x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Iran and Pakistan on shaky ground for new pipeline

A natural gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan will face some serious challenges, and not just US opposition.

Reports about the construction of a 2,000-kilometre pipeline to carry Iranian natural gas to Pakistan have focused largely on US opposition. But the project faces other challenges, particularly from the marginalised Balochi people of who span both countries.

Work on the 780km Pakistani section of the pipeline began on Monday. Meanwhile Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan's president, led a delegation of 300 dignitaries to Iran on the same day to meet his counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a ceremony to mark the project. The high-level official formalities demonstrate the pipeline's importance both to energy-starved Pakistan and to an increasingly cash-strapped Iran.

The transfer of 750 million cubic feet of natural gas per day from Iran's South Pars gasfield to Pakistani homes and factories might seem like a win-win situation. Washington disapproves deeply, since the project short-circuits US-led efforts to reduce Iranian oil and gas exports, until Iran modifies its nuclear plans. Pakistan and Iran have the right to sign bilateral energy deals - and the move is certainly popular in Pakistan's media - but this pipeline enters into dangerous territory.

The US opposition is not the only hurdle this project must clear. Finance is an issue: the Pakistani section will cost $1.5 billion (Dh5.5 billion). A $500 million loan from Iran lays bare that country's eagerness to export gas. But it is still not clear where Islamabad will find the rest of the money; a proposed surcharge on utility bills would be unpopular.

Domestic disorder threatens to be an even bigger concern. The line will run through Balochi homelands that span the common border, and could well become a target in continuing low-intensity fighting on both sides of the border.

Balochistan is the southwest province of Pakistan, but the name is also used for a notional ethnic homeland for the 11 million or more Balochs who live in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Decades of neglect and hardline government policy have fuelled an insurgency in Pakistan, while the militant group Jundallah has claimed responsibility for a string of attacks targeting the Iranian regime. In the past, Islamabad and Tehran have traded accusations about state-sponsored terrorism on both sides of the border.

A natural gas pipeline will inevitably be a target. Unless both governments show willingness and ability to address Balochi grievances, they may find themselves unable to complete, much less operate this pipeline.