With President Asif Zardari’s visit to Tehran, the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project has made significant headway, prompting the Ministers concerned from both the countries to say that the people should soon expect the good news of the commencement of construction work in Pakistan. When Mr Zardari met his Iranian counterpart Mehmoud Ahmadinejad for talks on Wednesday, the two leaders committed themselves to vigorously pursuing the project, regardless of US pressure. It is quite understandable that Mr Zardari felt the project to be of great benefit to Pakistan; for the Iranian gas would go a long way towards meeting the energy requirements of Pakistan where the people have to go through a trying experience of loadshedding lasting for hours on end every day. Mr Zardari was also received by Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who stressed that the project must go ahead despite the US opposition.

It must be noted that Washington has been opposed to the idea of the pipeline – a project of significant economic import to Iran – especially since it is suspected that the Iranian nuclear enrichment programme is geared to developing atomic weapons. It has recently warned Islamabad against doing any “sanctionable activity” adding it has not only helped Pakistan improve its power generation capacity, but also suggested an alternative “long-term solution”.

The situation on the ground is that the work on the laying of pipes on the Iranian side of the border has, more or less, been completed, already; in Pakistan, however, the entire stretch of land, roughly of 780km, is yet to be covered with pipes before the project could become a reality. It was to take up this part of the job that an Iranian construction firm was awarded the contract only recently. The cost for this segment of the project is estimated to be $1.5 billion, while the entire project would involve an expenditure of $7.5 billion. And once these pipes are installed and the project is commissioned, the much needed natural gas would start flowing into Pakistan from South Pars Iranian gas field located in Asalouyeh in about 13 months’ time from now against the originally stipulated period of 22 months for the work. According to the bilateral agreement, if Islamabad does not complete its part of the project by end-2014 it would have to pay a daily penalty of $1 million to Iran until completion. Initially 8.7 billion cubic metres of gas would be supplied to Pakistan every year, but the quantity could be raised in course of time with mutual consent.

The US suggested alternative is time-consuming as well as at this stage a highly risky proposition since the pipeline has to pass through an insecure area in the war-torn Afghanistan. But Washington must realise Pakistan’s predicament where sufficient availability of power to run industry, revive the economy and do other business of life has become a question of survival. It just cannot brook years’ long delay that the US alternative would entail even if the intervening area becomes safe and secure right away.