Islamabad, Jul 23: A landmark deal on Iran's nuclear programme has breathed new life into plans for a gas pipeline through Pakistan -- and sparked a geopolitical tussle, with Russia looking to expand its influence, observers say.
With sanctions on Iran likely to ease and peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government getting under way, wrangling is intensifying over the proposed pipelines, which would link Central Asia to the Middle East. Islamabad last week hailed the nuclear deal, struck after long negotiations in Vienna, as reviving a stalled project to pipe gas from Iran's southern fields to energy-starved Pakistan.
The South Asian state is desperate for solutions to a long-running power crisis that has sapped economic growth and left its 200 million inhabitants fuming over incessant electricity cuts. The USD 7.5-billion Iran-Pakistan (IP) pipeline was inaugurated with great fanfare in March 2013 -- but the project immediately hit quicksand in the form of international sanctions on Tehran, which meant cash-strapped Pakistan struggled to raise the money to build its side.
Tehran has already built its part of the 1,800-kilometre (1,100-mile) pipeline which should eventually link its South Pars gasfields to the Pakistani city of Nawabshah, close to the economic capital Karachi. As part of an ambitious USD 46 billion economic corridor linking western China to the Middle East through Pakistan, Beijing recently started work on the section of the pipeline between Nawabshah and the port of Gwadar, close to the Iranian border.
Russia is interested in supporting the IP pipeline through energy giant Gazprom, according to the Russian embassy in Islamabad. Moscow has historically had closer relations with India, Pakistan's neighbour and great rival, but is pivoting more to Islamabad as New Delhi and Washington become closer allies.
Yury Barmin, an analyst specialising in Russia's Middle East policy, said that by using the IP pipeline to get closer to Pakistan, Moscow wanted to show India it had other options in the region.
"At the same time Russia really wants to explore commercial opportunities for its defence industry in the wider MENA (Middle East) region, and Pakistan is probably the only remaining untapped market for Moscow in that sense," Barmin told AFP. Islamabad and Moscow signed a defence cooperation agreement in November last year.
The two countries are also close to finalising an agreement to build a gas pipeline linking Karachi, which has an LNG terminal, to the eastern city of Lahore, said Mobin Saulat, the CEO of Inter State Gas Systems, the publicly-owned company in charge of gas pipelines in Pakistan. Saulat told AFP these moves meant that the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI), an even more ambitious project, would likely take a back seat for now.