Pakistani leaders have been moving aggressively to forge new pipeline deals. The Pakistani push threatens to undermine US efforts to isolate Iran.
Pakistan is one of the chief proponents of the so-called TAPI pipeline, which would deliver natural gas from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Islamabad and India. The project has been on the drawing board for years, but has been stalled by the persistent upheaval plaguing Afghanistan. In late August, however, TAPI’s prospects received a boost from the signing of a Turkmen-Afghan agreement to hammer out construction details. Turkmen officials now want to host a meeting in mid-September in Ashgabat, bringing together representatives from all four participating countries to complete the basic parameters of a pipeline deal.
While TAPI developments have garnered headlines, another deal involving Pakistan stands a better chance of delivering results. At the end of June, Iran and Pakistan announced that they had finalized the negotiations on a 1,100-kilometer-long pipeline that would carry Iranian gas to Pakistan. This $7.5-billion project would allow Iran to supply Pakistan with up 750 million cubic feet of gas daily, starting in 2014.
The Iranian-Pakistani agreement clearly represented a breach in US efforts to isolate Iran economically, and reflected both Pakistan’s desperate need for energy and its reluctance to subordinate its economic security needs to US pressure.
India, like Pakistan, is eager to open new energy routes. Originally, the Iranian-Pakistani pipeline was supposed to include India, but New Delhi dropped out of the negotiations a few years ago. There were several factors that prompted Indian officials to pull out of the pipeline talks back then, including US pressure on India to keep Iran economically isolated, and the lack of a security guarantee for gas deliveries from Tehran and Islamabad.
But in July, India revealed that it had reopened discussions with Iran on two different pipeline options. One of these was the revival of the so-called IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India) route. And the second involved a new project, which would involve the construction of an underwater pipeline connecting Iran and India. Iran naturally has trumpeted India’s volte-face as a major diplomatic victory, one that undermines US economic isolation efforts.
India’s reopening of energy talks with Iran indicates that New Delhi has not been able to find a better alternative. Despite the recent movement on TAPI, Indian leaders are evidently not confident that an energy route through Afghanistan can be considered reliable, given the intensifying Taliban insurgency there.
But India’s actions are not only due to a lack of gas alternatives. New Delhi wants to be able to rebut Pakistani charges that it backed out of IPI due to US pressure. In addition, key officials, including Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, are keen to keep India engaged with Iran.
Experts consider the underwater option more of a long-shot. The problem is that there have been no studies or assessments of this projected route. Hence no one has the slightest idea if it is economically viable, not to mention possible to build from an engineering and seismic point of view.
This last fact seems to confirm the essentially political motivations behind India’s moves. But India’s reversal of course does not mean that either the IPI or the underwater options are viable. In fact it is not even certain that the Iran-Pakistan pipeline alone is viable. Among numerous unanswered questions; it remains uncertain if Iran has the means to build any of these pipelines and fully stock them due to the blockades and embargos imposed upon it, and its own lack of adequate technology.
Agreements and negotiations should not be taken to mean that a real project is imminent. At the same time, recent trends can’t be ignored. The mere possibility of such projects coming to fruition undermines Washington’s attempts to isolate Iran, and can validate the utility of playing the energy card in Iranian eyes. Second, China has clearly expressed interest in a pipeline from Iran to Pakistan and from there to China. Indeed, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has suggested that if India does not get back into the project, the pipeline could be renamed the Iran-Pakistan-China route. So clearly there is more to the story than South and Central Asia.
Given the recentness of India’s reversal, it remains unclear whether this or any other pipeline will be built. But the continuing fortunes of these projects tell us much about the shifting geoeconomic and geopolitical sands in South, and Central Asia.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.