Pipeline under fire

Published March 23, 2024

WHILE US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu’s recent testimony before a Congressional panel contained no bombshells about the cipher saga, the American diplomat’s replies to questions from lawmakers about the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline should certainly be cause for concern.

American reservations over the gas project clearly infringe on Pakistan’s sovereign right to take independent foreign policy decisions. Mr Lu told lawmakers that it was an American “goal” to ensure the pipeline is not completed. Using highly undiplomatic language, he observed that if “they [Pakistan] get in bed with Iran, it will be very serious for our relationship”.

The Foreign Office reaction to these comments was measured, as the spokesperson told the media that there was no room for discussion on a third-party [US] waiver, while the pipeline plays an important role in Pakistan’s energy security.

It is hoped that the state remains steadfast in upholding its commitments to the project, and rejects unwarranted foreign pressure. Until the caretaker government gave the go-ahead for revitalising the pipeline last month, the scheme had been in the doldrums for over a decade, mainly out of concern over attracting America’s wrath.

Pakistan should be the best judge of its energy requirements, and unsolicited advice such as that offered by Mr Lu should be rejected with thanks. The American official also questioned how Pakistan would procure the financing to complete the scheme. Again, that should be Pakistan’s headache, not anyone else’s.

The fact is that the Iran pipeline appears to be a viable energy project, as the other major regional scheme — the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline — is in deep freeze particularly after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Moreover, if Pakistan reneges on the deal with Iran, it risks entering a messy litigation process, and paying a hefty $18bn in penalty.

Mr Lu’s comments should also serve as a warning to our policymakers of the demands some of our friends may make of us in future as geopolitical turbulence increases. For instance, today, Washington has issues with CPEC and the Iran pipeline; tomorrow it could let its displeasure be known regarding our relations with Moscow or other American foes.

Pakistan should be ready to face such criticism, and take decisions that are in the national interest. Pakistan values its ties with the US and other Western states. But this does not mean relations with other states/ blocs should be held hostage to the whims of its Western partners.

However, it is also true that Pakistan can only take truly independent decisions when it does not have to depend on others to keep its economy afloat. India and China can ignore US strictures about not trading with Russia because of their economic heft. Pakistan must heal itself if it wants to achieve true sovereignty.

Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2024

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