Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in jovial mood when he met the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, and a 300-strong delegation at the Iranian border town of Chabahar last month.
The two men were attending a ceremony to launch construction, on the Pakistani side, of a new pipeline that will funnel natural gas from Iran’s South Pars field in the Gulf to energy-starved Pakistani businesses, car drivers and consumers from the end of 2014.
For the smiling Ahmadinejad, the £5bn pipeline serves several key purposes. It will produce hard currency for Iran’s hard-pressed economy. It goes some way to mitigating historical suspicions that have separated Shia Iran and predominantly Sunni Muslim Pakistan.
It boosts Tehran’s regional influence. But more than that, the pipeline will help break the sanctions stranglehold on Iran’s energy sector imposed by the US and western allies concerned about Tehran’s nuclear-related activities.
The revival of the much-delayed project, and the timing of the high-profile joint ceremony attended by diplomats from Arab States, appears, in part at least, to be the product of canny calculations by Zardari ahead of Pakistan’s national elections on May 11.
The Pakistani president, whose own five-year term ends in September, wants to be seen to be doing something about chronic energy shortages that bring daily power cuts and caused a nationwide blackout last month.
But by courting Ahmadinejad, Zardari was also sending a signal to the US government. Pakistan’s long-running, ambivalent relationship with its principal financial backer and strategic ally has been more hate than love in recent times.
Senior Pakistani officials point to a string of decisions by Zardari designed not only to loosen Washington’s suffocating embrace but also keep India, Pakistan’s major regional rival and sometime foe, at bay.
These include his collaboration with David Cameron and Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, in a trilateral process on Afghanistan’s future that has excluded Delhi.
Ignoring US and Indian concerns, Zardari has also held out his hand to China, recently transferring management of the highly strategic port of Gwadar from a Singapore company to a Chinese one.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, looks on balefully, struggling unsuccessfully to conceal its displeasure and resist the temptation to hit back with sanctions.
The US is urging alternative energy solutions on Islamabad, including a notional and, given the security issues involved, rather fanciful plan for a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Washington has also offered help with new hydroelectric dams and other projects. The state department’s Patrick Ventrell said: “We really think there are other long-term solutions . It’s in their best interest to avoid any sanctionable activity.”
But a senior Pakistani official dismissed such talk as so much hot air. “Hillary Clinton came and offered to help us. But they haven’t done anything.” The Guardian