The announcement earlier this week of an agreement between Iran and Pakistan to build a pipeline between the two countries has ruffled some feathers in Washington where the Obama administration, who has been trying to increase pressure on Iran and its nuclear program, see this move as going counter to its policies.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari shook hands on Monday, closing the deal seen as controversial in the United States. Indeed, officials in Washington see this gas pipeline project as a move that will further perturb an already rocky relationship with Islamabad.
Iran meanwhile sees this as an opportunity to allow it to sell more natural gas, and in the process increase much-needed revenues to help boost its staggering economy. For the Islamic Republic it is also an important step in establishing alternative routes through which to export its oil and gas products other than through the strategic and easily controlled Straits of Hormuz.
In case of conflict breaking out in the region of the Persian Gulf, blocking the narrow passageway through which much of the free world’s fuel transits would be a relatively easy undertaking. And indeed the Iranians have often threatened they would do exactly that if they were attacked. The Iranians lack the proper means through which to refine their own oil and are forced to export it in a crude form and then reimport it once refined. In the event of the Straits closing, Iran would very likely be among the very first countries to suffer from such a move.
This planned pipeline would alleviate some of Iran’s dependency on the narrow water passageway.
Washington warned that if the project was to go ahead Pakistan would risk incurring same sanctions under the same rules that are applicable to those imposed on Iran for its continued nuclear policies.
The good news for everyone, except for Iran, however, is that the project though nearly ready on the Iranian side remains far from completion on the Pakistan side, where construction is due to begin only this week.
The Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, which is to run along the southern part of Iran into neighboring Pakistan will further raise doubts that many inside the Washington Beltway hold regarding just how serious Pakistan remains an ally in the war on terrorism and US and Western efforts to prevent Tehran from getting a nuclear bomb. Washington has consistently accused Tehran of supporting and financing terrorist groups and activities. Many voices will be raised in Washington in the days ahead to hold back some of the financial aid Pakistan receives from the United States.
Washington’s fears that if – or rather when – Iran becomes a nuclear power it could first raise the likelihood of nuclear proliferation in the Gulf, as several Arab countries will want to follow suit; and second, there are great fears that Iran could supply a dirty bomb to terrorist groups, or groups deemed to engage in terrorist activities by Washington and some of its allies.
The pipeline however is still several years away from completion and before any sanctions are to be considered against Pakistan oil or gas would have to actually start flowing through the pipe. And that is still not for tomorrow.
The pipeline – dubbed the Peace Pipeline - will run a total of 780 km, or 485 miles. Experts estimate that it will require about two years before it can become operational. The initial plan was first introduced in 1994 and was supposed to involve India. Indian officials in Delhi reconsidered the agreement and drew away in 2009 after signing a nuclear deal with the United States.
The Pakistanis themselves are in somewhat of a bind. The government in Islamabad will have to juggle between establishing better relations with a fellow Muslim nation and toeing the line imposed by Washington. Regardless of the outcome it will prove to be a delicate maneuver for the Pakistani government. It will be pulled between taking steps that will please its own people and in the process upsetting Washington and risk loosing some of the financial and military support the United Stated grants Pakistan every year.
It is indeed a very precarious situation for the Pakistanis who face major energy shortages in a country where power outages are becoming more frequent. Thus the urgent need for more fuel.
More likely than not the Pakistanis are placing their hopes that time will help them through this complicated diplomatic waltz and that in the two or three years needed for the pipeline to become operational there may yet be a very different geopolitical reality in the region. Time will tell.
By. Claude Salhani
Claude Salhani, a specialist in conflict resolution, is an independent journalist, political analyst and author of several books on the region. His latest book, 'Islam Without a Veil,' is published by Potomac Books. He tweets @claudesalhani.