Rethinking U.S. opposition to Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline

October 3, 2008

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad meets Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Delhi in April/B MathurAmong the more daring recommendations in a new report by the Pakistan Policy Working Group, a bipartisan group of American experts on U.S.-Pakistan relations, is that the United States should eventually reconsider its opposition to a proposed Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project.

The suggestion, aimed at building peace between India and Pakistan, is well hedged. The report says it does not expect the long-delayed project to happen any time soon because of instability in Pakistan and U.S. sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme. But it is one that could ultimately be very significant not just for Pakistan, but also for Iran and India. As this Reuters story says, Iran sees energy-hungry India as one of the most promising markets for its huge natural gas reserves.

The report argues that U.S. pressure on Pakistan to end support for the Taliban in Afghanistan must be combined with diplomatic efforts to build peace and economic ties across the region so that Pakistan stops feeling its security is threatened. The long-term aim, it says, would be to ensure that Pakistan no longer sees a need to use Islamist militants as proxies against its much bigger neighbour, India.

India has long accused Pakistan of sponsoring militants fighting in Kashmir and of backing the Taliban to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan. Although Pakistan denies this, the view is gaining currency in the United States, but with the caveat that only by reducing tensions between Pakistan and India can Pakistan be persuaded to drop its dependence on militants. ”The U.S. should seek to adjust Pakistan’s cost-benefit calculus of using militants in its foreign policy,” the report says.

File photo of facilities at Iran’s South Pars gas field“To encourage better ties and more robust economic linkages between India and Pakistan, the U.S. should eventually reconsider its opposition to the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline project,” it says. ”Assuming that the situation in Pakistan stabilises, and the U.S. determines that the IPI would not undermine international efforts to dissuade Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons programme, the pipeline could help to stabilise the region over the longer term by providing Pakistan and India with a mutual economic interest.”

Do read the whole report (The Council on Foreign Relations provides a link to the PDF document here). It is remarkable for its candour about Pakistan’s complex relationship with Islamist militants. But it is also impressive in its reach in the way it ties Pakistan’s fate to the policies of other players in the region — for example it calls for a National Intelligence Estimate on Pakistani support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and an “in-depth assessment of the activities of other regional actors in Afghanistan such as Russia, Iran and India”.

Is this a sign of things to come, heralding a much more sophisticated approach to U.S. foreign policy? And after years of oil and gas being seen as a cause for war, can they also become a reason for peace?

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