The earth has been shaking for a few days now all across Pipelineistan - with massive repercussions for all the big players in the New Great Game in Eurasia. United States President Barack Obama's AfPak strategists didn't even see it coming.
A silent, reptilian war had been going on for years between the US-favored Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline and its rival, the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline, also known as the "peace pipeline". This past weekend, a winner emerged. And it's none of the above: instead, it's the 2,100-kilometer, US$7.5 billion IP (the Iran-Pakistan pipeline), with no India attached. (Please see Pakistan, Iran sign gas pipeline deal, May 27, 2009, Asia Times Online.)
This whole saga started way back in 1995 - about the time California-based Unocal started floating the idea of building a pipeline crossing Afghanistan. Now, Iran and Pakistan finally signed a deal this week in Tehran, by which Iran will sell gas from its mega South Pars fields to Pakistan for the next 25 years.
According to Iranian energy officials speaking to the ISNA news agency, the final deal will be signed in less than three weeks, slightly after the first round of the Iranian presidential election. The last 250 km of a 900-km pipeline stretch in Iran between Asalouyeh and Iranshahr, near the border with Pakistan, still needs to be built. The whole IP pipeline should be operational by 2014.
The fact that Islamabad has finally decided to move on is pregnant with meaning. For the George W Bush administration IPI was simply anathema; imagine India and Pakistan buying gas from "axis of evil" Iran. The only way to go was TAPI - an extension of the childish neo-conservative belief that the Afghanistan war was winnable.
Now, IP reveals Islamabad's own interests seemed to have prevailed against Washington's (unlike the virtually US-imposed Pakistan army offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley). The Barack Obama administration has been mum about IP so far. But it will be very enlightening to hear what former Bush pet Afghan Zalmay Khalilzad - who's been infiltrating himself as the next CEO of Afghanistan - has to say about it. (Please see Slouching towards Balkanization, May 22, 2009, Asia Times Online.) Khalilzad's Pipelineistan dream, since the mid-1990s, has always been a trans-Afghan pipeline capable of bypassing both Iran and Russia.
IP, IP, hurrah
India, for a number of reasons (the pricing system, transit fees and above all, security) de facto shelved the IPI idea last year. Had it not been the case, IPI would become a powerful vector in terms of South Asian regional integration - doing more to stabilize India-Pakistan relations than any diplomatic coup. Nevertheless, both Iran and Pakistan still have left an open door to India.
India's (momentary?) loss will be China's gain. Since 2008, with New Delhi having second thoughts, Beijing and Islamabad had set up an agreement - China would import most of this Iranian gas if India dropped out of IPI. China anyway is more than welcome business-wise to both Iran and Pakistan. Only in transit fees, Islamabad could collect as much as $500 million a year.
For Beijing, IP could not be more essential. Iranian gas will flow to the Balochistan province port of Gwadar, in the Arabian Sea (which China itself built, and where it is also building a refinery). And Gwadar is supposed to be connected to a proposed pipeline going north, mostly financed by China, along the Karakoram Highway (which by the way was largely built from the 1960s to the 1980s by Chinese engineers ... ).
Pakistan is the absolutely ideal transit corridor for China to import oil and gas from Iran and the Persian Gulf. With IP in place and with multi-billion-dollar, overlapping Tehran-Beijing gas deals, China can finally afford to import less energy via the Strait of Malacca, which Beijing considers exceedingly dangerous, and subject to Washington's sphere of influence.
With IP, not only China wins; Russia's Gazprom also wins. And by extension, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) wins. Russian deputy Energy Minister Anatoly Yankovsky told the Kommersant business daily, "We are ready to join the project as soon as we receive an offer."
The reason is so blatant that Gazprom officials have not even bothered to disguise it. For Russia, IP is a gift-from-above tool in rerouting gas from Iran to South Asia, and away from competing with Russian gas. The big prize, in this case, is the Western European market, dependent almost 30% on Gazprom and the source of 80% of Gazprom's export profits.
