TEHRAN  - Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday told the visiting Pakistani president that a much-delayed $7.5 billion gas pipeline project must go ahead despite US opposition.

“The Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline is an important example of Tehran-Islamabad cooperation, and despite hostilities towards the expansion of ties we must overcome this opposition decisively,” Khamenei told Asif Ali Zardari, his office reported.

The pipeline project has run into repeated problems, including Pakistan’s difficulty in finding funds and opposition to the project from Washington, which has slapped Iran with a raft of sanctions over its nuclear activities.

“Accessing safe energy source is the first priority for any country including Pakistan. In this region, the Islamic republic is the only nation that has safe energy resources and we are ready to provide Pakistan its energy needs,” Khamenei said.

President Zardari, in talks with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said, “I believe that building this project is very beneficial for both sides and we support all the work carried out so far... The international and regional players have tried in vain to prevent an expansion of Iran-Pakistan ties but the people have learnt how to act against enemies of Islam.”

Ahmadinejad told Zardari that, “building the gas pipeline between Iran and Pakistan is a great and important event, and it serves the two nations’ interests,” the president’s office reported. The Iranian president went on to say that if Tehran and Islamabad consolidate their capacities, they can overcome all obstacles and animosities and accelerate their progress.

“Even if we were not neighbours and religious brothers, we should stand together, because relations and cooperation are better than confrontation and ill-wishers always exploit the divide between nations,” he added. He said the IP gas pipeline project would benefit both countries as well as other regional states.

Zardari, for his part, underlined the importance of the expansion of brotherly relations between Iran and Pakistan and noted that trust and strong ties exist between the two countries, despite efforts by those who want to obstruct cooperation between the two nations. He said Pakistan is determined to walk the path of promoting bilateral ties, adding that consolidating the capacities of both states would serve their interests.

Zardari, who arrived in Tehran on Wednesday, is set to hold talks with Iranian officials on various regional and bilateral issues. According to official sources, Zardari also plans to sign an oil refinery deal worth four billion dollars with Tehran. President Zardari expressed happiness about the construction of IP gas pipeline and said that Islamabad supports all measures taken to complete the pipeline.

The Pakistani media reported last year that Zardari would visit Iran in mid-December 2012, when a final agreement was to have been signed, but the visit was delayed. In 2010, Iran and Pakistan agreed that Tehran would supply between 750 million cubic feet (21 million cubic metres) and one billion cubic feet per day of natural gas by mid-2015.

Islamabad has said it will pursue the project regardless of US pressure, saying the gas is needed to help Pakistan overcome its energy crisis that has led to debilitating blackouts and suffocated industry. Iran has almost completed the pipeline work in its territory, but Pakistan has not yet started construction of 780 kilometers (490 miles) of the pipeline on its side, which is said to cost some $1.5 billion.

Sanctions-hit Iran finally agreed to finance one third of the costs of laying the pipeline through Pakistani territory to Nawabshah, north of Karachi, with the work to be carried out by an Iranian company. Pakistani officials in mid-December said Iran had promised a $500 million loan and that Islamabad would meet the rest of the cost.