The Status of the Iran-Pakistan Gas Pipeline – Understanding the Regional Political, Economic and Religious Factors

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The formal agreement signed recently between Pakistan and Iran to start the construction of the 2100 km long gas pipeline is going to have far reaching consequences. However, despite having the support of some important regional powers there are still several factors that may cause the project to hit snags. These factors are of political, economic and religious nature and have traditionally impacted the Pakistan-Iran as well as Pakistan-Afghan relations, and are also linked to the politics of Middle East. At the same time, there are other variables, which appear to be supportive of the project.

Analysis

US Position

Just days after the agreement was signed, the US expressed its reservations on Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline project. The visiting US special envoy for Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) region, Richard Holbrooke, said in Islamabad that Pakistan should not ‘overcommit’ itself to the project i.e., before decisions regarding sanctions on Iran are made in the US and the UN. The US has long been against the pipeline as, by its calculation, it could give Iran economic and political advantage, which is in conflict with US policy of circumventing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. However, as the economy of Iran is largely dependent on selling its oil and gas riches, the construction of the IP gas pipeline is of extreme importance to Iran.

Meanwhile, the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue has focused on proving alternative solutions to the Pakistan’s energy crisis i.e., other than a civil nuclear deal. Energy Working Group has been formulated with the emphasis on providing Pakistan technological and financial support for water and power generation projects. According to media reports the aim is to produce 20,000 megawatts of power by 2020. The list of projects include 6,000 MW from coal power, 6,000 MW from hydro-electric power, 5,000 MW from natural gas, 1,000 MW from naphtha and other indigenous fuels, and 2,000 MW from alternative energy sources.

Nonetheless, American opposition would be more problematic for Pakistan. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani recently presented the position of Pakistan by stating that the US opposition to the IP gas pipeline would not come in the way of implementing it. However, the very next day he qualified his statement and said that if the UN is going to slap sanctions on Iran, Pakistan would act according to the international law thus casting doubts on the future of the project.
Pakistan-Iran Relations

Although there are many fundamental differences between Sunni-dominated Pakistan and Shia-dominated Iran, historically both have maintained an excellent relationship. This was mainly because of the pluralistic orientation of both societies. However, this began to change due to mainly two reasons.

First, with the clerical revolution in Iran in 1979 under Imam Ayatollah Khomeini, radicalism started to creep into the Iranian society. At the same time the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the associated nurturing of Islamic radicals by US and Pakistan, to fight as Mujahideen against the Soviet troops, resulted in slowly transforming the otherwise religiously moderate society of Pakistan. Using the lessons learned in the Afghan Jihad, Pakistan applied the same model to Kashmir, the consequence of which since 911 has given rise to unprecedented religious extremism and terrorism in Pakistan.

One of the biggest vehicles of radicalization in Pakistan turned out to be the anti-Shiite militant outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) that had emerged in the mid 1980s. The formation of the SSP was engineered by General Zia’s regime (who himself was a Sunni radical) and Saudi Arabia. One of the aims of the latter was to counter the spread of Iranian religious revolutionary zeal into Pakistan.

On its part, since 1979 Iran’s interest in Pakistan has been premised on preventing its society from being influenced by Wahabi-Salafi ideology, under which Shiites are considered as non-Muslims. However, in recent years the traditionally Hanafi-Doebandi society of Pakistan has come under increasing influence of Wahabi and its more radical Salafist ideology. This is a great concern for Iranians. The central role Pakistan played in the creation of the Afghan Taliban and their regime (1996-2001) must be on the minds of the Iranians. Osama Bin Laden, himself a Wahabi Salafi, holds a captivating sway over the Afghan Taliban and cultivated deep anti-Shiite and anti-Iran feelings among them which translated into the regime’s policy. Even Iranian diplomats were not spared, bringing Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and Iran to the brink of war in 1998. In this situation courting Pakistan, which is the only Sunni majority state that has had a cordial relationship with Iran, has become even more important for Tehran.

