Iran-Pakistan: a moment of rejoicing

by Rasul Bakhsh Rais (source: Tribune)
Tuesday, March 5, 2013

        Editor's note: Professor Rasul Rais Bakhsh teaches at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Finally, we have moved closer to building the gas pipeline to import Iranian gas to our energy-starved country. It has taken about two decades and it has not been an easy journey. Pakistan has faced external pressures and internal dissent over connecting its industry and households to the Iranian gas fields.

Reason? This is not an ordinary trade deal in energy but one of those projects that is likely to bring about a strategic shift in Pakistan’s thinking on regional security issues from the Middle East to Afghanistan.

However, that may take time, efforts and courage. Fearing that Pakistan will realign itself, from pro-West Arab states like Saudi Arabia to an Iran-Afghanistan-centred strategic outlook, the masters of the old strategic game, inside and outside, have placed Pakistani decision-makers under a lot of pressure.

It might appear controversial to some, for the final agreement was finalised in the last few weeks of the tenure of the government and its construction work ceremony is to be performed just five days before it leaves office. Furthermore, it has been argued that the PPP government is leaving a lot of burden on the next government, in terms of facing pressure and possible sanctions from the United States. Neither of these two views appears to me sensible or convincing. In the hyper-politicised environment of Pakistan, anything can be made contentious. Good things to a country can happen anytime. Perhaps, we should have done this much earlier, but better now than later or never.

Why do I believe this to be a good project? Let me confine myself to two arguments. First, a good number of our industries are closed, the workforce unemployed and the tax-base of the country shrinking. While the emerging economies are exploring opportunities to access energy resources in far-off regions of the world, Pakistan has an abundance of these just across the border. Even if one argues that we invest in and develop our own energy resources, a view I would support, at the moment, we need an energy breather.

This pipeline, in a very short time frame of about 15 months, can ease pressure on Pakistan’s energy shortages and substitute the use of expensive furnace oil for power generation. A gas flow of 21.5 million cubic metres daily will have multiple positive gains for Pakistan’s economy.

Second, we have not sufficiently realised the benefits of regional trade, investments and economic connectivity. Our markets for whatever we produce are in distant places. This is against the global trend of regional economic integration. We have made changes during the past decade but the potential for Pakistan’s economy is far greater in regionalisation than we have been able to realise. Both through the framework of regional organisations and at a bilateral level, we need to move towards Iran, India and Afghanistan and through Afghanistan to Central Asia. This is the region that is going to be the hub of economic growth and prosperity for the next half century. We shouldn’t miss any opportunity that opens up for us. Bringing in China in our infrastructural projects and building of the gas pipeline are steps in the right direction for a future full of positive gains.

True, there will be pressures on Pakistan for we have a dependency syndrome and many internal vulnerabilities that external powers exploit to keep us in line. This project is in our national interest and we can make a convincing argument to our traditional friends in Washington and Riyadh that, as we explore other alternatives, time is not on our side and we will need more energy in the coming decades. National interest comes first, friends later.

( filed under: )