NATIONAL

Iran-India pipeline will benefit region: Khatami

ISLAMABAD Dec. 25. The Iranian President, Seyed Mohammad Khatami, has said that Iran considered the project for the transportation of natural gas to India through Pakistan as a symbol of Pak.-Iranian strategic economic ties.

Addressing businessmen from Iran and Pakistan at a luncheon hosted by the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) in Lahore, Dr. Khatami said: "This pipeline may be called the pipeline of peace and friendship in the region. The implementation of this project will certainly benefit all of the people of the region."

The Iranian President's observation assumes significance as the $4 billion project is pending for several years due to Indian reservations about the viability of the line through Pakistan, given the Indo-Pak. hostilities.

At a joint news conference with the Pakistan Prime Minister, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, here on Tuesday, Dr. Khatami had said that various security concerns of New Delhi were being addressed. "There is no problem between Iran and Pakistan to undertake the gas pipeline project but in this behalf there is a need to remove some of the security concerns of India.''

He said the pipeline was an economically-viable project that would benefit the three countries. "I have discussed this issue in detail with President Musharraf, and Prime Minister Jamali and I am happy to tell you that Pakistan and Iran are ready for this project.'' Dr. Khatami hoped that India too would be taken along to start the project as early as possible.

The Iranian President gave an impression that it was for Pakistan to remove the apprehensions on the feasibility the project.

Mr. Jamali said that Pakistan had already held out assurances for the security of the pipeline and maintained that his Government would continue extending cooperation to Iran over the issue.

Since the ouster of the then Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, in a military coup in October 1999 the Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf, has repeatedly sought to assure India about the safety of the pipeline but New Delhi does not appear convinced.

Pakistan sees enormous economic benefits from the pipeline in terms of annual royalty as well as cheaper gas.

In another development, Iran and Pakistan have decided to strengthen defence ties through exchange of high-level visits. Ali Shankali, Iranian Defence Minister, called on the Pakistan Defence Minister, Rao Sikandar Iqbal, and exchanged views on defence cooperation between the two sides.

An official statement said that delegations from both sides would visit each other's country to identify areas where they could benefit from each other's experience and expertise.