WASHINGTON, March 7: The United States still opposes a proposed gas pipeline linking Iran, Pakistan and India because of the ongoing concerns about Tehran’s nuclear programme and support for terrorism, the White House said on Tuesday.

President Bush had appeared to soften US opposition to the pipeline last week in Pakistan when he said the main US concern was over Iran’s nuclear programme.

“Our beef with Iran is not the pipeline, our beef with Iran is the fact that they want to develop a nuclear weapon,” Mr Bush told a news briefing in Islamabad before returning home on Saturday.

But White House National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones said it was wrong to infer from this statement that the US had softened its opposition to the proposed pipeline. “As we stated before, the US government does not support the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline,” he said.

Mr Jones said while the United States recognizes the growing energy needs of India and Pakistan, “we have repeatedly expressed concerns about international participation in energy projects with Iran.”

This concern is over “Iran’s nuclear activities, support for terrorists, and (its) atrocious human rights record”, Mr Jones said.

India and Iran have been discussing a $7 billion natural gas pipeline that would run through Pakistan since long before it signed a nuclear deal with the US last week.

Iran has the second-largest natural gas reserves in the world behind Russia — about 940 trillion cubic feet. Growing Asian economies, including India and Pakistan, are scrambling to find energy sources to feed industrial expansion.

Throughout the negotiations, India has to tread a tightrope in pipeline talks, trying to satisfy its appetite for hydrocarbons while not upsetting Washington. It faces a natural gas deficit of 200 million cubic meters a day in 20 years.

Despite its close relations with Iran, India has twice voted against Tehran at the IAEA and also has supported the US move to report Iran to the UN Security Council for punitive action.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, however, said on Tuesday that his country would proceed with the pipeline project regardless of India’s participation.

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