who opposed the policies of Syria didn't want [it] to be an energy hub," said Assad.

However, Qatar's former prime minister, Hamad Ben Jassem Ben Jabber al-Thani, said in an interview last year with the BBC Arabic service that he didn't think "that Qatar or Saudi Arabia have a policy of hegemony over Syria, because both need stability there, rather than just to exert their influence."

Hamad admitted, however, that both Qatar and its Gulf Cooperation Council partners were annoyed with Iran, Syria's powerful regional ally, for interfering in the region.

"I believe that we have to have an excellent and a good relation with the Iranians, but both sides have to know the red lines for the other party," he said.

FILE - Former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, pictured in December 2009, says the Iranian project of putting together a "Shi'ite crescent," from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, "irritates Gulf countries."
FILE - Former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, pictured in December 2009, says the Iranian project of putting together a "Shi'ite crescent," from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, "irritates Gulf countries."

Bani-Sadr argued that Gulf countries would like to see Assad deposed, because the Iranian project of putting together a "Shi'ite crescent," from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, "irritates Gulf countries."

Hamad, nevertheless, insisted that he was a proponent of good trade relations and cooperation with Iran, but that his GCC neighbors were less enthusiastic.

"I believe in cooperation with Iran, but if you say now, there is the security issue and the economic issue, true, but there is another issue — dominating areas in the GCC area by the Iranians — that is something not accepted by the GCC and irritates any GCC leader," he said.

No winners in 'zero-sum game'

Iran, for its part, is equally adamant about not being taken advantage of by the GCC and other rivals, according to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a meeting with the European Parliament in late 2015.

"Globalization makes it impossible for you to have security when others are insecure, to have prosperity where others live in poverty," Zarif said. "That is the nature of a globalized world. We cannot gain at the expense of others. A zero-sum game, a game that is a win-lose game, will end up making everybody lose."

Until now, however, everybody has appeared to be losing, as regional powers and their outside backers jockey for position. A section of an Iranian gas pipeline through Iraq has reportedly been sabotaged a number of times, and rival Kurdish factions recently clashed outside Kirkuk in an area through which a pipeline was intended to pass.

Iran analyst Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute said any Iranian gas pipeline project is likely to meet multiple obstacles, given that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps usually has the political clout to win construction contracts, but often has difficulty completing them because of Western sanctions on the IRGC.

Vatanka also questioned the economic viability of a pipeline project through Iraq, but noted that Iran "often makes sentimental calculations over helping neighboring Shi'ites," rather than "weighing economic considerations."

In the meantime, as conflicts continue to rage in Syria and Iraq, U.S. President Donald Trump has pledged to try to "cut a deal with Russia," and his secretary of state, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, knows the energy map of the Levant and the leaders behind it better than most diplomats.

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