Can Zardari defy US pressure?
I am among millions of Pakistanis who still believe that completing Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project will not be an easy task, especially because of the pressure from the United States. Though, the date for ground breaking ceremony has been fixed for 11th March the question is getting louder, can Pakistan defy US pressure?

According to media reports after a wait of almost two decades, the groundbreaking of $7.5 billion Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline has been scheduled for 11th March on the Pak-Iran border by the presidents of the two countries. The ceremony will be held at Gabd zero point on the border from where the Pakistan section of the gas pipeline starts.

The pipeline issue is likely to bring Pakistan-US ties under renewed stress as Washington has been staunchly opposing the project.

“It’s in their best interests to avoid any sanctionable activity, and we think that we provide and are providing … a better way to meet their energy needs in some of the assistance we’re providing,” deputy US State Department Spokesman Patrick Ventrell said on Wednesday.

In Tehran, President Zardari, while rejecting the US pressure, said “We deeply believe in boosting bilateral ties. The international and regional players have tried in vain to prevent expansion of Iran-Pakistan ties but the people have learnt how to act against the enemies of Islam.”

Experts seem clearly divided in two groups, one that believes that project will be completed in time and the other that says a project that has been on cards will remain an unfulfilled dream as the US has already started playing its mantra. The US is now following carrot and stick policy, rather than of dire consequences.

This change in the US strategy may have appeared because of the demand that Pakistan must be treated at par with India. It is on record that United States has agreed to provide India nuclear technology for civilian use as a reward for deserting Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline but not ready to offer the same to Pakistan.

The pressure is also mounting on the incumbent government to pull Pakistan out of proxy US war being fought in Afghanistan. Though, troops pull out has begun, there is overwhelming perception in Pakistan that a large number of combat soldiers along with armaments and other equipment would remain there in post 2014.

A positive point is that religious parties are extending support to President Zardari. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Chief of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) said Pakistan should not come under US pressure for abandoning the Pak-Iran Gas Pipeline Project as it is a sovereign country and has a sovereign right to sign bilateral agreement with another country.

Despite pressure from the United States and contrary to general expectation President Zardari reached Iran on two-day visit, met Supreme Leader and President of Iran and the two sides reiterate commitment to support each other for the welfare of their people.

The commitments included: 1) to vigorously pursue the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project as well as other major projects between the two countries, 2) to take full advantage of each other`s resources and expertise and 3) to working hand in hand in overcoming the challenges resulting from the emerging situation in the region.

President Zardari proposed a free trade agreement between the two countries, easing of visa restrictions and revisiting the tariff and non-tariff trade barriers. In fact the two countries together with Turkey enjoy the potential to provide fresh impetus to the ECO that would strengthen bonds among the people and promote trade and socio-economic development in the region. Greater cooperation can help in overcoming border security.

Iranian Supreme Leader said US$7.5 billion Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project must go ahead despite US opposition. Accessing safe energy sources should be the first priority Pakistan as Iran is the only country that not only offers safe energy resources but also ready to help Pakistan in overcoming looming energy crisis. These include financial assistance for the construction of gas pipeline and an oil refinery at Gwadar.

While the global and regional players have been using all sorts of tactics to stop the two countries from this project, the people have learnt how to coupe up with the opponents. Iranian President Ahmadinejad said building the gas pipeline between Iran and Pakistan is a great and important event, and it serves the interest of both the nations.

Experts are of the consensus that external powers are trying their best to flare up animosity among Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan only to demolish Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline only to create justification for Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. Their best efforts are also to stop oil export from Iran to keep crude oil prices high in the global market.

While Pakistanis may appreciate the bold step of President Zadari, one of the opinions is that it is only an eye watch because the present assemblies will be dissolved shortly to ensure timely elections. Therefore, the fate of pipeline will depend on the next elected government. They ask, if the present government was serious, why it didn’t take such a step soon after coming into the power. They fear once the present government is gone the project will also go into the cold storage.