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The feel-good factor

As Pakistan welcomes the US-Iran nuclear deal, hopes are high for the completion of gas pipeline project

The feel-good factor
— AFP / Fabrice Coffrini

The landmark deal in Geneva over Iran’s nuclear programme with six world powers on November 24 was hailed all over the world as it reduced the risk of war and raised hopes for peacefully resolving an issue that had fuelled tension, particularly in our region, for the past decade.

The preliminary agreement would cover six months with Iran committing to limiting the enrichment of uranium to low levels and neutralising its existing stocks. In return, international sanctions against Iran would be relaxed and the relief afforded to it would be up to $7 billion.

Though the US and Iran, the two major parties to both the conflict and the deal, interpreted the issue of uranium enrichment in the Geneva agreement differently, there was no disagreement that it was going to be a temporary arrangement for six months and its fate would depend on all sides, particularly Iran, abiding by the agreed terms. There could be complications in future because Iran insisted that its right to uranium enrichment was accepted in the nuclear deal by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany while the US maintained that no such thing had been agreed upon.

The Pakistani authorities wanted to know if the deal would make it easier to expedite work on the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. Subsequently, reports emerged that Iran and Pakistan were planning fresh talks on the pipeline project.

Pakistan was quick to welcome the deal. A statement by its Foreign Office noted that being a brotherly neighbouring country of Iran, Pakistan had always underscored the importance of a peaceful solution of the issue. It reminded that Pakistan had been stressing the need for avoiding confrontation over Iran’s nuclear programme as it could destabilise the region.

The PML-N government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also sent Sartaj Aziz, his Adviser on Foreign Affairs and National Security to Iran to attend the 21st meeting of Council of Ministers of the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) in Tehran and also hear directly from the Iranians about the nuclear deal. The government was keen to understand the implications of the deal for Pakistan and also for regional issues such as Afghanistan and the Middle East.

The Pakistani authorities wanted to know if the deal would make it easier for Iran and Pakistan to expedite work on the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.  Subsequently, reports emerged that Iran and Pakistan were planning fresh talks on the pipeline project, thereby giving it an impetus that was lacking. Though the US insisted that most of its sanctions against Iran including those on oil, finance and banking would remain in place, there was this feel-good factor that some of these would eventually be relaxed.

Water and Power Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif had earlier told US officials that Pakistan was under contractual obligation with Iran to complete the gas pipeline project. He and Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources Shahid Khaqan Abbasi argued that improved relations between Iran and the US would hopefully ease Washington’s pressure on Pakistan on the issue.

However, the US wasn’t ready to buy the arguments made by the Pakistani ministers as its officials made it clear that the bulk of the sanctions against Iran would remain even after the deal. This was obviously a means of pressure on Tehran to abide by the terms of the agreement until it became abundantly clear that the Iranian nuclear programme was no longer capable of producing a bomb and that it didn’t pose any threat to the West and its allies in the Middle East, notably Israel and Saudi Arabia, both strong rivals of Iran. Israel had bitterly criticised the nuclear deal with Iran. Saudi Arabia was upset over the surprising deal between Iran and the so-called P5+1, or the six world powers including the US, France, UK, China and Russia plus Germany and its unease was evident as Saudis hinted at building ties with other powers after feeling letdown by the US.

iran-pakistan-pipeline

While acknowledging that the US pressure on Pakistan persisted even after the Iran nuclear deal, Petroleum Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi had rather ambitiously stated that the Pakistani side of the pipeline would be built within a year to link it up with the Iranian side that was almost complete. Members of the business community suffering from gas shortages for their industrial units were among the happiest people in Pakistan as they had attached great hopes with this natural gas pipeline.

The situation had dramatically changed as some weeks ago Finance Minister Ishaq Dar was saying that Iran rather than Pakistan was backing out of the project as its finance minister had told him that Tehran wasn’t in a position to provide the promised $500 million to Islamabad to build its side of the pipeline. Dar made it clear that Pakistan lacked the money to undertake this project on its own.

In Pakistan as well as in other countries, the nuclear deal was not only hailed as a triumph of diplomacy, but also a strong evidence of Iranian pragmatism. Diplomacy had earlier helped resolve the issue of the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syria and now a seemingly intractable matter involving Iran and the West had been settled to a large extent. In fact, this gave rise to hope that the Afghan conflict too could be brought to an end through diplomatic efforts.

As the nuclear deal was made at a time when Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and its ruling coalition partner, Jamaat-i-Islami, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had indefinitely blocked Nato supplies passing through the province to Afghanistan until the US stopped drone strikes in Pakistan, some Pakistani analysts rather hastily pronounced that the Americans would possibly be able now to use the Iranian route to supply their forces and also take out equipment from Afghanistan. They felt this would render Pakistan a marginal player in the region, more so in Afghanistan. They also foresaw greater cooperation between Tehran and Washington in Afghanistan as both had an interest in not letting the Taliban to return to power.

Examples of the earlier unannounced cooperation between the two sides at the time of the US invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in October 2001 were cited to augment this point. However, all these presumptions were premature as both Iran and the US aren’t prepared to rush into cooperating with each other on issues ranging from Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria to the Lebanon until the nuclear deal was tested and regularised.

There are still certain uncertainties with regard to the deal and it would be wrong to assume that the two countries had reached the stage where friendly ties and cooperation in strategic areas would become possible so soon after years of animosity.

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