Thursday, May 1, 2008

IRAN-PAK-INDIA PIPELINE: AN IMPENDING SECURITY DISASTER

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was in Delhi this week, said after meeting India's leaders that the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India Gas pipeline will soon be given a final shape by the three nations. Then, almost in the same breath, he admitted that there was a clear link between the deal to sell and send by ship 5 million tonnes of LNG to India and India's decision to vote against Iran at the IAEA governing board in November 2005. That seemingly innocuous statement gave a taste of things to come once India gets hooked to and dependent upon Iranian Gas which is to come in a pipeline flowing through Pakistan.

Yet, India's Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon echoed the Iranian President's sentiments on the pipeline, saying that it was a good "doable" project which "has the potential to become a major confidence building measure between the three countries"!

The pipeline, as should be crystal clear to anyone who has an informed mind mind open to its security implcations, will actually do the confidence building bit for only Pakistan and Iran. Not for India which will be at the receiving end of the precious commodity which will travel through an area which has extremely hostile anti India jehadi elements operating with full tacit support of the establishment. The installation of a democratic government in Pakistan does in no way alter the hard, unresolved facts on ground.

Whichever way one looks at it, the proposed pipeline is an impending strategic security disaster as far as India is concerned. The US may be opposing the pipeline keeping in view its own strategic concerns. But, to pitch for the project simply as a pathological expression against perceived US hegemony, is only going to harm India and please the Chinese, Pakistanis and even Iranians.

In October last year, I had written in detail about why India should not go in for this pipeline. Now that India's leadership seems to be failing to pay heed to the country's strategic interest and is falling for the poisonous bait being dangled in an astoundingly amateurish manner, it is only appropriate that I reproduce that post so that someone who matters may stop this project and the other one to bring more gas to India from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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There has been a lot of talk about the benefits to India from the proposed gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan. And a lot of criticism of the US for trying to scuttle it for its hegemonic interests in the region, which according to die-hard romantics of the Nehruvian variety, as well as leftists and pure ‘economists’, should be resisted, even if it means ignoring our national interest, something which appears to be of little interest to them.

What are the Indian interests that are being touted to urge India to go in for the pipeline? First, we have very good relations with Iran, there is a sizeable population of Shia Muslims in India and Iran is Shia country. Second, our relations with Pakistan are improving and the pipeline will aid in ushering in an era of peace in the region, since Pakistan is also a party to the deal. Third, there are enormous cost benefits in getting gas from Iran overland rather than through ships or an undersea pipeline, as it will be four times cheaper.

The proposed pipeline will be 2670 kms long, out of which 707 kms will be through Baluchistan and Sind in Pakistan. It will cost upwards of US$ 7 billion. Two thirds of the gas will be for India while the remaining one third only will be utilized by Pakistan. The benefits to Iran from this pipeline will also be enormous. These have been so adequately analyzed elsewhere that it is not worth repeating them here.

The almost unasked question is why Pakistan, despite its pathological fixation with India, has readily agreed to allow the use of its territory for India’s benefit, even when Bangladesh, which is not half as hostile, has not given the green flag to a similar pipeline from Burma to India through its territory? As per the public stance of Pakistan, the pipeline would not only guarantee a source of income to it ($600 million annually as transit fees alone) but also increase stability in the region and serve as a durable confidence-building measure, creating strong economic links and business partnerships among the three countries.

If that had really been so, even Bangladesh would have readily agreed to the other pipeline. But, Bangladesh laid out certain preconditions unacceptable to India upfront, for allowing the pipeline to pass through its territory. These included overland access to electricity generated in Nepal and Bhutan, as well as free trade routes to these countries through Indian Territory. Surely Pakistan is not so dumb as to sell out for helping to meet part of India’s energy requirements for a mere $600 million a year. It has also not become so suddenly friendly towards India as to not extract a real advantage for itself or exploit any disadvantage that may accrue to India because of the pipeline.

Indian planners who had originally proposed and pushed for the pipeline, had brushed away the little understood security concerns of India by thinking up some rather interesting responses. They had hoped to generate power for Pakistan too from this gas (without receiving any request or proposal from Pakistan!), thereby creating an ‘interlocking’ measure. Also, they had felt that if Pakistan ever disrupted supplies of gas, India had the option of retaliating be stopping the waters of the Indus! How can that be done, without a series of massive dams, which cannot be constructed as per the Indus Water Treaty of 1960, on the Indus, Chenab or Jhelum, and for how long, if at all? To cater for the threats from terrorists and Baluchis, Mani Shankar Aiyer, the then Petroleum Minister had an even more imaginative solution: provide ‘crowd cover’ to the pipeline in Pakistan by having it routed through the heavily populated Pakistani coastal belt! Heavy population non-stop for 707 kilometers!

