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Gas pipeline: Iran may help overcome Pak. concerns

By C. Raja Mohan

NEW DELHI, JUNE 13. India and Iran are all set to take a crucial step towards building a pipeline that will bring natural gas from the Persian Gulf to the Indian market through Pakistani territory.

Until now, Pakistan has been a physical and political barrier between India and the oil-rich Persian Gulf; an overland gas pipeline could transform it into a thriving and convenient commercial bridge between the India and West Asia.

Indian and Iranian technical experts are slated to meet in Teheran early next month to finalise the parameters of an overland pipeline, which looked like a ``pipe dream'' until recently. The two sides will also choose an international company to study the techno-economic, legal and security aspects of the mega energy project, according to a senior Iranian official.

Speaking to mediapersons here at the end of the latest round of bilateral consultations on energy cooperation, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Syed Mohammad Hossein Adeli, credited the political leadership of the two countries for the ``rapid progress'' in the talks.

Barely a year after they began considering long-term energy cooperation, India and Iran have come up with ``an agreed conceptual framework that will ensure safe and reliable supply of natural gas''. ``Bilateralism'', according to Mr. Adeli, was at the heart of this understanding after four rounds of talks on natural gas transportation.

The ``core contractual relationship'', according to him, would be between ``Iran as the supplier of natural gas and India as the consumer''. All contentious issues relating to the security of the pipeline would be sorted out by Iran and Pakistan separately.

By emphasising bilateralism instead of multilateralism, New Delhi and Teheran have found a way to short- circuit the near certain Indo-Pak acrimony over defining the terms of a secure pipeline. Teheran and its international business partners now take the responsibility of getting Islamabad to fulfil the Indian requirements, which in the words of a spokeswoman of the Foreign Office, call for establishing a ``long-term, cost-effective and secure means'' of transporting Iranian gas to India.

While he did not go into the details, Mr. Adeli said there was considerable interest from multinationals in supporting the overland pipeline that would bind India, Iran and Pakistan into a long-term energy relationship.

Large Indian petrochemical companies such as Reliance could join the international consortium that will be set up by Iranian authorities to construct and perhaps operate the pipeline. Reliance is already part of an international consortium led by British Petroleum that is consolidating Indo-Iranian cooperation on shipping liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the Gulf to India.

The Australian company, Broken Hill Property, which has done a pre-feasibility study on the overland route through Pakistan, is believed to be the front-runner for the joint Indo- Iranian contract. The decision will have to await completion of the proposed feasibility study as well as the recently- commissioned report studying the option of an underwater pipeline.

Once the studies are in after a year, the Government will have a theoretical choice between on-shore and off-shore pipelines. But it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that if India is satisfied by the arrangements for security and reliability of the pipeline through Pakistan, it would plump for the overland route that could transform the geopolitics of the region.

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