Stay focussed on the Iran pipeline

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has scored an own goal in telling the Washington Post that the proposed gas pipeline from Iran was fraught with both risk and uncertainty: "I am realistic enough to realise that there are many risks, because considering all the uncertainties of the situation there in Iran, I don't know if any international consortium of bankers would probably underwrite this." Was this a case of vacillation under pressure or just speaking out of turn? Even if he was merely giving vent to his personal reservations as an economist, Dr. Singh seems to have damaged the financial viability of the ambitious energy link between Iran, Pakistan, and India even before it has had a chance of coming off the drawing board. In the process, he has laid himself open to the charge of changing his mind on the utility of the project in order to appease the Bush administration. Its hostility to the planned pipeline — and indeed all things Iranian — is well known. It is natural, therefore, to ask whether going back or slow on the gas project is a condition extracted from India in exchange for the "full nuclear cooperation" to which President George Bush has committed himself. The Left parties have declared that completing the pipeline will be an "acid test" of the United Progressive Alliance Government's commitment to an independent foreign policy. Their fears are not unfounded. The air has to be cleared, and quickly.

At stake is not just the independence of India's foreign policy but also its energy security and the prospect of improving relations with Pakistan by creating mutually beneficial economic linkages. The decision to explore the pipeline's prospects was taken by the Union Cabinet after due deliberation on all relevant aspects. Thanks to the outstanding statesmanship of Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, who has been quick to recognise the pipeline's positive externalities, discussions with Pakistan and Iran are proceeding well. The proposal to include China in an extended pipeline is also being explored by India and Iran. All told, the Iran-India linkage is vital for ensuring that the country has adequate supplies of low cost natural gas until the middle of this century. If the generating capacity of India's nuclear power industry grows by orders of magnitude as a result of last Monday's agreement, that will be excellent. But India will still need Iranian gas, not to speak of the hydrocarbons of the wider Caspian region that could be brought to South Asia via Iran. If there is an inclination to jettison the Iranian project because Washington is opposed to it, due consideration must be given to the following fact: America's nuclear cooperation could take a good deal of time to come off, and it also depends on several imponderables. The Prime Minister must immediately clarify that his Government has every intention of pursuing the Iranian pipeline — because it is an excellent project and because India makes its own sovereign decisions.

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