India can afford to watch and wait as the Iran-Pakistan natural gas pipeline is revived for the umpteenth time. This has been a pipedream since 1994 and is no closer to completion now than it was then.
Which is why the ground-breaking ceremony for the pipeline, with the
presidents of Pakistan and Iran in attendance, has been met with scepticism.
The barriers to completing this $7.5-billion pipeline are formidable and the record of accomplishment in energy infrastructure for both countries uninspiring. These obstacles go well beyond the threat of US sanctions.
Iran is in economic crisis thanks to falling oil sales. So is Pakistan, thanks to failing governance. Iran has $110 billion in foreign exchange but may be reluctant to dip into it when it is struggling to import medicines.
Who will serve as financial intermediary is even less clear: banks are running away from the project for fear of Western sanctions.
Pakistan is in no shape to resist even a hint of sanctions. Then there is the security concern. Much of the pipeline runs through insurgency-wracked Balochistan.
One reason Islamabad is so desperate for the pipeline is that insurgents have crippled its indigenous gas sector. Building a 1,000-km structure across this unruly area seems more gamble than planning.
India ceased to be the third leg of this pipeline about a decade ago. The uncertainties surrounding this pipeline have been increasing steadily, of which US sanctions is only one of many.
The biggest obstacle for India remains the fact it would have to pay tens of millions of dollars to Pakistani security forces to protect the pipeline. Given the volatile nature of the bilateral relationship, this is a payment that would unnerve any New Delhi government.
Could India make payments in the aftermath of a 26/11 attack or the beheading of a soldier on the border?
Let Iran and Pakistan put their money and hydrocarbons where their mouths are and build the pipeline. India can join when the pipeline is laid and when the geopolitical stars are suitably aligned. Islamabad has claimed it would block Indian participation in the future if New Delhi stays out of the original consortium.
If Pakistan cannot separate commercial calculations from emotional enmity then it makes even less sense for India to make its economy dependent on Islamabad's goodwill.
The fact remains a ground-breaking ceremony does not make a multi-billion dollar infrastructure project. Indian politicians are experts at setting up marker stones and leaving them surrounded by desolation.
The presidents of Pakistan and Iran, Asif Ali Zardari and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are in the midst of major political struggles domestically. It remains to be seen whether their ceremony was about domestic political posturing or the beginning of a well thought-out and planned vision.