Importantly, unlike India and Afghanistan, Pakistan does not have any territorial dispute with Iran. With India, Pakistan has had a long-standing dispute on Kashmir. The Durand Line issue, under which Afghanistan has claims over Pakistani territory, has been a source of acrimony in the mutual relationship of the two. For Pakistan, Iran is also of great significance politically and economically. Additionally, having disputes with India and Afghanistan, Pakistan would like to be on friendly terms with Iran in order to avoid isolation in the region. However, Pakistan’s dependence on Saudi Arabia and the radical Sunni Arab states for oil and the much-needed financial aid has bedeviled relations between Pakistan and Iran.

Balochistan

Among the domestic issues which can and would create significant obstacles for the IP pipeline is the Baloch nationalist-separatist insurgency in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. The province is located on Pakistan’s border with Iran and the pipeline has to run through Balochistan to reach Multan in central Pakistan. Baloch nationalists have a deep hatred for over-centralized state structure, which has denied them rights and kept them marginalized.

The Balochs also have deep hatred for Iran as they consider it was Iranian ruler Raza Shah in 1973, who asked the then Pakistani premier, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, to launch the military offensive against the Baloch people because he believed the Balochs were cultivating trouble amongst the Iranian Baloch community. In the long military offensive thousands of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands of Balochs had to flee into exile in Afghanistan only to return in late 80s.

In the ongoing crisis in Balochistan the insurgents are the main culprits engaged in sabotage activities, blowing up gas pipelines and electricity towers. Balochistan has been the leading gas producing area of Pakistan and the nationalists have long argued that the federal government plans to usurp its resources in the name of the ‘national interest’ without giving anything in return. Given the historical Baloch reservations against Pakistan and Iran and their current insurgency, they would attempt to target the pipeline construction. Here another important factor would be that the Baloch would look at the Iranian gas as competing against the Baloch produced gas. There is a sense that the Iranian gas would make Pakistan less dependent on the Baloch resources. In this backdrop the security of the pipeline would be a big question mark.

 Factors Supportive of the Project

Despite serious hurdles in the way of the project there are other variables and developments, which could pave the way for the project.

Only days after the agreement on the project, Iran hanged Abdul Malik Regi, the head of Jundallah (Soldiers of God) militant-terrorist organization. Jundallah is an Iranian Sunni Baloch outfit, which has been fighting for the ethnic and sectarian rights of the community long-denied in Iran. Tehran has had termed Jundallah as the agent of the US and Wahabi states operating with the collusion of the Pakistani intelligence agency and operating from its territory, to foment trouble in Iran. Regi and other Jundallah militants are believed to have received training in Waziristan from Pakistani and Afghan Taliban.

Without Regi as the driving force behind Jundallah, it seems that the biggest irritant in the Pakistan-Iran relations has been removed. This should have positive effects on the relations between the two countries and the threat of Jundallah to sabotage the pipeline seems to have been neutralized.

The estimated cost of the project—$7.5 billion—is another big hurdle in its fruition. Both the countries have to raise the funds on their own as the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) are not going to fund the project because of the dominant voting rights of the US and other western countries in their decision-making.

The favorable tilt of India, China and Russia to the gas pipeline is another positive for the project. The original project was in fact jointly conceived by Iranian and Indian statesmen way back in late mid 1980s. Until 2008 India was very much part of the proposed project then called the IPI, the last ‘I’ standing for India. However, due to the involvement of Pakistani origin terrorists in the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November, 2008, India pulled out of the project. Now it is believed that India could rejoin, as it is an energy deficient country with 400 million people facing energy poverty.

China is another energy-scarce state, favorably disposed to the IP project as it expects to reconstruct a north-south pipeline across Pakistan to pump Iranian gas to its north-eastern region bordering Pakistan. The announcement of the building of a north-south Pakistan-China railway link, further strengthens this trade corridor, but was objected to by India. Russia had earlier offered support in building the infrastructure for the Iran-Pakistan Pipeline.

The solidifying Pakistan, Iran and Turkey trade nexus could prove to be a force multiplier in getting the project through. If this factor plays a dominant role, however, it would be at the cost of Pakistan-Saudi relations, as alluded to above. The recent turn of events witnessed in the Middle East connected with the Flotilla Incident, makes Turkey more of a bridge uniting the Muslims, and in a way the Saudis have never been able to do.

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