On February 23 President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan arrived in New Delhi for talks with Indian officials. At the same time, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz was visiting Tehran. Among the topics of discussions in both capitals are two gas pipelines: The first one, known as TAP, would originate in Turkmenistan and extend through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. The second route runs from Iran via Pakistan to India. Recent weeks have seen a flurry of diplomatic activities among the four countries to promote the two pipeline projects.
Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh visited Kabul February 15 and then continued to Islamabad for talks with officials from the two countries. While in Kabul, he met privately with President Karzai, who asked India to “look favorably at the pipeline project through Afghanistan from Turkmenistan” (Voice of America, February 15).
This week, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi went to New Delhi to promote the gas pipeline originating in his country and running through Pakistan to India. He told a gathering in New Delhi that the pipeline would benefit all three countries. Singh even called it “the peace pipeline” (Reuters, February 22).
Prime Minister Aziz met Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khomenei, and the head of Iran Expediency Council, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. On Wednesday, February 23, he signed four agreements and a memorandum of understanding after talks with Iranian First Vice-President Reza Aref. The agreements were aimed at bolstering bilateral trade between the two states toward a target of $1 billion. The gas pipeline was not among the agreements, but the issue was discussed. According to one Pakistani official, trilateral talks are to be held by the end of March when the energy ministers of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation meet in Islamabad. The Iranian energy minister would probably go to Islamabad for talks with his Indian and Pakistani counterparts (Daily Times, February 24).
Yesterday, President Karzai arrived in New Delhi for talks with Indian officials. He is very keen to get the Indian government to agree to build the TAP pipeline, as the enterprise would benefit his country. With an estimated cost of $3.3 billion, the TAP pipeline would transit 1,600 kilometers through Afghanistan (RFE, February 23).
The diplomatic activities gained momentum earlier this month when India gave the green light to the TAP project. New Delhi unconditionally dropped the demand for transit facilities for its goods and products “to Afghanistan and beyond through Pakistan as a pre-condition” (India News, February 23).
While the pipelines would benefit Pakistan and energy-hungry India tremendously, they would not be equally advantageous for Afghanistan and Iran. Both India and Pakistan are keen on having the agreements on the pipelines as soon as possible.
The Asian Development Bank, as part of its $800 million loan to Pakistan, will help establish a steering committee made up of representatives of the three countries to meet in Islamabad next month to discuss the technical feasibility of the TAP project. ADB also said that the study made by an independent international consultant has found the viability of the Daulatabad gas fields in Turkmenistan to be “positive” (Hindustan Times.com, February 23).
The countries involved have rival interests in the two projects. The TAP pipeline will not be of any economic use to Iran. The other pipeline, which would carry Iranian gas, will not benefit Afghanistan because it will go directly to Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.
Of the two pipeline routes, most predictions favor TAP for several reasons. First, the United States could play a significant role by favoring one or blocking the other. Although Washington wants trade to develop between India and Pakistan, it does not like any deal that would benefit the present regime in Tehran (Daily Times [Pakistan], February 23).
Second, India is very keen to help the new Afghan government win the deal, because New Delhi considers Kabul its strategic ally for reaching Central Asia.
Third, both the United States and the Central Asian states back Afghanistan as a future bridge between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
Fourth, Pakistan as an ally of the United States, would not try to antagonize Washington in order to deal with Iran on a major deal.
Finally, the pipeline from Iran to Pakistan would run through Baluchistan province, which in recent weeks has been the scene of violence among local tribes. Pakistan already faces security problems that affect the transport of Sui gas from Baluchistan to other parts of the country. The likelihood of another pipeline running through the same unstable region does not look bright at the moment.