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What lies beneath

It’s doubtful if India can capitalise on Iran’s gas reserves. But it must make use of Afghanistan’s newfound mineral wealth. For that, it’s essential to improve bilateral ties with Pakistan. RK Pachauri writes.

india Updated: Jun 26, 2010 18:54 IST
R.K. Pachauri

It was in 1989 that Ali Shams Ardekani, former deputy foreign minister of Iran, and I came up with the concept of the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline. In 1990, I invited Ardekani to present this project at an international conference organised by us at New Delhi, and it received considerable interest, resulting in the Government of India pursuing it seriously in the ensuing period. There were obvious concerns from the Indian side, on the risk of a critical part of the pipeline that will pass through Pakistan, particularly the Balochistan region.

To create some level of assurance, we managed to get the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to support a project involving energy cooperation between India, Pakistan and Nepal. The focus of this project was to develop an ironclad agreement for the IPI pipeline. We were able to get the involvement of two politicians from each country to ensure that the exercise was not merely a pipedream put forward by academics and researchers but something that politicians, in at least India and Pakistan, found acceptable. The two Indian politicians who participated in the exercise were Jaswant Singh of the BJP and Mani Shankar Aiyar of the Congress. Of the two Pakistani politicians who took part in the project, one was Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the current foreign minister of Pakistan.

Back then, Iran was eager and almost desperate to sell gas to India and Pakistan at very low and stable prices, a situation which has drastically changed today. Today, the IPI pipeline, as far as India is concerned, won’t only be a difficult political proposition. With the pricing arrangements being offered by Iran, its economic viability has become questionable. Meanwhile, Pakistan reportedly signed an agreement recently for a pipeline to get gas from Iran with a total investment reported to be in the range of $7 billion. India is not part of this project, even though it was originally conceptualised and developed by an Iranian and an Indian.

Today, Iran is being subjected to escalating UN sanctions to which even China is a party, much to the disappointment of Iran. Fifteen years ago, however, the situation was different because Iran was not known to have started work on nuclear technology, and the rest of the world, except the US, did not have serious political or diplomatic problems with it. At that stage, I recall a conversation I had with the then Under Secretary of State to whom I pleaded that the US should initiate a dialogue with Iran, which will strengthen the moderates’ position in that country. Perhaps India could have played the role of an honest broker in bringing about a thaw in US-Iran relations.

Whether India will ever be able to take advantage of Iran’s abundant reserves of natural gas is questionable. But it should focus on the bigger issue of its relations with fractured societies. Clearly, the lesson from Iran will have important implications on our dealings with Pakistan. Pakistan is not a monolithic society. A growing number of Pakistani moderates want both peace with India and an elimination of terrorism — which was earlier aimed largely at India but now poses a threat to peace and stability in Pakistan itself. The prime minister’s efforts in this regard show his wisdom, sagacity and vision, the exercise of which will benefit both nations.

A new complication, which makes the need for peace with Pakistan more urgent, is the discovery of precious minerals in Afghanistan by the US Geological Survey. Of critical importance are the reserves of lithium, a metal that’s essential for the production of efficient batteries. If India were to move towards electric vehicles — which it cannot avoid for long — easy access to large reserves of lithium, like the ones discovered in Afghanistan, will be hugely beneficial.

But, clearly, access to Afghanistan’s mineral resources will be out of question if our relations with Pakistan remain strained. In fact, it is not inconceivable that, like with an oil-rich Iraq, the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, and their dominance in the area, could become a permanent feature. An understanding with Pakistan could perhaps ensure earlier withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and its peaceful development.

The central theme of the last South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) meeting, held in Bhutan in April this year, was climate change. It is a challenge that afflicts all countries in South Asia. To overcome water scarcity through cooperation and collaboration or use solar energy on a large scale in the Thar Desert and other regions, peace between India and Pakistan is a prerequisite.

Now that serious attempts are being made to resume the composite dialogue between the two countries, people in India must support the effort. The strategic implications of Afghanistan’s newfound mineral wealth need to be viewed in a strategic context. We cannot change our neighbours and, today, we cannot ignore the fact that our neighbour’s neighbour has become mineral-rich overnight.

(R.K. Pachauri is Chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Director-General, The Energy & Resources Institute (Teri) The views expressed by the author are personal.)