Two recent newspaper reports, entitled respectively “Iran offers to provide 10,000 MW” and “Pakistan dithers on Iran gas pipeline plan”, both slightly inaccurate, focused on Pakistan-Iran relations, the first being excessively optimistic and the second, overly pessimistic. Both of them, however, impinge on a key component of future bilateral relations. What Iran has done, apart from the firm offer of 1,000 MW, is to share with Pakistan the information that it may have a surplus of 10,000 MW and this may billed on the initial offer depending upon various other factors. The most obvious factors are that Iran may never want to commit too heavy a part of its surplus to a neighbour with a somewhat unpredictable relationship and, equally importantly, Pakistan’s import of Iranian power depends upon its capacity to absorb it. It also needs investment in costly transmission lines needed to carry a heavy load. Insofar as they reaffirm Iran’s willingness to be a substantial partner in Pakistan’s quest for energy, both stories are of strategic value.
Dr Asim Hussain’s observation that a breakthrough in the pipeline project depends on an ‘understanding’ with the “ international community” probably reflects the impact of Hillary Clinton’s warning against it during her recent visit to Islamabad on a government that has so far been unduly susceptible to ‘international’ (read American) pressure in formulating Iran policy. That it cannot continue to be so vulnerable to this pressure is seen in the emerging ground realities: Pakistan has not even initiated projects for large-scale power production that can come on line in time to rescue its economy in the near future and the alternative Turkmenistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI) is by no means free of problems and may not materialise for a decade or more.
No less important is the consideration that energy cooperation with Iran may well be the cornerstone of the architecture of Pakistan’s future security; its true strategic depth visualised in economic terms. Iran may be ‘a dangerous country’ in the western perception but for Pakistan, it can only be a source of strength. China’s trade turnover with this ‘dangerous country’ exceeds $40 billion and India has invested heavily even in Afghanistan to boost its commerce with Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Pakistan desperately needs to rebalance its strategic relationships and Iran will inevitably figure in this effort. Considering the projection by the US department of energy that the global demand for energy would increase by 50 per cent by 2035 and considering the present worldwide scramble for early options on possible sources, officials of the Pakistan government do not serve Pakistan’s interests well by categorising the Iran pipeline (IPI) and the TAPI in either/or formulations. Both of them have great importance for Pakistan and, if extended to India, can be game-changers.
Pakistan-Iran relations have generally been close; the march of history itself demands that the problems that have strained them in the recent past are isolated and resolved. The principal source of problems has been the difference in perspectives on Afghanistan. With long common borders with that country, Pakistan and Iran have a legitimate interest in the outcome of the process that began with the American intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. This interest is qualitatively different from the era when the Taliban were engaged in military campaigns to establish their rule in the length and breadth of their internally contested land, a project robustly resisted by Iran through its support for the Northern Alliance.
In any future dispensation, Pakistan will not want the supremacy of the Taliban and, given Iran’s pragmatism, Iran should not seek the hegemony of non-Pashtun factions. In fact, neither country has any business interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs beyond extending assistance that Kabul may want in promoting reconciliation amongst Afghan factions, ethnic or ideological, and ensuring its own territorial integrity. Iran’s relations with India also need to be better understood in Pakistan as an outreach reducing the perennial siege it faces; Iran may even facilitate the opening of a new chapter in India-Pakistan relations. It is time that instead of dithering because of exaggerated fears of ‘international’ displeasure, Islamabad becomes more proactive in arriving at a new strategic understanding with Tehran.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 31st, 2011.