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January 31, 2013 5:22 pm
Pakistan has decided to go ahead with a controversial $1.5bn pipeline to import Iranian gas, a senior government official has said, in a move that risks alienating the US.
“A decision has been made that we can’t delay this project for any longer. This is Pakistan’s essential lifeline. We are going ahead with this project,” the official told the Financial Times on Thursday.
Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s president, unexpectedly cancelled a trip to Iran at the last minute in December, amid concerns in Islamabad over stiff US opposition to a project considered essential for tackling mounting energy shortages. Some Pakistani officials had expected Mr Zardari to consent to the project during the trip.
The plan would see Pakistan build a pipeline connecting its national gas supply grid in the southern Sindh province to the Iranian border in southwest Baluchistan. Iranian officials say they have already built the pipeline on their side of the border to within 100km of Pakistan.
The US has opposed the pipeline on the grounds it would inject foreign exchange into the Iranian economy at a time when western countries have imposed a number of ever tighter sanctions in an effort to prevent Tehran from advancing its nuclear weapons programme.
Independent economists said it was too early to predict whether the project would go ahead. “The companies involved from Pakistan may face the danger of being exposed to US-led western sanctions,” warned Sakib Sherani, an economist. “There are also technical issues in undertaking such a large project.”
However, Islamabad has become all too aware of the political and economic risks posed by chronic electricity shortages after people took to the streets in cities across the country last summer in protest at power cuts up to 20 hours long.
Pakistan appeared confident the US would not hit it with tough sanctions, according to a senior western diplomat in Islamabad. “In their [Pakistan’s] calculus, they believe that the US needs Pakistan to ensure a successful drawdown from Afghanistan by December next year,” the diplomat said.
“The Pakistanis probably believe there will be a lot of huff and puff but no painful sanctions. In all honesty, Pakistan has a terrible situation on energy and these [energy] shortages can undermine the country’s stability.”
Iran has offered its neighbour at least $500m to help finance the project. The money was “just the beginning”, the Pakistani official said. “The Iranians have said they will provide more funding for this project if there is a need.”
The Iranian pipeline offers Pakistan the shortest supply route from any gas surplus country, officials say. Asim Hussain, chief adviser on oil and natural resources to the government, told the FT last December: “It’s a feasible project for Pakistan. It’s the quickest route, the cheapest route where we can fulfil our energy needs.”
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