In using a press conference last month to suggest that Iran had information the United States wanted to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear program, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stirred a pot of complex geopolitics.
Ahmadinejad enjoys playing to the public gallery, in this case Pakistan, where popular feeling that Washington has a cavalier approach to the country’s sovereignty was heightened by the US killing Osama bin Laden near Abbottabad in May. What may have been more on the Iranian president’s mind was criticism in Pakistan of its government stalling, under US pressure, over a pipeline for natural gas from Iran’s South Pars field. Pakistan badly needs the gas to end power cuts and keep its industries running.
“It sounds unbelievable that any government can afford to neglect such an important project or take it so casually,” wrote Shamim Rizvi last month in Islamabad magazine, The Voice. The ‘peace pipeline’ was first mooted in the 1990s with the original proposal including both Pakistan and India. While India froze participation, ostensibly over pricing, but more so to placate Washington’s drive to isolate Tehran, Pakistan in 2009 signed on the dotted line. Iran committed to supplying 7.7 billion cubic meters of gas annually for 25 years beginning in 2014 — a huge contribution to Pakistan’s energy needs.
Pakistan has failed to clarify when it will build its part of the pipeline. Iran has said its leg has reached just 80 kilometers from the border.
Rolling power blackouts are rife in Pakistan. In Baluchistan province, which borders Iran, electricity outages reach 10 hours per day in Quetta, the provincial capital, and up to 20 hours in rural areas often dependent on irrigation run on electricity. Coastal areas — including Gwadar, where China is building a large naval base — receive Iranian electricity, and there are discussions on expanding the supply. Last month a joint Iran-Pakistan power company announced a $100 million project for wind turbines in Pakistan’s Sindh province.
Bilateral trade has reached $1 billion annually, and Iran is part-funding health centers and a large halal slaughterhouse in Lahore. Aside from energy and promises to buy more Pakistani rice, meat and fruit, Iran is offering a road link to help Pakistan export to Turkey and central Asia. The five central Asian republics — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — are rich in natural resources, home to 62 million people and have a combined gross domestic product of more than $200 billion. Yet Pakistani exporters are trying to reach them through costly air freight or by road through the chaos of Afghanistan.
With the US winding down in Afghanistan, its regional role is waning as that of China grows. Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s main opposition leader, said last month that people were “fed up” with power cuts and demanded Chinese companies be rushed in to develop hydro-electric dams. Beijing has already invested heavily in Iran’s energy sector.
Iran has often tiptoed around Pakistan-India relations, but tilted to Islamabad in November when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, provoked a demarche from New Delhi after remarks calling for Hajj pilgrims to support the “struggle” in Kashmir, where Pakistan-backed militants contest Indian rule. Tehran had been riled by US President Barack Obama’s visit to India the previous month and his apparent support for India having a permanent seat on the UN security council.
But Iran has no desire to jeopardize relations with India, and the two sides are seeking a route for payments for Iranian oil after the European Union in May blocked payments through Germany, a channel devised after India’s Central Bank, again under US pressure, ruled out using the Asian Clearing Union. India in 2010 imported 17 percent of Iran’s oil exports for around $12 billion, and suspension of this trade would upset both sides. India is also building roads in Iran and Afghanistan to create a trade link from Chabahar port, in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province, into Afghanistan and central Asia.
Slowly but surely these economic ties are strengthening, whether the US likes it or not. Washington’s disapproval provides fertile ground for Ahmadinejad and others to argue the Great Satan simply wants to block development of the countries it mistrusts.
Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for almost two decades and was formerly the Financial Times correspondent in Tehran