For a regime that has made much of seeking long-term solutions to the country’s growing energy needs, the lack of urgency so patently on display on the Iran gas pipeline front is shocking. It has been three years now since the Union Cabinet authorised the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas to begin negotiations with Islamabad and Tehran for the construction of a 2,700 km pipeline running from Iran’s South Pars gas fields to India via Pakistan. In the intervening period, India’s negotiators have done an admirable job of sorting through the enormous technical, financial, and even political complexities the project will entail. What they have not been able to do is get the ghost of the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement off their backs. The Bush administration and many American legislators are strongly opposed to India entering into any long-term energy arrangements with Iran. On several occasions, attempts have been made to link the smooth passage of the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement with New Delhi accepting Washington’s line on the Islamic Republic — and invariably the United Progressive Alliance government has blinked. Despite this, major issues such as project structure and the gas pricing formula have more or less been settled, leaving only the question of transit fees for Pakistan to be negotiated. Initially, it was reported that Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Murli Deora would travel to Pakistan to resolve this question, following which the three countries would meet in Tehran in mid-February to finalise the overall project. Now, however, a decision has been taken at the highest levels to defer this trip till after the Pakistani general election.
On the face of it, the logic of the latest deferment is unexceptional; but when one considers the fact that India has stayed away from all trilateral meetings on the pipeline for nearly six months, it does seem that the Prime Minister’s faint-hearted advisors are once again nervous about incurring the Bush administration’s wrath. For those set against the pipeline, delaying the project is a better way of killing it than abruptly terminating the talks. The irony is that a country of India’s size and clout should have the diplomatic skill to open the door to nuclear cooperation with the world even as it develops deeper energy relations with Iran. Besides, every year of delay costs the nation’s economy dearly since oil prices are rising relentlessly. It is nothing short of akratic that the ‘strategic autonomy’ of external relations — a concept the Prime Minister has been speaking about — should be allowed to get eroded in this way at a time when the 123 agreement looks virtually dead. The Prime Minister needs to change course and authorise his negotiators swiftly to finalise all pending arrangements.