Pakistan tests US will with Iran pipeline
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
NEW YORK - Although the United Nations has never imposed sanctions on Iran's energy sector, the US government has opposed a decision by Pakistan to proceed with a much-delayed pipeline from Iran on the grounds that this would put Islamabad in "violation of United Nations sanctions over its nuclear program".  It seems the US has once again mistaken its own laws for that of the international community.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Zardari, on Monday inaugurated the construction
of the 781-kilometer Pakistani side of the 1,600-kilometer pipeline. Dubbed the "peace pipeline", the project was first mooted in 1994 as a tripartite Iran-Pakistan-India project. (In 2009, despite its pressing energy needs, India opted out of the deal under US pressure.)
As is to be expected, the mainstream Western media has taken a negative view of the Iran-Pakistan pipeline. It has referred to the project as a "pipe dream", citing the unlikelihood that Pakistan would be able to come up with the US$1.5 billion financing to complete a link that, once completed, would pump 750 million cubic feet of natural gas into the energy-starved Pakistani economy each day.
The skepticism is unwarranted. Plagued by power shortages and the rising energy demands of a growing economy, this pipeline is "in Pakistan's national interest", as Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani stated recently.
The two countries have also signed an accord for a 400,000 barrel capacity oil refinery in Gwadar, in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province. Foreign experts, such as Dan Millison of Asian Development Bank (ADB), concur. Millison has defended an ADB assessment of the "peace pipeline" based purely on economic grounds and the rising energy demands from the subcontinent.
The big question is: once the Iran-Pakistan pipeline is completed, will India be able to resist the temptation to renew its presently dormant quest to connect to it? In 2005, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated, "We are terribly short of energy supply, and we desperately need new sources of energy."
From the US's point of view, the significance of the Ahmadinejad-Zardari announcement at the Iran-Pakistan border is fourfold. Firstly, this deal represents the first major international defiance of unilateral US energy sanctions on Iran. Its significance extends beyond the bilateral relations of two neighbors in Asia and may well serve as an example to follow by other nations.
[State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said later: ''We have serious concerns, if this project actually goes forward, that the Iran Sanctions Act would be triggered,'' according to an Agence France-Presse report. ''We've been straight up with the Pakistanis about these concerns. We've heard this pipeline announced about 10 or 15 times before in the past. So we have to see what actually happens,'' the report cited her as saying.]
Secondly, the pipeline deal is a timely break for Tehran, which is reeling under Western economic pressures. It weakens the politics of leverage at nuclear negotiations with Iran which are currently at turning point.
The third reason why the pipeline news is bad news for the US is that it puts Washington on a confrontation course with Pakistan, its important partner in the "war on terror" who is destined to play a key role in Afghanistan in the aftermath of US's planned withdrawal in 2014. The US's dilemma is how to look for a greater stability role from a country that it is now threatening it with (collateral) sanctions under the US Sanctions Act?
Fourthly, the US is quietly concerned about a future turn-around by India that emulates Pakistan's defiance. A successful Pakistani bid to overcome US pressure could embolden New Delhi to renew its bid for gas pipeline from Iran.
If that happens, the US will have to bite the bullet to avoid major turmoil in its India policy, or face a major pile up of its foreign policy headaches worldwide. A litmus test of post-Cold War US hegemony, the success and or failure of US's sanctions policy on Iran covers the entire gamut of US's global policy and global leadership.
To prevent the issue spiraling, a more realistic US policy toward Iran is needed - one that recognizes the feasibility of a "suspension for suspension" agreement, whereby Iran would stop its 20% uranium enrichment in return for the lifting of major sanctions.
The pipeline agreement underlines that the US is isolating itself in the battle over Iran. US sanctions laws on Iran are simply rules without a game-plan, and the sooner the US lawmakers come to this realization, the better.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For further biographical details, click here. Afrasiabi is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).
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