Politics of Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline

Mar 7, 2012

The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was quite explicit in her warning before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations last week that the implementation of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project would trigger the US sanctions under the Iran Sanctions Act. This Act imposes certain specified sanctions against any foreign (non-US) company, which invests more than $20 million in the oil and gas sector in Iran. This warning must be seen in the context of the current animosity between Iran and the US, and Washington’s growing pressure on Tehran because of its nuclear programme.

The root causes of the current tensions between the US and Iran can be traced to a number of factors.
First and foremost, Washington views Iran as a major obstacle, indeed a threat, to the realisation of its strategic objectives in the Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf region. The control over the oil and gas resources of the Persian Gulf region is a major US strategic objective, the other being the security of Israel as an ally and an outpost of the West in the region. Obviously, the US wants pliant states in the Persian Gulf region for safeguarding its interests. The attitude of defiance exhibited by Iran towards the US, since the advent of the Islamic Revolution, set in motion a process that has resulted in the prevailing enmity between the two countries.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s steadfast support to the Palestinian cause and its opposition to Israel are seen by Washington and Tel Aviv as serious threats to the Jewish state’s existence. In essence, Washington considers the Islamic Revolution as a threat to the US-friendly order in the Middle East. Therefore, it has imposed unilateral sanctions and taken a number of other steps to contain Iran and to bring about a change of regime in the country.

The US-Iran tensions have been aggravated by the serious differences between them on Iran’s nuclear programme. The US and other Western countries have essentially demanded of Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment programme because they consider it as a precursor to the development of nuclear weapons. Iran, while insisting on its right to carry out uranium enrichment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which it is a party, has categorically stated that its nuclear programme is peaceful in character and that it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons. However, these declarations have not satisfied the Western countries. Consequently, the UN Security Council with the Western backing has imposed a number of sanctions on Iran which were weakened considerably thanks to the efforts of Russia and China.

Additionally, the US has imposed its own sanctions because of its concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme, the latest ones barring financial dealings with the Central Bank of Iran to curtail Tehran’s oil and gas exports. It is the US hope that these economic sanctions would persuade Iran to reconsider its nuclear programme to bring it in line with the Western demands. But the US and Israel have not ruled out the possibility of air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent it from the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

As a demonstration of the US seriousness on the subject, President Barack Obama stated categorically on March 4 in a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that he would not hesitate to use force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. However, despite the Israeli pressure for an early air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the US believes that diplomacy backed by sanctions still has a chance to overcome the current impasse on the Iranian nuclear issue. It is also cognisant of the dangerous strategic, political and economic consequences of air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, especially in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Persian Gulf and Palestine. The US economy that is registering a fragile recovery may relapse into a severe recession or even a depression if the oil prices shoot up as a result of the air strikes on Iran. Therefore, Obama in his speech at the meeting of AIPAC also cautioned against “loose talk of war” with Iran.

The Economist magazine in its issue of February 25-March 2 concluded that just now the change in Iran’s nuclear programme “is more likely to come about through sanctions and diplomacy than war.” It is also interesting to note that despite the concerns of the Arab countries about Iran’s nuclear programme, the Jordanian Prime Minister has warned that any military action against Iran because of its nuclear activities would be “disastrous” for the whole of the Middle East. Earlier, the Russian Foreign Minister had voiced similar views.

The US pressure on Pakistan to forego the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline project must be viewed in the context of the foregoing. Its real purpose is to ratchet up pressure on Iran more than anything else. But if we concede the US demand, it would have serious negative consequences for Pakistan, which is facing a virtual energy crisis because of electricity and gas shortages. The alternative project that would bring gas through pipeline from Turkmenistan (TAPI) would not be feasible in the near future because of the continuing armed conflict in Afghanistan.

Pakistan and Iran signed the Gas Sale and Purchase Agreement (GSPA) in June 2009. The Government of Pakistan has already determined that the imported natural gas from Iran would provide the cheapest and most suitable fuel for power generation. It has been estimated that 750 mmcfd gas would help generate around 4,000MW of electricity, besides providing job opportunities in the backward areas of Balochistan and Sindh. Iran has already laid the 56-inch diameter pipeline for a distance of 900 km from Assaluyeh to Iran Shehr. The remaining 200 km to bring the pipeline to the Pakistani border are likely to be completed in the next two years. Pakistan, on its part, is planning to complete its segment of the pipeline by the end of 2014.

From the economic point of view, it makes eminent sense for Pakistan to complete the Iran-Pakistan pipeline project as early as possible to meet its fast-growing energy requirements. The government’s decision to stand firm on this project despite the US pressure is commendable and must be welcomed. While we must make a sincere effort to reconcile our differences with the US on different issues with a view to developing friendly relations with it, we cannot allow Washington to dictate to us, especially on issues of vital strategic and economic importance.

The Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project is too important for us strategically, politically and economically to be discarded at the behest of the US. We must, therefore, use different diplomatic channels to convey our point of view on the issue appropriately to the US. It is ironical that while the US is pushing us to strengthen our economic and commercial links with India, it should be pressurising us to distance ourselves from our important neighbour to the west for the sake of its own perceived interests!

Pakistan’s long-term interests lie in strengthening its friendly ties and cooperation with Iran rather than otherwise. In view of the past US practice of subjecting us to sanctions and pressures for its own designs, it would be prudent on our part to reduce our economic and military dependence on it. The situation also calls for intensified efforts on our part to enhance self-reliance and strengthen relations with China and Russia both of which may be interested in financing the IP gas pipeline.

Source: The Nation, 6 March 2012

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