In the summer of 2000, I happened to be among a handful of journalists who accompanied the then external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, to Iran . It was a routine goodwill visit conducted in the backdrop of mounting interest in the Iranian proposal for an overland gas pipeline that would travel through Baluchistan and link the South Pars gas fields to consumers in India. There was little doubt in everyone's mind that the proposed 2,760 kilo- metre link would contribute immeasurably towards enhancing India's energy security and fuelling industrial growth in Gujarat and Rajasthan.
The only problem was that the pipeline would naturally have to run through some of the most turbulent regions of Pakistan. Would Pakistan be able to guarantee the pipeline's security' Alternatively, would industry in western India become hostage to the vagaries of a fragile Indo-Pakistan relationship'
The debates were passionate and the ministry of external affairs was sharply divided. The extent of the polarization became evident to me in a Teheran hotel room. Just as one MEA official was conducting an informal briefing on the desirability of engaging Pakistan on the pipeline, his colleague ' and both happened to be of the same rank ' took umbrage and staged an unseemly walk-out. Journalists being fearfully protective of their 'sources', everyone got into the act of putting a lid over this very un-diplomatic outburst. The incident neither reached the gossip columns nor the ear of the minister.
I refer to this five-year-old incident to illustrate a point that has been overlooked during the controversy over the coded remark of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to The Washington Post earlier this month on the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline ' there was never any consensus over the project. The left, egged on by the voluble Union petroleum minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, may well try and link the prime minister's scepticism to sustained pressure from the United States of America. Yet, the concerns being voiced today in India are autonomous and predate both 9/11 and the worries in Washington over Teheran's surreptitious nuclear programme.
For a start, the sharp divergence between the MEA position and the stand taken by Aiyar is well known. As petroleum minister, Aiyar's anxiety to bridge India's energy deficit with cost-effective supplies of natural gas from Iran is understandable. However, his frenetic pipeline diplomacy is not exclusively about bolstering India's energy security. It has been quite apparent for the past year that Aiyar perceives the 'peace' pipeline not as an end in itself but as a means to redefining Indo-Pakistan relations. With his visceral anti-Americanism, Aiyar is frenetically pushing the pipeline in furtherance of an agenda that will see India drawn into a distinct multipolar orbit involving Pakistan, Iran and, in time, China. In the pipeline, Aiyar senses an opportunity to extricate India from an emerging special relationship with the US. In questioning the prime minister's judgment on the financial viability of the project, he is tacitly challenging the fundamental foreign policy assumptions of his own government.
Second, despite attempts by the Aiyar camp to portray the pipeline-sceptics as modern variants of yesterday's 'running dogs of imperialism', it may be reassuring to upholders of the 'independent foreign policy' doctrine that India's misgivings are not Iran-centric. The United Progressive Alliance government, like its National Democratic Alliance predecessor, does not view Iran as a potential threat to regional security. On the contrary, it perceives Teheran as a country in a flux with whom it is necessary to engage for reasons of commerce and culture. In this respect, India's position is qualitatively little different from that of the United Kingdom, with whom the US has a more abiding special relationship.
True, India does not take public postures against Iran's nuclear programme, which the West and Israel believe will lead to a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, it shares the same misgivings. Shortly before his death, the erstwhile national security adviser, J.N. Dixit, made a quiet visit to Teheran to add India's voice to the growing international demand that Iran subject its nuclear facilities to international scrutiny. The perception of a Wall Street Journal editorial that 'instead of putting pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme, India is championing a lucrative gas pipeline project for the mullahs' is, at best, an over-simplification.
Petroleum ministry officials never tire of pointing out that despite the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, American companies are merrily doing business with Iran , albeit through subsidiaries and third parties. The senior US official who declared to the Indian media on June 17 that the proposed pipeline is 'a mistake because it provides revenue to the Iranian regime, which we believe will use the funds to manufacture weapons of mass destruction', was being disingenuous. The US has turned a blind eye to the misuse of oil revenues by Saudi Arabia because it is expedient. There is, after all, not enough justice to go around the whole world.
For India, however, the issue is not Iran. If a deep-sea pipeline linking Asaluyeh to, say, Jamnagar, were cost-effective, there is little doubt that both India and Iran would have exercised that option. Unfortunately, the costs are four times higher. Yet, Iran is more than mindful that the real, long-term demand for its natural gas is in India. According to optimistic estimates, Pakistan's domestic demand for Iranian natural gas is less than one-third of India's short-term requirement. Iran, therefore, has a vested interest in ensuring that any pipeline that passes through Pakistan is safe and secure. Unlike Bangladesh, that would rather burn its natural gas than sell it to India, Teheran's approach is commercial, not cussedly Islamic.
The real question, as far as India's national interests are concerned, is not whether the US views Iran as a rogue state but whether Pakistan can guarantee the passage of Iranian natural gas through its territory. Unquestionably, there is an important lobby in Pakistan that wants the project to fructify. The assertion of the Pakistani prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, of the pipeline generating a 'win-win' outcome for all three countries is welcome. Yet, neither Aziz nor President Pervez Musharraf is in a position to guarantee that the repeated attacks on the pipelines linking the Sui gas fields to Punjab will not be replicated. As Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, wrote in the January 12 issue of Energy Security, 'The possibility of sabotage of the proposed Iran-India pipeline by militant groups in Pakistan is becoming increasingly feasible as terrorists learn from their allies in Iraq about the strategic gain in conducting a sustained sabotage campaign against oil infrastructure.'
To add to the problems posed by groups like the Baluch Liberation Front, there is every possibility of groups in the Pakistani establishment using the gas supplies as an instrument of blackmail, more so after the dependence of Indian industry on Iranian natural gas is established. The point that Aiyar is loath to admit is that there is very little confidence in Pakistan's ability to ensure a stable environment for both the construction of the pipeline and its smooth operation. Hitherto, this concern was primarily limited to India. However, post-9/11 and 7/7, the wariness is universal. Aiyar may suddenly discover that the numbers of those willing to put down the $7.8 billion needed over three years have suddenly shrunk dramatically.
For the US, the Indo-Iran pipeline is hostage to a possible regime change in Iran. For India , the future of the project rests on Pakistan's ability to reinvent itself as a responsible state. The concerns are divergent but they lead to one unfortunate policy conclusion: the pipeline must await another day.