The tensions between Islamabad and Washington over the $7.5 billion pipeline project, under which natural gas – badly needed by an energy-starved Pakistan – will be brought in from Iran, are rising steeply. The US State Department, as well as other officials, have warned that Pakistan faces sanctions if it goes ahead with the deal reached with Tehran, and decreed that it be scrapped. Somewhat contrary to expectations, Pakistan is standing firm so far, with President Zardari asserting on Saturday that Pakistan, as a sovereign state, will go ahead with the deal. Apparently the reading goes that meeting our devastating energy crisis in the short term is more significant to the country than threats by the US. Many would agree with this, especially since the US, even though it continues to talk of helping in meeting Pakistan’s energy needs itself, has made little concrete effort in this direction since 2008. Of course Iran, facing three tiers of sanctions from the UN, the European Union and the US plus its close allies, is keen to acquire new buyers. Islamabad also denies that the pipeline deal, actual work on which will be undertaken by an Iranian company, violates UN sanctions on Iran linked to its nuclear programme.
It has already been pointed out that Iran already provides energy to other countries, including India and China, and that there is no reason why it should not do so with Pakistan as well. This makes sense. India has resisted US pressure to stop buying from Iran and, with these important precedents in place, Islamabad seems to believe it can do the same. As President Zardari has said, Pakistan needs that pipeline so its factories can run and its homes get the gas they need for daily usage. The pipeline move, coming just ahead of a crucial poll, will therefore please people. This could well be one factor behind it. But we will still need to see how things move from here. Given our current situation, US pressure is not easy to resist and it is not clear how the rather complex situation that has been created will be handled, especially with a new government likely to assume power within months.