Why has Pakistan not laid down any preconditions, like Bangladesh did, for allowing the pipeline through its territory? Bangladesh has no serious outstanding dispute with India which it can subsequently use as a strategic lever to pressurize India once the pipeline is in place. Therefore, it placed its demands on the table before giving permission to India to use its territory for an economic advantage.

Pakistan and India, on the other hand, have a host of very serious issues to resolve, including the mother of them all, Kashmir, over which they have repeatedly gone to war and which Pakistan is now trying desperately to settle in its favor through the covert war of terror. Therefore, anything which gives Pakistan a strategic lever over India will be grabbed by it with both hands, while it makes suitable peace noises as part of sophisticated strategic deception to lull already complacent Indians into comforting sleep. Musharraf, the ever exuberant commando, however did let the cat out of the bag in a speech delivered way back on June 23, 2000, when he said in a reference to the pipeline: ‘God has given us this strategic location, the importance of which fully emerging now’.

What is this strategic advantage perceived by Musharraf that should have acted as a wake up call for us long ago? Let us analyze trade between the two countries. After the 1971 war, trade relations resumed in 1981, when only 200 items were on the trade list. Over the last 26 years, the list has crept up ever so slowly to only 1078 items, due to fierce Pakistani resistance to enhancing trade with India. By 2005-06, exports from Pakistan were a paltry $300 million and imports from India only $ 802 million. Pakistan also has doggedly refused to grant India the Most Favored Nation (MFN) status as per WTO, and has blatantly omitted it from the list of countries it has agreed to give concessional tariffs to under the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA).

While we unilaterally dream of generating power for Pakistan from the Iranian gas as an ‘interlocking’ measure to enhance the security of the pipeline, we overlook the elementary fact that Pakistan has not allowed, and will not allow, itself to become integrated better with India economically as dictated by sound economics. That is because it then becomes somewhat dependent on India and thereby suffers an unacceptable setback in its bargaining power and leverage in settling outstanding political disputes. Like any sensible nation, it wants to negotiate from as strong a position as it can possibly achieve.

The pipeline is a God sent strategic lever for Pakistan. In 1971 and in 2001, India had banned over flights by Pakistan. In 1971, that act contributed significantly to the rapid defeat of the Pakistani Army in Bangladesh. In 2001, the effects were mainly economical and psychological. Even Musharraf had to take a torturous route to fly to China.

The proposed pipeline, according to one report, will carry 150 million cubic meters of gas per day, 100 million cubic meters for India. When fully operational, it will contribute to creation of an additional revenue of more than $10 billion per year in North India. The energy security of North India will become quite critically dependent on this gas. India will simply not be in a position to accept any disruption in the supply of this gas. It will also never be again in a position to deny over flights to Pakistan without a debilitating and unacceptable response.

As far as stopping the waters of Indus is concerned, India lost an extremely significant strategic lever by signing the Indus Water Treaty, which is now being mindlessly quoted by all and sundry to support their stand that the pipeline agreement too will survive. Forget stopping the water. The three rivers whose waters we gave away to Pakistan were ideally suited for generation of a lot of hydroelectric power. Strategically, considering the terrain and lack of inhabitation along these rivers in Indian Territory (except Jhelum to some extent), they were ideally suited for construction of mega dams for storing massive quantities of water behind them.

Pakistan lives mainly along the rivers. The real threat of flooding Pakistan virtually out of existence was the priceless strategic lever we never thought of before signing the treaty. If the treaty still survives, it is only because the waters are flowing, without any possibility of disruption or flooding, from India to Pakistan and not the other way round. Nobody supporting the pipeline talks of the Shimla Accord which Pakistan has single mindedly destroyed by launching an undeclared war against India though the instrument of terror.

To compound the impending security disaster if this pipeline goes through, there is talk of yet another gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to India through Afghanistan and Pakistan! Somehow, we seem to be possessed by some sort of fatalistic blindness that is hurtling us towards a position of a completely avoidable vulnerability to Pakistan at a future time of its choosing.

We seem to have simply forgotten that we had once showed similar trust and given away virtually all our security and strategic vitals to China. We had then meekly handed over to the Chinese all the bargaining and power tools left behind for us by the British with a weirdly misplaced and unforgivable sense of morality. Despite what China did to us after all that, and continues to do till date, we have stubbornly and repeatedly refused to learn our lessons.

The Iran pipeline is being touted as the peace pipeline in the region, even by Pakistan, for whom its materialization will actually provide an unexpected strategic advantage over India. History tells us that at some point of time Pakistan will ruthlessly exploit the power that the pipeline will give to it to extract concessions from India on the known and yet to be clearly articulated political issues even beyond the confines of Kashmir.

For India, therefore, rather than becoming a pipeline of peace, the proposed pipeline from Iran will turn out to be the line which will pip the possibility of a durable peace with Pakistan.

This post was also published by reuters.com