WASHINGTON: The United States urged Pakistan on Thursday to reconsider its deal with Iran for building a multi-billion-dollar pipeline intended to bring the much-needed natural gas to the energy starved country.
“We do not think it is the right time for doing this kind of transaction with Iran,” US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake told a briefing in Washington.
Mr Blake, who looks after South and Central Asian affairs at the State Department, returned this week from a trip to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Belgium where he discussed the current situation in South Asia with his European colleagues as well. The US official told reporters at a briefing in Washington that the issue of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline was raised in his meetings in Pakistan, particularly in public discussions.
“We have advised Pakistan to seek other alternatives,” he added, explaining that because of Iran’s dispute with the international community over its nuclear programme, the US opposed large investments in any Iranian project.
Pakistan and Iran signed an operational agreement for the proposed pipeline on March 16, a month after the signing was delayed because Islamabad was unable to arrange funds for the project.
The pipeline was initially mooted to carry gas from Iran to Pakistan and on to India. India withdrew from negotiations last year after signing a nuclear deal with the United States, but has kept open the option of rejoining the project at a later stage.
On Thursday, Pakistan said it would provide India with security guarantees for the pipeline from the South Pars gas complex in Iran as an incentive to join the project.
Referring to these problems, Mr Blake said the project still faced “many challenges.”
When a reporter asked if the US would also advise India not to join the pipeline project, Mr Blake said: “This is a very sensitive time in relations with Iran and we prefer that all countries avoid such transactions with Iran.”
At the briefing, Pakistani journalists were particularly concerned about a potentially explosive dispute between India and Pakistan over water and they put several questions to the US official on this issue.
Mr Blake said the US would not get involved “in bilateral issues” between India and Pakistan. “We think the World Bank is the right place” for resolving such disputes.
The United States, however, will help both countries in developing their water resources.
On Thursday, an influential US newspaper — Wall Street Journal — reported that the water feud between India and Pakistan was threatening to derail peace talks between the two neighbours.
The countries have harmoniously shared the waters of the Indus River for decades. A 50-year-old treaty regulating access to water from the river and its tributaries has been viewed as a bright spot for India and Pakistan.
Now, Pakistan complains that India is hogging water upstream, which is hurting Pakistani farmers downstream. Pakistani officials say they will soon begin formal arbitration over a proposed Indian dam.
At a meeting that started on Sunday, Pakistan raised objections to new Indian dam projects on the Indus River and asked for satellite monitoring of river flows.
India denies it is violating the treaty. New Delhi blames Pakistan’s water shortage on changing weather patterns and the country’s poor water management.
The latest dispute revolves around India’s plans to build a 330-megawatt hydroelectric power project on the Kishenganga River, a tributary of the Indus. India says it is well within its rights to build the dam.
Pakistan says New Delhi’s plans to divert the course of the river will reduce its flow by a third in the winter. That would make it unfeasible for Pakistan to move ahead with its own plans for a hydroelectric dam downstream.
Pakistan wants to put the Kishenganga project before an arbitration panel—the first time that mechanism of the treaty will have been used.
Mr Blake also referred to this panel, set up under the Indus Water Treaty, and hoped that they would be able to resolve this dispute through arbitration as they did in the past.
He told the briefing that the water dispute came up at every meeting he had in Pakistan.
Mr Blake said that both India and Pakistan were facing acute water shortages because of their rapidly increasing populations and expanding economies.
“So the water issue is a real challenge for both.”
Pakistan, he said, needed to change it irrigation practices and offered US assistance to help overcome the problem.
Anti-India Militant Groups:
Mr Blake called on Pakistan to curb anti-India militants, praising Islamabad’s recent efforts against extremism but saying it could do more to improve ties with New Delhi, adds AFP
Blake hailed the “enormous” progress in Pakistan in fighting Muslim extremists, pointing to its offensives against Taliban in its restive northwest and recent arrests of militant leaders.
“I think one can argue there is a lot of important progress that has been made but we think there also needs to be progress against these Punjab-based groups,” Blake told reporters.
He was referring to groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Moham-med.
Blake said that Punjab-based militants “are targeting Pakistan as well,” pointing to attacks in Lahore including a deadly 2009 ambush on Sri Lanka’s visiting cricket team.
Blake said he also relayed to Pakistan the concerns of New Delhi that militants were infiltrating India to carry out attacks.
“I reminded them that from 2004 to 2007 both of those countries made quite important progress in their bilateral relations, and that progress was made possible in part by the significant efforts the government of Pakistan made at the time to stop cross-border infiltration,” he said.