The death of Turkmenistan’s dictator Saparmurat Niyazov is an event of some strategic significance. With the world’s fifth-largest gas reserves, on the northern border of both Afghanistan and Iran, Turkmenistan is one of the key countries in the Caspian / Central Asia region. It has so far remained neutral in the many conflicts swirling around it but there is reason to believe that just as a matter of “energy diplomacy” it has to start taking sides — or at least escape the stranglehold of Russia’s gas pipeline monopoly, through which most of Turkmenistan’s gas is delivered to the European market.
Nyazov’s was a bizarre and nearly absolute dictatorship. What this means, among other things, is a succession crisis that is liable to be drawn-out and nasty, and that could get internationlized as the region’s major powers — Russia, the U.S., Iran, and China — begin to see opportunities to advance (or at least protect) their interests.
It is possible that the incoming leadership (whenever it does finally settle down) will prove eagerly pro-American, going so far as to permit a U.S. base in the country. This would close the ring around Iran, and dramatically increase the tactical options ( e.g., helicopter missions) for any future U.S. operations in the vicinity of Tehran, which is close to the Turkmeni border, and which includes several major nuclear installations.