Even in the post-Cold War world, the United States and Turkey are strong allies, as President Clinton noted last week in Istanbul. From the U.S. perspective, there is a strategic partnership that includes Operation Northern Watch--the air campaign the United States operates against northern Iraq from a Turkish air base. Above all, there is the fact that Turkey is an Islamic, democratic, secular nation--a model to other Islamic countries.

At the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Istanbul--with U.S. backing--concluded a series of agreements for transportation of Caspian Sea oil from Baku, Azerbaijan, to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. Turkey also concluded an agreement with Turkmenistan for transporting gas from that country to Turkey through a trans-Caspian pipeline.

The United States and Turkey are not in accord in all spheres, however. A dispute is brewing over who will provide Turkey additional natural gas in the future: Turkmenistan or Russia? The decision has important geopolitical implications.

At present a faction of Turkey's governing coalition, led by former prime minister Mesut Yilmaz, is fighting hard to ensure that Turkey will buy its additional natural gas from Russia. This project--code-named "Blue Stream"--would undermine Washington's plan to build a pipeline under the Caspian Sea.

Turkey already buys a substantial amount of the natural gas it consumes from Russia. The new trans-Caspian underwater pipeline would give it a diversity of supply, so it would not be so dependent on Moscow. Moreover, the ability to ship natural gas to the rest of the world via Turkey would also provide a greater measure of independence for Azerbaijan as well as Turkmenistan. Previously, Turkmenistan has been obliged to sell its natural gas cheaply to Russia.

A leading Turkish businessman who is an ally of Yilmaz argues that Turkey is desperate for natural gas and doesn't have to choose between Russia and the trans-Caspian pipeline. This particular businessman, who stands to benefit from Blue Stream, argues that it is quicker to import gas from Russia--that it will take three or four years to build the trans-Caspian pipeline. He calls Turkmen natural gas "an idea, not a reality."

But a Turkish energy expert responds that proponents of Operation Blue Stream are inflating Turkey's energy needs. And he notes that Turkey is already committed to buy a large amount of natural gas from Iran, Egypt and Iraq. In addition, the trans-Caspian pipeline will provide some 16 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan. Turkey is also to receive an unspecified amount of Azeri gas. The implication is clear: Operation Blue Stream isn't needed.

If this sounds like an arcane argument between energy experts, it isn't. The Russians understand the big stakes involved in Blue Stream. At the OSCE summit, President Clinton clashed with Russian President Boris Yeltsin primarily over Russia's conduct of the war in Chechyna. Russia claims this is an internal matter directed at rooting out terrorism.

But the war has another aim: Yeltsin and company want to regain control of the North Caucasus in order to make sure that Russia plays a decisive role in the transportation of Caspian oil and gas. There is growing Russian resentment over U.S. backing for the Eurasian energy corridor, the two pipelines that are planned to carry Caspian oil and gas to Western markets through Turkey.

"This is not just another oil and gas deal," says U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. "It is a strategic framework that advances America's national security interests."

If Washington wishes to see the East-West corridor come to fruition, however, it must be prepared to protect the proposed oil and gas pipelines against all threats from Moscow. This will require sustained commitment by the U.S. administration, not to mention a willingness to talk bluntly to those in Turkey who go through the motions of agreeing with the United States, only to undermine it by backing a project such as Blue Stream.