The signing of a 25-year deal under which Iran aims to export some 150 million cubic meters of gas to Pakistan per day has resurrected a moribund pipeline project known as the "Pipeline of Peace."
Not much has been heard about the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline for some time, but that all changed on the sidelines of a regional summit that brought together Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in Tehran on May 24.
At a signing ceremony, the two leaders hailed the prospects of a pipeline that would start in the Iranian city of Asalouyeh, travel to Pakistan, and could eventually end in India.
But there are some major obstacles to overcome before any Iranian gas actually crosses the border into Pakistan -- and even more before that gas can be routed to India.
The first major question is where the money will come from.
The first leg of the plan is to build a 2,100-kilometer long pipeline from Iran's South Pars gas field into Pakistan -- at an estimated $7.5 billion. The next step would be to build a 600-kilometer extension that would go on to India.
But while a rival gas-pipeline project -- the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) -- is supported by the Asian Development Bank, the IPI does not have any backing from international financial institutions. Furthermore, TAPI is not as vulnerable to the financial or political opposition that IPI could experience due to the involvement of Iran, whose nuclear program has made it a pariah in the international community.
Complicating matters for both projects is that they are to be routed through Baluchistan. Considering that Baluch nationalists have already blown up domestic gas pipelines on the Pakistani side of the border in their fight for greater autonomy from Islamabad, their stance on a new pipeline from Iran (or Afghanistan) could be easily guessed.
As Ahmadinejad and Zardari watched representatives of their respective countries' gas companies ink the deal, the two presidents managed to avoid addressing such difficult questions. Ahmadinejad and Zardari hailed the plan to build a "pipeline of peace," with Zardari pointing to the significance of the signing of the agreement after some 10 years of talks.
Pakistani adviser on petroleum and natural resources Asim Hussain said Pakistan and Iran would sign a formal agreement on the pipeline project within 15 days in a third country. Hussain did not say which country, but given India's longtime interest in the project, it is assumed that it is the "third country."
That leads to more uncertainty, considering New Delhi's difficult relations with Islamabad. Pakistan, however, has made clear it would build the pipeline with Iran even if India opts out of the project. Iranian and Pakistani officials have said construction of the new pipeline could start within three to four years and be finished some five years later.