In a move certain to raise hackles in Washington, Iran and Turkey have agreed to connect their electrical power grids. According to an amendment to the Electricity Market Law submitted to parliament, Turkey’s isolated eastern and southern regions will be able to import electricity on an ad hoc basis until December 31, 2009, in the event of blackouts or network difficulties (Fars News Agency, April 4).
According to the backers of the amendment, eastern, southeastern and southern Turkey do not have enough technical capacity to purchase electric power other than with an “electric isolation supply” system, as they have failed to make sufficient investments for upgrading the infrastructure. Accordingly, the new legislation allows the “electric isolation supply” solution to be used temporarily to import electricity from Turkey’s neighbors to specific regions isolated from Turkey’s electricity grid, should these regions encounter power shortages or network problems (Today’s Zaman, April 4). While only an interim solution, it requires no additional investment and provides the best temporary measure for coping with unexpected supply shortages.
The amendment does not address the issue of what will happen once this deal expires but contains language authorizing an extension of the arrangement if the Energy Market Regulatory Agency (EPDK) deems it necessary. While the amendment did not mention a specific country, observers believe that Iran will be providing the electrical imports, supplying Turkish regions bordering Iran directly from Iran’s grid. The arrangement will allow Turkey’s Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources to divert electricity that would have been delivered to the border region from Turkey’s national grid to other areas facing shortages.
Turkey is to a certain extent a prisoner of its own economic success, with production nearly equaling demand. Turkey’s GDP has increased an average of 7 percent a year since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP party was elected in 2002. In 2005 the country generated 154.2 billion kilowatt hours (kwh), while consumption was 129 billion kwh. The same year Turkey exported a paltry 1.8 billion kwh, while imports stood at 636 million kwh.
In contrast, Iran’s generating capacity allows a significant margin for export. In 2005 the country produced 170.4 billion kwh but consumed 136.2 billion kwh, leaving a potential 34.2 billion kwh surplus for export.
Both nations have ambitious plans for expanding their capacities for generating electricity. Turkey’s hopes for improving the lives of its citizens in the southeast are pinned on the General Directorate of State Hydraulics Works’ massive Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi (Southeastern Anatolia Project, or GAP), which has been on the drawing boards and under construction for decades. GAP’s 19 hydroelectric GAP projects are located in nine provinces in the upper basins of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and Upper Mesopotamia. By 2004 hydroelectric plants produced 31 percent of Turkey’s total electrical output.
Demand in Iran for electricity is increasing by 8 percent annually, but the country’s ambitious expansion plans project raising the country’s installed capacity from 33,000 megawatts (Mw) to 53,000 Mw in 2010. This ambitious energy program is the crux of Iran’s current strife with Washington, as the 2010 plan includes the intention to generate 6,000 Mw of electricity using the still-incomplete Bushehr nuclear reactor, which the United States government believes is being used to cloak a covert nuclear weapons program. In a defiant note stressing Iran’s legal right to nuclear energy for power production, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced after inspecting various sections of the Natanz nuclear site in Isfahan that Iran had started installation of 6,000 new centrifuges (IRNA, April 8). Iran’s nuclear program has caused the US to urge the UN Security Council to pass ever more restrictive sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear ambitions.
Ironically, Turkey is also interested in nuclear power The French companies Suez and Vinci have tendered bids to build the country’s first reactor in Akkuyu on the Mediterranean coast in Mersin province, with a 4,000 Mw capacity (L’Echo, April 8).
Washington and Ankara have disagreed before over Turkey’s energy relations with its neighbor. Last July Turkey signed an agreement with Iran to develop three gas projects in its massive South Pars offshore gas field in the Persian Gulf, but many analysts believe that Turkey does not have the wherewithal to become a major player in the field’s development. Turkey also imports limited amounts of Iranian natural gas, but a pricing dispute between Turkmenistan and Iran late last year halted Turkmen deliveries, which forced Tehran in turn to halt exports to Turkey, a development that still rankles in Ankara.
Still, an interim solution of purchasing electricity is hardly going to cause major diplomatic strain between the United States and Turkey. Furthermore, by improving the standard of living, the project may actually reduce tension in Turkey’s southeast, where most of the country’s Kurdish population is located and where the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has been most active. If a charter member of the “Axis of Evil” helped decrease the threat of terrorism in a NATO member’s territory, that would be a development that even Washington skeptics could applaud.