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Iran stresses opposition to Turkmen pipeline project

TEHRAN, March 10 (AFP) - Iran's oil ministry reiterated its opposition Wednesday to Turkmenistan's plans for a natural gas pipeline under the Caspian sea that would bypass the Islamic republic.

Iran is the "best and cheapest route," said Deputy Oil Minister for Caspian affairs Ali Majedi before leaving for an international oil and gas conference that began Wednesday in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabad.

"Iran, due to its border with Turkmenistan, will be proposed at the gathering as the best route for transfer" of Turkmen gas to Turkey and Europe he said, quoted by the official news agency IRNA.

He also said Turkmen plans to build any shipment routes that ignored "legal" concerns "could not be acceptable."

Iran maintains that Turkmenistan's plan to construct a gas pipeline under the Caspian to Azerbaijan and Georgia is invalid because the Caspian rim states have not agreed on how the sea's resources are to be shared.

"This step by Turkmenistan is against the declared principles of the countries bordering the Caspian Sea and the accord is unacceptable," foreign ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi said last month.

"Given the current legal status of the Caspian Sea ... any unilateral measure by a state bordering it is considered invalid and unacceptable," he said.

The Caspian project was made possible after a US-financed feasibility study showed the pipeline was more viable than other routes through Iran.

Washington is pushing hard for a pipeline that avoids Iran and Russia and heavily lobbied Turkmenistan and its Caspian neighbours last year to shore up support for the trans-Caspian route.

Turkmen Oil and Gas Minister Rejepbai Arazov said at the beginning of the conference Wednesday that Ashgabad was on the verge of signing a major agreement to sell natural gas to Turkey.

"We are very close to signing an agreement today or maybe tomorrow," he said.

Some 300 oil executives from more than 25 countries arrived in Turkmenistan this week for the conference, drawn by the resource-rich Central Asian republic's estimated 21.1 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and 13.5 billion tonnes of oil.

The oil and gas reserves of the Caspian are thought to be the third largest in the world after those in the Gulf and Siberia.


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