India told of Pak. assurance on pipeline

NEW DELHI, JULY 20. Pakistan had given written assurances to protect the proposed overland natural gas pipeline from Iran to India, a senior Iranian official said here today.

Mr. Mohsen Aminzadeh, visiting Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, was hopeful about the prospects of a new energy corridor between the Persian Gulf and India cutting across Pakistani territory.

At a press conference after talks with the Government, Mr. Aminzadeh said he had discussed with Indian officials the written security guarantees Teheran had recently received from Islamabad.

Acknowledging India's deep concerns about the security of the pipeline passing through Pakistan, Mr. Aminzadeh hoped it would be possible to create an ``assured environment'' that will enable the three countries reap economic benefits from the proposed pipeline.

Iran wants to export its huge natural gas resources, and India is the biggest market around. Pakistan, which would make money by charging transit fees on the energy flows, has supported the project.

India has told Iran it will continue to examine the proposal, and Mr. Aminzadeh said New Delhi's attitude during the talks was a ``positive'' one.

Mr. Aminzadeh pointed to different ``multilateral and international guarantees'' that could be worked out to address India's concerns about the security of energy supplies coming through hostile territory. These guarantees could be in the form of an agreement among the three nations and legal commitments from Pakistan to the international consortia which would be investing in the project.

Over the last two days, Mr. Aminzadeh had intensive consultations with senior officials in the Foreign Office. He also called on the Foreign Secretary, Mr. Lalit Mansingh, and the External Affairs Minister, Mr. Jaswant Singh.

While sounding optimistic, the visiting Minister said much work remained to be done before the trans-regional pipeline project was realised. At this stage, Iran is engaged in bilateral discussions with both India and Pakistan. A trilateral agreement, involving all the three nations, would come into play only after New Delhi and Teheran agree on the terms of the project and India is fully satisfied about its security environment.

During Mr. Singh's visit to Iran in May, the two sides agreed to set up a Joint Working Group to assess the different ways of transporting natural gas from Iran to India. The JWG is scheduled to meet next month in Teheran, and will discuss what Mr. Singh had called a ``sustainable marriage between economics and security'' aspects of the pipeline proposals.

Various options, including underwater pipelines that would avoid Pakistani territory, would be considered by the JWG. But Teheran appears to favour the overland pipeline as the cheapest way of transporting natural gas to India.

Mr. Aminzadeh said an overland pipeline through Pakistan would also be less expensive than the present export of liquefied natural gas through ships from Iran to India.