IPI gas pipeline, RIP

The Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline has been discussed for almost a decade, with its proponents arguing that it will promote our energy security. After 26/11, the project is dead. No Indian government can proceed with a deal that will give Pakistan a knife at India\’s energy throat. Far from promoting our energy security, it would be a source of immense national insecurity.

Just suppose the pipeline was complete and functioning today. The pipeline contract would have required Pakistan to ensure the safety of supplies. But Baluch insurgents have been bowing up gas pipelines in Pakistan for ages, so Islamabad could easily connive in the blowing up of the India section of the pipeline, claiming it did not control non-state actors, and indeed is opposed to them. Just as it did after 26/11, Pakistan could claim that it was itself a victim of sabotage, that India must not indulge in finger pointing, and that Islamabad would investigate the incident provided India provided enough evidence!

Wouldn\’t a pipeline deal include insurance against disruption of gas supplies? Well, maybe some brave global insurance company would come forward initially, but it would surely have charged premiums so hefty as to undercut the entire economic rationale of the pipeline, which was supposed to be cheaper than the alternative, which is supply through tankers carrying liquefied natural gas from Iran. Besides, insurance contracts have \”force majeure\” clauses protecting the insurance company from liability in the event of war or civil conflict. So, the IPI pipeline would be an insecure project.

Why then have so many politicians and ideologues been canvassing the IPI pipeline with such vigour and passion? For two reasons. One, some naïve, optimistic politicians view India and Pakistan as natural partners separated by unwarranted mistrust, and they saw the pipeline as a way of building economic linkages, trust and friendship. Second, the entire left saw the pipeline as a way of spitting in the face of the US, and asserting India\’s independence in foreign policy.

The US opposed the pipeline on the ground that it would strengthen Iran\’s economy and enable that country to escape some of the economic sanctions penalties that the US has sought to impose on it. When India went slow on the IPI pipeline after the Bush-Manmohan Singh agreement of 2005, the left was livid at what it saw it as a foreign policy surrender of a junior partner in an unequal relationship. So obsessed was the Left with the need to combat US imperialism that it failed to see the threat that the pipeline would strengthen Pakistan.

At the time, most analysts agreed that the risk of an Indo-Pak war was remote. In the absence of war, many analysts felt that Pakistan was unlikely to cut the pipeline, for commercial and foreign policy reasons.

This analysis ignored risks involved in conflict at levels lower. Both countries have become nuclear powers, so open warfare is virtually impossible. For that very reason, each country needs to focus on strategies and pressure points other than war, which can be used as bargaining counters or for covert retaliation. So, the pipeline in its current form must be viewed as dead. Yet the fact remains that India will need massive gas imports in the future. Iran is not a reliable supplier-it reneged on an earlier low-cost LNG deal with India, so we must find alternative suppliers. Yet Iran is too big to be totally ignored.

So let\’s consider a different sort of pipeline. This will be a shallow offshore pipeline taking gas from Iran to the maritime boundary between India and Pakistan off Kutch. At this point, the pipeline can divide into two, with one section going north to Pakistan and the other going west to Kutch. Any sabotage of the main pipeline will hit Pakistan as badly as India -it will mean mutually assured destruction (MAD) of gas supply. The section going to each country from the maritime boundary will be in the territory of that country, under its own control.

In the Cold War, MAD was the basis of global security. By analogy, India and Pakistan need a MAD pipeline for security. Neither side will be able to hurt the other without hurting itself.

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