Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is visiting Iran this week in a belated effort to shore up a relationship that seems to have deteriorated over the past few months. Sharif announced Pakistan’s commitment to building its side of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, a moribund project that has suffered from Pakistan’s dithering. The Express Tribune reports:
“I am here with my team of finance, petroleum and interior [ministers] to resolve all matters which are creating hindrance in the project,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told Iran’s President Hassan Rowhani in a meeting at Saadabad Palace in Tehran.As a practical gesture, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and Petroleum Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi met their Iranian counterparts afterwards and agreed to go full steam ahead with the project and find plausible solutions to any irritants in its completion.
Sharif also stated the usual pleasantries, alluding to Pakistan and Iran’s cultural and religious ties, his intentions to boost bilateral trade, and hopes for broader cooperation toward regional security. Supreme Leader Khamenei did his part, blaming the United States for “sowing discord” between the two countries. Don’t be fooled by the apparent bonhomie, however: cracks have surfaced in the bilateral relationship ever since Pakistan moved closer to Iran’s rival Saudi Arabia.Reports, later denied by the Pakistani government, suggested that Pakistan was willing to sell weapons, soldiers, and even nukes to Saudi Arabia to support its proxies in the Syrian civil war. Iran probably bristled when Pakistan abandoned its neutrality to join the Saudi call for the removal of the Assad government in a joint statement in February. And then a separatist group kidnapped five Iranian soldiers and kept them captive in Pakistan (this was also denied by the Pakistani government).But the greatest thorn has been the gas pipeline. While Iran has completed the pipeline on its side of the border, Pakistan still has not. It has made numerous excuses to keep delaying the project. Pakistan looks certain to miss the current deadline of December this year. Its efforts to import LNG from Qatar, and to seek subsidies and payment deferrals from Saudi Arabia, also indicate that Pakistan is looking elsewhere to fulfill its energy needs. Just a week ago, the government declared its agreement with Iran a force majeure, citing American sanctions in an attempt to squirm out of the hefty $3 million daily penalty it would have to pay Iran if it doesn’t complete the pipeline. Which is why Sharif’s latest promise to complete it is surprising, and hardly credible.It will take some slick diplomacy to convince both Iran and Saudi Arabia that Pakistan is a friend to both while favouring none, and Sharif certainly thinks that he can pull it off. Beyond the public niceties, it looks like Iran may need further convincing. Constructing the pipeline on time could be a good start.