Asian gas pipeline diplomacy

By K.N. Pandita

Iran’s defiance of nuclear non-proliferation as desired by the US and her European allies has exacerbated uncertainty and tension in the region. Hawks in Washington talked of war. But the Pentagon wouldn’t want a third front to be opened in West Asia. Instead, it went with the policy planners to take out Iran financially.

Iranian oil exports to the European countries are already under embargo. Of course, it will have its disturbing impact. Apart from that, the US is determined to screw up the mega IP gas pipeline and subject Iranian economy to stress.  

The Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline was originally estimated to be a $7 billion mega project that would originate in the enormous South Pars gas field of Iran and terminate in India. Both India and Pakistan are energy starved countries. But the US relentlessly opposed the project to deny Iran the enormous revenues it was bound to yield.

US have been pursuing oil diplomacy in Central and West Asia with the main objective of denying both Iran and Russia the benefits of enormous earnings from the energy source and the revenue from its transportation.

With unrelenting pressure from Washington, India dropped out of the IPI project in 2009 but clinched the civilian nuclear technology deal from the US against abandoning the IPI. Time will decide whether this was an equitable bargain or not.

But Pakistan much more starved for power than India is, moved ahead and, in the teeth of opposition from Washington, concluded the IP treaty with Iran. The pipeline covering 2,775 kms is estimated to be built at a cost of 1.5 billion dollars.

When India dropped out of the initial project, Pakistan tried to make up the deficiency for Iran by roping in China. Chinese pipeline experts recommended laying the gas pipeline along the Karakorum Highway which meant that the IP gas pipeline would be turned northward and through PoK and Gilgit Baltistan, the disputed areas of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, to the Chinese eastern province of Xingjian.

Washington is determined to block the project. Not only India, but Pakistan, China and Turkey are also targeted to cease import of gas from Iran. How far will Pakistan resist the pressure and have her way in this particular exercise is to be watched. Pakistan’s remonstration that she is badly in need of power and the gas pipeline should be completed by 2014 if Pakistan has to survive has fallen on deaf ears. When Pakistan insisted, the Secretary of State bluntly warned that the US would take away Pakistan financially. The “more allied than allies” Pakistan never expected to be treated in a scurvy manner by her US benefactors.

Pakistan is faced with acute power shortage. Political instability and rising tension on account of Pakistan Taliban terror has brought the country to the brink of disaster. China is helping her with civilian nuclear technology to balance Indo-US agreement. Iran has also increased her oil exports to Pakistan to the tune of 80,000 barrels a day and has also provided Islamabad with $ 250 million support for laying the proposed gas pipeline on her territory.

With all said and done, the fate of IP pipe line is uncertain. Even the much hyped extension to Xinjiang, too, is faced with reservations from Beijing. First is the feasibility of the line across the Karakorum and secondly as well as most importantly, Xinjiang is in turmoil where the Uighurs of Sunni Muslim faith are restive and demanding separation from Chinese mainland. Should Beijing take the risk of bringing the prestigious and expensive pipeline to a restive and disturbed province, is a big question. This also was the argument of India when the question of extending the IP to India came up for serious discussion…

The fate of a second pipeline, namely Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipe line called TAPI is also hanging in balance. Washington is pursuing the same policy in this case as well. It does not favour forging of gas grid between South Asia and South West Asia as, in its perception, that would change the economy of the countries concerned and with that the balance of power in the region.  It can have far-reaching bearing on American dominance in the region.  Perils in the path of this pipe line are many. It has to pass through the ‘satrapies’ of Afghan tribal lords who are adepts in the art of blackmailing. Then it has to pass through the northern parts of Baluchistan if it comes to India. That again is an uncertain prospect. TAPI gas pipeline has been under consideration for a long time and some Afghan tribal chiefs and war lords were flown to Texas before the outbreak of US-Afghanistan crisis.

Washington has realized that imposition of sanctions on Iran would not prove very effective to deter latter’s nuclear enterprise. Earlier also sanctions were imposed but without desired results. Economic isolation of Iran is the next strategy now pursued relentlessly by the US. Iran has begun to feel the heat.

The US does not brush aside the possibility of gas importing countries like India, Pakistan, Chin and Turkey bringing pressure on Teheran to reconsider her policy towards the US and Israel. Iran’s anti-Israel stance is essentially based on Iran’s urge to show down the Saudis that she has the potential to be the leader of the Islamic world. That many Arab countries are soft pedaling with Israel is no secret. In the broader context of regional strategies, each Islamic country has its permutation and combination vis-à-vis Israel and the US.

In order to tighten the stranglehold on Pakistan, the US Congressmen are raking up the issue of separation of Baluchistan from the federation of Pakistan’s Islamic Republic. First the human rights violations in Baluchistan and now the slogan of self-determination have been gaining momentum in that restive province. The grapevine has it that even arms and sophisticated communication material is being supplied to selected groups of Baluch mujahideen. Recently Pakistani Prime Minister offered an economic package to Baluchistan to mollify opposition. But this is not the first time that such gestures of so-called goodwill are exuded by Islamabad. The response of Baluchis has always been the same.

Islamabad is treating the Pakistani Taliban activists with carrot and stick policy. Nevertheless apprehensive that any let down would embolden them to strike more frequently at army bases and cause further damage to the prestige of Pakistan Army, action against them in North Waziristan has been intensified by Pak troops. This is not for the love of the Americans but because the very prestige and status of Pakistan Army stands at crossroads.

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