The resumption of wide-ranging American sanctions on Iran promises economic uncertainty for the Islamic Republic’s neighbors in the Caucasus: Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia.
Washington's goal of reducing Iran's oil exports to zero will not directly impact any of three Caucasus states, as none of them imports Iranian crude. All three, however, have to various extents relied on Iran for natural gas, and stand to be affected – if only by uncertainty until the exact scope of the sanctions becomes clearer.
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton recently visited all three countries to try to shore up support for Washington’s efforts to isolate Tehran, though his results were inconclusive. When Washington imposed the new round of sanctions on November 5 it exempted eight countries, including neighboring Turkey, but none of the Caucasus states were spared.
As a major exporter of both crude oil and natural gas, and a sometime importer of Iranian gas, Azerbaijan's position is most complex.
Azerbaijan shares long land and maritime borders with Iran, as well as ownership of a number of undeveloped Caspian oil and gas fields subject to a joint development agreement signed in March this year.
Development of those fields is now unlikely to proceed, but other joint ventures have advanced beyond the point where even Washington can impose a halt.
Azerbaijan's main gas field, Shah Deniz, is being developed by a consortium led by UK oil giant BP, but in which Iran's national oil company, NIOC, holds a 10 percent stake.
Shah Deniz is currently the only source of gas for the long-planned, EU-backed Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), aimed at lessening Europe’s dependence on Russian energy.
Already in August, Washington made the position of Shah Deniz and the SGC project clear when the Treasury Department granted a permanent waiver from Iran-related sanctions for "the development of natural gas and the construction and operation of a pipeline to transport natural gas from Azerbaijan to Turkey and Europe."
That concession means that neither BP, the Azerbaijani state oil company SOCAR, nor the other three shareholders will face sanctions related to that project.
Azerbaijan also stands potentially to benefit from any increase in global oil prices caused by the halting of Iranian exports. That uncertainty also would lead to an increase in natural gas prices, which are for the most part indexed to oil prices.
"Azerbaijan may well reap some secondary benefits from U.S. sanctions on Iran, since it stands to gain if oil prices increase as a result of heightened tensions in the Persian Gulf," Caspian energy analyst and Atlantic Council fellow John Roberts told Eurasianet, though he cautioned that any potential benefits are unpredictable as they rely on factors beyond Baku's control.
Roberts added that Azerbaijan's position is further complicated by its position as an importer of natural gas from Iran.
Azerbaijan imports small volumes of Iranian gas into its exclave of Nakhchivan for local consumption. Also, in recent years, gas from Turkmenistan has transited via Iran into mainland Azerbaijan to supplement its own production and to meet export commitments to Georgia, which is expected to import around 2.7 billion cubic meters of gas from Azerbaijan this year.
SOCAR spokesman Ibrahim Ahmadov told Eurasianet that the company’s gas imports via Iran have now stopped thanks to increased domestic production.
"A big part of the imported gas was used to fill our gas storage during summer which is then re-exported in winter when there is higher demand," Ahmadov said. With more than 3 billion cubic meters currently in storage, and further imports due from Russia before the end of the year, SOCAR doesn't anticipate shortages. "There should be no problems with the gas supply in Georgia," Ahmadov said.
Sandwiched between Iran and Armenia, and with a tiny outlet to Turkey, Nakhchivan's geography limits its alternatives.
An agreement with Ankara for a pipeline link to bring gas into Nakhchivan from Turkey was signed in 2010, but to date no pipeline has been laid, leaving the exclave still dependent directly on swap arrangements with Iran.
Such barter deals would not necessarily put Baku in breach of the U.S. sanctions. Ahmadov confirmed that SOCAR is “not planning any payment-based transactions with Iran in the near future.”
If Azerbaijan's gas exports to Georgia will indeed be unaffected, then Georgia – which with its Black Sea coast has no need to import Iranian petroleum products – should be little troubled by the U.S. sanctions.
Few options for Armenia
The same, though, cannot be said for Armenia, whose landlocked geography and regional political isolation leave it few options.
With few natural resources of its own, and still getting over 40 percent of its power supply from the aging Metsamor nuclear power plant, Armenia has become increasingly dependent on imported gas to meet its energy needs.
The bulk of Armenia’s gas is imported from Russia (via Georgia), but Yerevan also imported about 400 million cubic meters of gas from Iran in 2017, and sends Iran power in exchange. In late 2017 an agreement was announced for Armenia to boost Iran gas imports by up to 25 percent, and to increase power exports by a similar amount.
The status of that agreement and of existing Iranian gas exports to Armenia is currently unclear.
On November 6, Armenian foreign ministry spokesperson Anna A. Naghdalyan tweeted that her ministry was closely monitoring developments. "A comprehensive examination of the effects the new sanctions will have on Armenia is ongoing," she said. She did not respond by press time to queries from Eurasianet.
Armenia's position is further complicated by the fact that much of its gas pipeline network is owned by Russia's Gazprom. The two have long bickered over the price Gazprom charges for the gas it supplies.
Forcing Yerevan to abandon Iranian imports will thus leave it more dependent on Russia, and in a far weaker bargaining position.
David O’Byrne is an Istanbul-based journalist who covers energy.