Despite the Foreign Office emphasising that India was looking for an undersea route to source gas from Iran, bypassing Pakistan in the process, reliable sources here maintained that the India-Pakistan-Iran (IPI) “Peace Pipeline” still remained on the drawing board and was the most viable option.
Following talks between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid last week, official sources suggested that one important subject, which was also discussed with the Oman Foreign Minister the same day, was the revival of an undersea pipeline project.
Official sources suggested that this pipeline, which would bypass Pakistan, was now technically feasible after the success of the North Sea undersea pipeline.
If Iran was looking at the cheapest way to get gas to customers, it would prefer European customers. But what Iran had in mind was providing spillover benefits of the surface pipeline to the region it passes through, especially the Makran Plateau common to both Pakistan and Iran.
And, the sources suggested that the future of the IPI pipeline was entwined with the Chahbahar port as Iran was keen to ensure that this town and the surrounding region of Sistan-Baluchistan Province also gained from the availability of gas. The benefits will cross the border as development of industry due to availability of energy would give more employment opportunities to Pakistani youth.
Interestingly, this is India’s approach too. Its officials began two days of talks with their Pakistani counterparts here on Wednesday on exporting electricity.
Just 72 km from the Pakistani port of Gwadar being built with Chinese help, the first phase of developing the Chahbahar port is nearly over. The Union Cabinet has already earmarked $100 million for the development of the port in anticipation of Iran agreeing to involve India in developing the port as well as utilising a north-bound route that enters into Afghanistan and Central Asia.
India and Iran have held several rounds of talks on sharing operations and developing the port. After the latest conversation between the Iranian and Indian Foreign Ministers, official sources said Tehran will get back before Noruz holidays (Iranian New Year) with answers to queries raised. But the next government will have to work on several other fronts before Iran agrees to give India access to a port that faces the open sea unlike the bigger Iranian port of Bandar Abbas which is in the Persian Gulf.
Iranian Foreign Minister as well as other interlocutors have indicated that Iran is in no hurry to get the money back, held up due to sanctions by the US and the European Union. It would want this money, even if it accumulates further, to be utilised as export credit for some big ticket joint venture projects, possibly even a refinery at Chahbahar which is just 900 km away from Gujrat's Mundhra Port.
The biggest problem is despite deep energy and civilisational links, India and Iran are unfamiliar with each other’s processes and systems of doing business in other areas. “India does business with the West and so does Iran. But they are unfamiliar with the business situation in the other country. They don’t know how to work together,” acknowledged an official.