Middle East nuclear diplomacy

By K.N. Pandita

India and Pakistan both lack energy resources to meet domestic requirements. They depend on oil and natural gas imports from neighbouring Gulf countries. Iraq was India’s premier supplier of crude oil until the war broke out in that country and the US put an end to Saddam’s regime. Thereafter India looked to other suppliers including Iran. 

Pakistan’s good relations with Saudi Arabia have proved highly rewarding for her. Apart from oil concessions, thousands of Pakistani skilled and non-skilled workers found employment in Saudi Arabia and the littoral states. Their foreign remittances form a big chunk of Pakistan’s foreign exchange earnings.

For more than a decade, there has been the talk of export of gas from Southern Iranian gas fields to Pakistan and India. It is called Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) project. Several tripartite meetings took place over a period of time in which ins and outs of supply of Iranian gas to these energy-starved South Asian countries were discussed. This seemed an alluring project. While Iran and Pakistan proceeded with the proposal of laying gas pipeline on their respective sides, India had reservations.

India was apprehensive of security of contemplated overland pipeline which would pass through Pakistan’s turbulent province of Baluchistan. Apart from this, traditional acrimonious relations between India and Pakistan would also have adverse impact on the proposed pipeline project. These hiccups were strong enough to withhold India’s nod to the project.

Yet the most important factor that dampened the spirit of sponsors was insistence of the US not to go ahead with the proposal. Given the hostility between Iran and the US following the incident of 4 November 1979 in which Iranian students led by pasdaraan (national guards) sacked the US embassy in Teheran and took 60 of its inmates as hostages, and sanctions imposed on Iran, Washington would see to it that Iran was economically squeezed. It would obstruct flow of enormous gas revenue to Iran if supplies to Pakistan and India materialized.

Under US pressure, India showed cold feet to the project known as IPI, pretending security threat and high cost as the reasons. At one point of time she proposed laying under-sea gas pipeline as an alternative to overland line about whose security she had apprehensions.  Iran is reported to have even agreed to provide a loan for the under-water project. However, after India concluded nuclear deal with the US, she almost abandoned the idea of IPI.

Pakistan pursued the project despite tacit opposition by Washington. Finally an agreement was signed between Iran and Pakistan in which terms and conditions were set forth.  Signing of the agreement was announced with much fanfare. Pakistan agreed to complete the laying of gas pipeline on her side by the end of December 2013. Iran agreed to offer US$500 million by way of loan for Pakistan laying the gas pipeline on her side.
A piquant situation has developed in the case of IP pipeline project. A few days ago Iranian Deputy Oil Minister Ali Majedi suddenly announced cancelation of the loan and added that Iran reserved the right of demanding from Pakistan the compensation for not completing the pipe laying task as per the agreement. No reaction has come so far from Pakistan.

Iranian sources say that in view of sanctions still in place, Iranian economy is in a bad shape and cannot make any loans available to the party. But keen observers are not satisfied with this argument. The fact is that lately Pakistan is reported to have developed nuclear weapons for delivery to Saudi monarchy.

If this is true, and of course, Americans cannot be expected to be ignorant about it, the surmise is that it may have considerable impact on Iranian nuclear deal. Washington loses the moral ground for a stupendous ten-year long effort of conducting secret and tortuous talks with Iran for making her agree to the capping of nuclear weapon production programme. In the process, the ultimate position will be that Iran’s bomb producing effort is rolled back while the Saudi monarchy gets hold of nuclear weapon supplied by another country.

Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia have never been cordial. However, despite brutal attacks by Sunni fanatical organizations in Pakistan on her Shia population and their demand to declare the Shia as non-Muslims, this atrocity has not generated as much of fierce reaction in Iran as would be expected.  Embattled Iran would not wa

The possibility of Iran hardening her posture on nuclear and other issues in the background of disclosure about Pak readiness to supply nukes to Saudi Arabia cannot be ruled out This is bound  to bring strain on Iran-US nascent détente and definitely a turn for worse in Iran-Pakistan relations.  Even Iran will be justified in asking the US to define her position vis-à-vis nuclearized Saudi Arabia. This will not be an easy situation for the US.

Situation in the region becomes fluid after the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. Pakistan-Taliban Afghanistan (Talibanistan)-Saudi axis will pose new challenges to Iran. Saudi’s have already hinted at “new defence doctrine”. It virtually means new defence and strategic alignments in the Middle East region. Iran and India will have to re-formulate their respective role and policies to counter any attempt that would mean a blow to their national interests and regional balance of power.

India is unlikely to react to these far-reaching changes in regional strategy until parliamentary elections, scheduled for March-April 2014 are over and new government is formed in New Delhi. But what is most likely to happen is deepening of Indo-Iranian collaboration in defence and economic fields especially in joint patrolling of the gulf and beyond. However, India may not warm up to IPI even if there is no US pressure. At the same time, the TAPI pipeline remains in doldrums unless political situation in Afghanistan becomes clear in the aftermath of the withdrawal of NATO forces by the end of 2014.

Link: Iran–Pakistan gas pipeline.

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