Geopolitics

Could Iran Replace Russia As Europe's Gas Provider?

Another twist on the geopolitical and economic chessboard. As relations sour with Russia over Ukraine, Europe looks at an increasingly accessible Iran. But it's not so simple.

South Pars gas field near the southern Iranian port of Assalouyeh.
South Pars gas field near the southern Iranian port of Assalouyeh.
Jean-Michel Bezat

PARIS — Gazprom has halted gas supplies this week to Ukraine in a dispute over unpaid bills and amid the ongoing conflict between Kiev and Moscow. As a side-effect, Russia says Europe could witness occasional disruptions in its gas supplies that flow through Ukraine.

But imagine another, much more far-reaching scenario, where not a single molecule of methane flows through the pipes that pass via Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic Sea to provide Europe with the precious fuel.

What if the European Union decided to forego Russian gas in response to President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive stance on Ukraine, effectively ending a 40-year cooperation initiated during the Leonid Brezhnev era of stagnation?

This could happen, some say, because Iran, which looks to become part of the international community again, will make its huge gas reserves — the world’s second largest behind Russia’s — available to the Europeans.

Alas, the Old Continent can find warm comfort and breathe a sigh of relief.

This, of course, is pure fiction. Despite the Ukrainian crisis, Russia is still fulfilling its delivery contracts to Europe. But though Moscow is Tehran’s ally on sensitive issues like Syria, it will do everything to prevent Iranian gas from flowing towards Europe and eating away at the market share of Gazprom, which is responsible for one-quarter of European consumption.

And Iran cannot turn its back on its diplomatic, military and economic cooperation with its powerful neighbor, even though there is ancestral rivalry between the Persian and Russian empires.

Europe, however, is threatening to hit Russia where it hurts: its hydrocarbon exports. As for Iran, it dreams of returning to the global energy game, although in a still very diplomatic manner. “We don’t want to compete with Russia. But we know that Europe’s demand for gas is increasing and would like a share in this,” Iranian Industry Minister Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh recently said, underlining that his country could be a “reliable, secure and long-term” partner for Europe.

Besides, is it totally by chance that he chose to say this in an interview with Germany’s daily newspaper Handelsblatt, when 40% of the gas consumed by Germany comes from Russia?

Iranian appetite

But before Iranian gas can be used as a weapon against Vladimir Putin, the West will need to lift its sanctions on Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran and the “5+1” — the five permanent members of the UN’s Security Council (U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain) and Germany — resumed their talks in Vienna on May 14 and are expected to reach an agreement before July 20. The current temporary deal could be extended by another six months.

Another hurdle will be whether the various political and religious groups in the Islamic Republic can agree on delicate issues, such as the space given to Western companies, the only ones to hold the liquefied natural gas (LNG) technology that allows full-scale exportation. Those most open to development are vocal about their intention to relaunch hydrocarbon production with these companies. On the other hand, the Supreme Leader has regularly dashed investor hopes in the past. Convinced that the talks in Geneva and Vienna will fail, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei periodically insults the West in speeches, and asks Iranians to be prepared to develop their resources alone.

But for some, replacing Russia with Iran is “nonsense.” First of all, because the Islamic Republic consumes growing amounts of gas. According to British firm BP, its consumption rose from 20 million tons of oil equivalent per year in 1990 to 150 million, as different uses developed: pumping in oil wells to improve extraction, fuel and raw material in industries, fuel for vehicles, electricity production, heating for part of the 80 million Iranians, not to mention huge waste.

The country appears incapable of developing its own resources and exports 40 times less gas to Turkey than Russia to Europe. It even imports regularly from Turkmenistan.

“Europe imports 150 billion cubic meters of Russian gas per year,” says Philippe Sauquet, president of Gas & Power at Total. "It’s impossible to turn your back on such large volumes. Replacing it with other sources would lead to a 20% to 30% rise in costs since very expensive infrastructure would need to be built, whereas the pipelines from Russia have already been paid for. Both Europeans and Russians would stand to lose.”

Experts are also skeptical about Iran’s ability to quickly become a large gas exporter. “It’s going to take time to build alternative infrastructures,” Sauquet observes. “Qatar accelerated its policy in 2001, but the production of LNG only really took off in 2010-2011 to reach 70 million cubic meters of export. And if the Qatari were so fast, it’s because they were united around the emir, and had the money and backing of major Western companies.”

This is far from being the case with the Iranians, who do not know yet if they should give priority to the pipelines or to the liquefied natural gas terminals to export the gas from the South Pars field, which they share with Qatar. For the past 10 years, they have watched with resentment as the emirate makes huge progress in the LNG industry, especially since the Qataris probably siphon, unintentionally, part of their gas.

Russia's eastern option

Europeans would also be wrong to believe that as far as oil nationalism is concerned, Iranians are more obliging than the Russians, or more easy to work with when it comes to business.

Total is convinced that Iran will be incapable of exporting to Europe more than 20 billion cubic meters in the foreseeable future — in other words, seven times less than Russia today. This is far from the 90 billion cubic meters mark that Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh alluded to. To cut their dependence on Russia therefore means developing more sources of supply.

In Washington, those in Congress eager to use American shale gas against Russia have not given up on their ambitions. But it will take two to three years for the first — and modest — shipments of American LNG to reach Europe. And 10 to 15 years for those from Eastern Africa, provided they don’t all end up in China, India or Japan.

Europe is “competing with Asian countries that don’t hesitate to pay a high price for gas security,” says Claude Mandil, former chief of the International Energy Agency. On the liquefied gas market, there is no mercy.

After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan had to buy a lot of gas, driving the prices up. It is 50% more expensive in Asia than in Europe. That is the price for secure supply contracts. If Europe wanted such shipments, it would need to book them now to encourage the companies that invest in its money-consuming projects. Total and Russian group Novatek have already sold more than two-thirds of the production from the liquefied natural gas plant of Yamal (northern Siberia), although it will not start producing until 2017.

By 2035, Europe will be dependent for 80% of its gas, and could wind up importing a total of 450 billion cubic meters. Many observers reckon that its leaders are determined to cut Russia’s future part in its supplies and to force it to open its market. This shift will be a slow and gradual one. Analysts all agree that Europe will not improve its security by excluding Russia, but rather by improving its energy efficiency, by developing other resources and by diversifying its supply sources. In this game, Iran represents only one of many possibilities.

In Gazprom’s operations center, where its chiefs like to take their hosts to show off their might, the diagrams are already lit up again. A new energy corridor will soon be there too. But the route is pointing eastward: On May 21, Moscow and Beijing signed the deal of the century, guaranteeing the supply of more than 1,100 billion cubic meters of Russian gas over the next 30 years for $400 billion.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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