Back to the region

At the onset of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the latest visit of President Zardari to Iran takes on added significance. The regional countries are vying for influence in Afghanistan to fill the vacuum that will be created with the US withdrawal. Pakistan and Iran are among the major stakeholders in this scenario and their cooperation in different spheres holds immense economic and strategic significance for the region.

The second meeting of President Zardari and his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in less than a month’s time reaffirms their eagerness to keep pace with the rapidity of the changing situation in the region. The two leaders stressed on increasing their bilateral ties and a common approach on regional and international issues of mutual interest, reflecting that both Pakistan and Iran are keen to take full advantage of their geo-strategic location by increasing their influence in the region’s politics.

Work has already started on the $ 7.5 billion Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline project despite consistent US pressure on Pakistan to cancel the agreement with Iran. The project has seen a prospective partner, India, backing away after the US offered it a civil nuclear deal, but the failure of the US to offer a matching incentive to Pakistan in this context kept the deal intact. Pakistan is an energy-deficient country and the IP gas pipeline project is critical to end its energy starvation. Construction of the pipeline to export Iranian gas to Pakistan is underway and, hopefully, Iran will complete it by the end of the next year. However, Pakistan has not started working on the project on its side of the border. Lack of funds and half-hearted reconciliation efforts with the Baloch by the government are the impediments checking progress on our side. Although the US’s opposition to the project has shooed away interested international financial institutions, China has shown interest in tapping the IP gas.

China’s involvement in the project with Iran and Pakistan would have significant geopolitical implications. China is a major player in the region, having high economic stakes in all the countries in the region. It has been following a policy of peace with neighbours and its foreign policy is based on influencing the region through economic strength. It has also pursued common interests with other countries through regional blocs. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is one such example.In the current uneasy state of Pak-US relations, the present visit manifests a shift in policy from reliance on the US to mutual cooperation with regional powers. The IP will be a major milestone in this regard. However, without a genuine engagement with the alienated Baloch population, the IP project cannot meterialise. The pipeline has to pass through Balochistan. Therefore, it is imperative to include the Baloch as stakeholders in national affairs.

During the Saturday meeting, President Zardari and President Ahmadinejad also reviewed progress on a proposal for the transmission of electricity from Iran to Balochistan, also electricity-deficient. Iran’s offer is cost-effective and feasible. The Pakistan government should initiate talks with the estranged Baloch leaders. Theirs is a political issue, which needs to be resolved sensibly and with sincerity to strike further economic and trade deals with the neighbouring countries. It is time that Pakistan followed the policy of ‘back to the region and the regional countries’ to sustain itself in the post-US pullout from Afghanistan. – Dailytimes