Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Iran has produced positive results for both the countries during the disturbing regional situation. The visit not only proved beneficial for regional security but also for the improvement of country’s worsening economy.
One of Nawaz Sharif’s main achievements was to convince the Iranian government to waive a condition in the Pakistan-Iran Gas Pipeline agreement that binds Islamabad to pay a $200 million per month penalty in case of delaying the gas pipeline construction before the deadline of Dec. 31, 2014.
According to reports, Tehran has agreed on not imposing penalties on Islamabad for not meeting the deadline, but linked it with the earnestness shown by Pakistan towards completing the project which requires laying 781 kilometers in pipelines and infrastructure from Iranian border to Nawabshah, a city in the southern province of Sindh. Iran has already completed the laying down of 900 kilometers of pipelines of the IP Gas project but Pakistan has not initiated any work due to some international pressure.
Change the deadline
Tehran has also agreed to change the deadline of the project to help Islamabad. Iran asked Pakistan to start constructing the infrastructure for laying the pipeline so that Tehran could judge the earnestness on its part. According to reports, Tehran has also offered to bail out Islamabad in the shape of providing funds for the laying of the pipeline.
Pakistan and Iran have always been friends. Iran stood by Pakistan in the wars of 1965 and 1971 against India. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto once said Iranian aid to Pakistan was more than that provided by all the Gulf countries combined. Similarly, Pakistan helped out Iran during its war against Iraq.
But the bilateral friendship suffered following the dethroning of Reza Pahlavi Pahlavi and in the post-Iranian revolution era. Though the bilateral friendship remained, it lost its warmth due to some misunderstandings developed during the last two decades.
The misunderstandings reached to the extent in the last few months that Iran accused Pakistan of abducting its border guards and threatened to take direct action inside Pakistani territories. However, Islamabad kept its cool and avoided a tit-for-tat reply to keep the temperature from rising further. The issue was resolved after Iranian border guards were recovered from Iranian territories.
During his meeting with Nawaz Sharif, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei mentioned that border unrest between the two countries was an “enemy conspiracy” aimed at further damaging the bilateral friendship. Khamenei told Nawaz Sharif that certain countries, including the U.S., were conspiring against the Pakistan-Iran friendship and bilateral relations, and urged that both the countries should remain on guard against those conspiracies.
The most prominent of the outcomes of the visit was that during the discussion between Nawaz Sharif and Iranian leadership, both sides pledged to work jointly for regional peace and security, besides the bilateral harmony with a new impetus. Both the countries also signed eight agreements and MoUs aimed at promoting bilateral trade, extradition of criminals and establishing of joint border commission. The joint border commission is aimed at thwarting the enemy conspiracies in the garb of petty criminal activities on the borders.
Expanding bilateral trade
Both the countries also agreed upon expanding bilateral trade to mark of $5 billion, which is a good sign for both the economies. It is ironic that Pakistani textile and agricultural products reach Iran via other countries. If Islamabad could be able to export those directly to Tehran it would earn more profits for local traders and producers.
At present, the promotion of bilateral ties, trade and commerce, and the implementation of bilateral agreements and MoUs depend chiefly upon the completion and commissioning of the Iran-Pakistan Gas pipeline project. Besides, both countries are concerned for the imminent insecurity in the region attached with the proposed withdrawal of U.S. and NATO invading armies from Afghanistan following a twelve-year war that brought devastation to the entire South Asian region.
Concerned with its depleting natural gas resources, Pakistan urged the oil and gas rich Iran to provide her with natural gas from its gas reserves in Bunder Abbas, after a MoU was signed in mid-1990s. Later, India also joined in the gas pipeline project, making it an Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project. But under western pressure, India withdrew from the project after sometime on the pretext of security concerns. Delhi insisted that she would continue with the agreement if the gas pipeline was routed through sea instead of land.
While the project was lingering, Washington made direct interventions to prevent Pakistan from continuing with the gas purchase agreement with Iran, pushing the project into further delay. However, energy starved Pakistan shrugged off U.S. opposition and signed the much-delayed agreement last year when the then president Asif Zardari visited Iran to sign the treaty during his last weeks in office.
Apart from the political controversies between rival PPP and PML-N surrounding the hasty signing of IP gas pipeline agreement by Zardari, the PML-N government of Nawaz Sharif could not attend to the construction of the pipeline infrastructure during the initial months after coming to power. Sensing a possible dragging the feet off the project by Islamabad, Tehran also withdrew the proposed financial aid to the infrastructure inside Pakistan, citing the economic hardships back home.
When the imposition of penalties looking imminent on Pakistan with the fast approaching deadline, Nawaz Sharif visited Iran to win over the lost support from Tehran and also bailed out Islamabad from the heavy penalties of violating the construction deadline.
It is a good sign that Islamabad realized it could not afford to lose Iranian friendship in view of arch-enemy India and a new Kabul administration that is opposed to Islamabad’s policies in the region.
Mansoor Jafar is Editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based in Islamabad. He can be reached via Twitter: @mansoorjafar