Khatami visit to push South Asia pipeline project
Iran, Pakistan say billion dollar project could aid peace
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has begun a visit to Pakistan looking to push forward plans for a massive gas pipeline project linking Iranian gas fields with Pakistan and India.
Khatami is the first head of state to visit Pakistan since the restoration of civilian government there after three years of military rule.
Aside from the proposed pipeline, also up for discussion during the three-day visit starting Monday will be a range of regional security issues including: the stabilization of Afghanistan; the potential of a U.S.-led war on Iraq; and the current state of relations between Pakistan and neighboring nuclear-rival India.
On the diplomatic side the visit is being seen as an opportunity to patch up ties between the two Muslim neighbors after relations were complicated by Islamabad's unreserved support for the U.S.-led war on terror.
U.S. President George W. Bush has labeled Iran -- alongside Iraq and North Korea -- part of a so-called "axis of evil," and accused Tehran of being a major "exporter" of terrorism.
Despite such concerns however, it is the $3.5-billion pipeline project that is being seen as the big-ticket draw for Khatami's visit to Pakistan.
Brink of war
Aside from the massive cost, the project carries with it several strategic difficulties, not least the often-tense relations between India and Pakistan.
Earlier this year, the two nuclear-armed foes stood on the brink of war over accusations from India that Pakistan was supporting militant attacks on its territory -- a charge firmly denied by Islamabad.
Since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three all-out wars, and both sides continue to be involved in almost daily skirmishes over the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir.
However, despite such difficulties Iran sees the pipeline project as a potentially massive income earner, tying its huge gas reserves -- the second largest in the world after Russia -- to the growing markets of India and Pakistan.
Some analysts in Iran and Pakistan have even said the project could act as a stabilizing force in the region, acting to tie the economies of three regional powers more closely together.
On top of that there are the environmental benefits of natural gas, which produces fewer harmful pollutants than oil.
India, however, has so far proved skeptical of the project with politicians wary of becoming reliant on a pipeline that runs first through Pakistan before reaching India.
At present the proposed pipeline is projected to run some 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from gas fields in southern Iran to the Pakistani coastal province of Sindh, before traveling another 1,000 kilometers to India.
Pakistan has said it is willing to offer security guarantees to allay Indian fears, but so far the project has not gotten beyond the feasibility study stage.
In an interview with the official Iranian national news agency IRNA last week, Pakistani President, General Pervez Musharraf said he believed the project was "a win-win situation for all three countries."
In fact, he said, India had the most to gain from the project because "it is pushing for industrialization on a larger scale and presently is importing liquefied natural gas."
Musharraf said Pakistan considered the project to have huge economic benefits and was willing to attend a tri-partite meeting on the project anywhere and at anytime.
"There is no different of opinion between India and Pakistan," IRNA quoted the Pakistani leader as saying. "The problem lies with India being the stumbling block."
He added that it would be up to Iran to convince the Indian leadership of the benefits of the project.
Musharaff also told the news agency he believed Iran was in a good position to play a role in bringing India and Pakistan together for talks on the lingering Kashmir issue.
Following his visit to Pakistan, Khatami is expected to visit India in late January with the pipeline project once again topping the agenda for talks.