Calling the superpower bluff is a high stakes dream with many enemies
Pakistan has high stakes in the pipeline bringing gas from Iran. There are however serious hurdles in the way of its becoming functional, the most important being a stiff opposition from the US. Similar opposition is expected from the Saudi government, whose prerogative remains containing Iran. The internal threats to the pipeline emanate from the Baloch separatist organizations and from anti-Shia, anti-Iran militant networks. The militant groups can be used as proxies by the outside forces to bomb and disrupt the pipeline.
Pakistan has to take up the formidable challenge of making the pipeline a success in view of the economic compulsions it faces. The pipeline will bring it both energy security and political stability. What is more it would be a show of resistance against being dictated from abroad.
Power shortages have badly impaired the country’s economy by slowing down industrial production, weakening the country’s agricultural capacity and having a damaging impact on business in general. Thousands of workers have been rendered unemployed while the income of those working as daily wage earners have been reduced. The growing dependence on costly furnace oil for the production of thermal power continues to raise electricity charges. Recurrent power shortages have sparked countrywide demonstrations putting the PPP government at the center and the PML-N government in Punjab on the defensive.
The pipeline is vital for Pakistan. It would help shift the domestic gas production that currently hovers around 4.2 billion cubic feet per day to the industrial sector. The measure would enhance industrial output, bring laid off workers back to the factories and create more jobs.
The gas that the country would be importing from Iran would allow the generation of additional 4,123 megawatts of electricity at cheaper rate. It will also restore the 2,232 megawatts of idle thermal power generation capacity with the diversion of about 406 mmcfd, leaving 344 mmcfd for other uses such as manufacturing fertilizer and supplying gas to domestic consumers. While Pakistan would pay Iran $3 billion a year, it would reduce its oil imports by $5.3 billion, resulting in a net annual reduction in energy imports by about $2.3 billion.
The import of gas from Iran has a strategic importance for the region. Once the super power bluff has been called, India facing energy crunch may change its mind and rejoin what was originally scheduled to be Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline. This would create further incentives for Pakistan and India to resolve mutual conflicts. It would thus become a peace pipeline. Pakistan could even become a conduit for bridging the gulf energy to China, gaining significant economic benefits from the deal.
The pipeline however constitutes a threat to US strategic aims. The US plans involve strangulation of the Iranian economy through sanctions to force Tehran to abide by the US diktat. Any opening provided to an isolated Iran is liable to weaken the politics of leverage at the nuclear negotiations, which are currently at a turning point. The pipeline agreement would indicate that the US is isolating itself in the battle over Iran. On top of that, Iran has announced plans to build a 4,000 barrel-a-day oil refinery at Gwadar that would further undercut U.S. sanctions and eventually ensure energy supplies going to China, even if the Gulf’s strategic Strait of Hormuz is closed.
The threat of the US sanctions has stopped a number of countries from financing the pipeline. If Iranian gas begins to arrive in Pakistan, it would be another proof that, despite being a super power, the US is gradually losing hold over the world.
While brandishing the threat of sanctions against Pakistan, the US is cautiously weighing their possible effects. Pakistan’s territory provides the cheapest exit to the US forces withdrawing from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s help is required to restore peace in post-occupation Afghanistan. The consequences of a further ratcheting up of the anti-US sentiment in the nuclear armed Pakistan cannot either be easily ignored.
Even if the US was not to urgently impose sanctions on Pakistan, it is likely to use Saudi Arabia and Qatar to pressurize Pakistan to abandon the pursuit of the Iranian gas. Is General Kayani’s visit to Saudi Arabia at this juncture a purely private affair? Is a news item circulating in the media regarding the army having not been consulted while taking the pipeline decision without any significance?
For nearly five years, the PPP hadn’t gone beyond huffing and puffing over the pipeline. It had meanwhile carried out every US directive, except when found to be unpalatable to the army. How come it has suddenly decided to break ranks? Is the deal merely an election stunt meant to attract anti-US voters? Will the PPP abide by the contract in case it comes to power again?
As things stand, every major party has supported the gas deal as it helps in the elections. Will any of these parties continue to stick to the stand once it is in power and pressures are exerted from important quarters?
Will the deal survive if the PML-N wins the elections?
The Sharif family feels itself under obligation to the Saudi ruler for the crucial help and hospitality extended to it. Will Nawaz Sharif resist the pressure from Riyadh? Will the PML-N agree to forgo the support of its allies that include clerics dependent on Saudi charities to run their lucrative seminaries?
Imran Khan could manage to oppose the US policies and still raise funds for the cancer hospital in America because he was in the opposition. Will he enjoy a similar easy access to Western charities after heading a government blamed for helping Iran, which is being widely demonised by the US media?
Any government really committed to complete the pipeline project will have to deal firmly with threats emanating from militants with divergent backgrounds. On the one side, is the resourceful LeJ and the remnants of the Jundullah who are deadly opposed to the Shia community and its spiritual center, Iran. On the other side, are the various Balochi separatist groups who disown and disrupt each and every development programme in Balochistan introduced by the Pakistan government.
The PPP-led government had enough time at its disposal to reach an honourable deal with the Baloch nationalists within the parameters of a federal polity. What is more it had initially enough goodwill among the Baloch militants to bring them down from the mountains and back from foreign countries and make them part of the mainstream. The PPP miserably failed to do what was doable back then. It remains to be seen if Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan have the required strength and far sightedness to undertake what has now turned into an uphill task.
Militants like the LeJ will continue to be on the rampage till the military undergoes a through change of heart on the issue of using these networks in pursuit of its strategic needs in Afghanistan and the Indian-controlled Kashmir. They also flourish because they have their sympathisers in the PML-N and religious parties .
Pakistan needs to live with its neighbours in peace to become a secure and prosperous country. If militant organizations continue to use its territory as a launching pad for jihad, other countries will encourage, train and support militant group in Pakistan. Any government which takes over after the elections will have to dismantle the terrorist networks through a combination of diplomacy and use of force. Unless this is done attempts to bomb and sabotage the project will continue.
The writer is a political analyst and a former academic.