Iran-Pakistan Pipeline Moves Forward Despite U.S. Opposition

February 5, 2013

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi shakes hands with Pakistan's Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh after signing paperwork in Islamabad September 8, 2011 (Reuters)

Iran on Saturday pledged to forge ahead on a new gas pipeline project with Pakistan despite U.S. urgings to Pakistan to quash the deal. The U.S. has strongly opposed the pipeline out of fears that it would provide fresh infusions of foreign exchange into Iran’s economy at a time when the U.S. and western allies have imposed a strict sanctions regime on Tehran as part of efforts to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The deal is noteworthy because it involves an Iranian company closely linked to Iran’s Supreme Leader and could potentially put Pakistan on the wrong side of the sanctions regime against Iran.

On January 30, Pakistan’s cabinet ratified a $1.5 billion agreement with Iran for the laying of nearly 500 miles of pipeline in Pakistan that would connect the country’s gas infrastructure to Iran’s massive South Pars natural gas fields. The pipeline would potentially add over 750 million cubic feet of gas per day to Pakistan’s grid at a time when the country faces crippling energy shortages with some cities suffering frequent protests against 20 hour-long power outages.

Iran offered cash-strapped Pakistan over $500 million in financing to lay the Pakistani section of the pipeline after several private and sovereign foreign entities backed out of the plan over fears of incurring U.S. ire for participating in the project (and when Pakistan refused to award contracts to some without bidding). The Iranians have offered even more funding if the Pakistanis demonstrate seriousness in going ahead with and completing the project. Pakistan, in return, has offered the contract for the construction of the Pakistani segment of the pipeline to an Iranian company called Tadbir Energy (Iran has already largely completed its section).

Tadbir Energy is an Iranian firm that “isn’t sanctioned by any foreign government,” and in July 2012, it made a bid to take over the failing Petit-Couronne refinery in France. The Iranian firm, however, is a subsidiary of the Headquarters for Implementing the Imam’s Directive (HIID), also known as the Imam Khomeini Foundation, an investment firm linked to Iran’s Office of the Supreme Leader. The European Union sanctioned the president of HIID, Mohammad Mokhber, in 2010 for his involvement in Iranian “nuclear or ballistic missiles activities.” Mokhber is also a member of the Sina Bank board of directors, sanctioned by the European Union for its close ties to the Office of the Supreme Leader.

It will be important to watch whether the conclusion of the pipeline agreement leads to further cracks in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, especially at a time when the U.S. appears to be looking to Pakistan to help facilitate reconciliation in Afghanistan as the U.S. continues to draw down troops from the country. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned in March 2012 that “beginning the construction of [the] pipeline, either as an Iranian project or as a joint project, would violate [U.S.] Iran sanctions law.” For a time, it appeared as if Pakistan was sensitive to U.S. concerns over Iran and gave some indications that it may scrap or indefinitely delay the pipeline project due to U.S. objections. Pakistan appears now to have calculated that its short-term energy needs are too great, and the threat of U.S. sanctions not strong enough, for it to forgo the deal.

It will also be important to monitor whether Pakistan’s decision to cut a deal with the Iranians has a significant impact on loosening western sanctions on Iran and what sanctions or other fallout, if any, it may face for spurning U.S. entreaties vis-à-vis Iran and engaging with an Iranian company closely linked to already-sanctioned entities.