The European Union is desperately trying to keep the Nabucco pipeline project - which bypasses Russia - afloat, so it may reduce its dependence on Gazprom. But as anyone in Brussels knows, Nabucco can only work if it is provided enough gas by either Iran or Turkmenistan. The Turkmenistan distribution system is controlled by Russia. And a deal with Iran implies no more US sanctions - still a long way away. With IP in place, Gazprom reasons, Nabucco is deprived of a key supply source.
All eyes on Balochistan
With IP firmly in place, the strategic spotlight focuses even more on Balochistan. (Please see Balochistan is the greatest prize, May 9, 2009, Asia Times Online.) First of all, there's an internal Pakistani question to be settled. An editorial in the Pakistani daily Dawn has stressed how Islamabad must be serious about hiring indigenous Balochi labor and making sure "the gains of the economic activity ... are focused on Balochistan for the benefit of its poverty-stricken people".
The port of Gwadar, in southwest Balochistan, near the Iranian border, is indeed bound to become a new Dubai - but not the way the vice president Dick Cheney and gang in Washington once dreamed of. Gas from the South Pars fields in Iran will definitely flow though it. As for gas from the Daulatabad fields in Turkmenistan, assuming TAPI ever gets built though war-torn Afghanistan, that's much more unlikely.
This all raises the crucial question: how will Islamabad deal with ultra-strategic Balochistan - east of Iran, south of Afghanistan, and boasting three Arabian sea ports, including Gwadar, practically at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz?
The New Great Game in Eurasia rules that Pakistan is a key pivot to both North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the SCO, of which Pakistan is an observer. Balochistan de facto incorporates Pakistan as a key transit corridor to Iranian gas from the monster South Pars fields, and not to a great deal of the Caspian wealth of "gas republic" Turkmenistan. For the Pentagon, the birth of IP is mega bad news. The ideal Pentagon scenario is the US controlling Gwadar - in yet one more prime confluence of Pipelineistan and the US Empire of Bases.
With Gwadar directly linked to Iran and developed virtually as a Chinese warehouse, the Pentagon also loses the mouth-watering opportunity of a long land route across Balochistan into Helmand, Nimruz, Kandahar or, better yet, all of these three provinces in southwest Afghanistan, where soon, not by accident, there will be another US mega-base in the "desert of death". From a Pentagon/NATO perspective, after the "loss" of the Khyber Pass, that would be the ideal supply route for Western troops in the perennial, now rebranded, GWOT ("global war on terror").
Islamabad has promised an all-parties conference "within days" to seriously deal with Balochistan. No one is holding their breath. Over a year ago, Balochistan was promised greater control over its immense natural resources - the undisputed, number-one Baloch grievance - and a massive aid package. Not much has happened.
Punjabis derisively refer to Balochistan's "backwardness". But the heart of the matter is systematic, hardcore pillage by Islamabad - combined with hardcore repression and serial Latin America-in-the-1970s-style "disappearances" of political activists and senior Baloch nationalists. Not to mention virtually no investment in health, education and job creation. This Third World dictatorship catalogue of disasters fuels Baloch nationalism and separatism.
Islamabad's paranoia is "foreign involvement" in the different strands of Balochistan's nationalist movements. That would be, in fact, the CIA, MI5 and the Israeli Mossad, all engaged in overlapping agendas which manipulate Balochistan for balkanization of Pakistan purposes and/or as a base for the destabilization of neighboring Iran's southeast. While the Taliban, Afghan or Pakistani, can roam free across Balochistan, Baloch nationalists are intimidated, harassed and killed.
Sanaullah Baloch, a secretary of the Balochistan National Party-Mengal, told Dawn how "several Baloch political parties tried to file charges against [former president General Pervez] Musharraf, but the country's institutions lack the will or courage to accept our plea against him." Studies show that rural poverty in Balochistan when Musharraf was in power increased 15% between 1999 and 2005.
Sanaullah Baloch roundly denounces the "civil-military elites" of Pakistan as implicated in the systematic repression going on in Balochistan; "Without their consent, no political regime can undo their policy of continued suppression."
And his analysis of why Islamabad has made a deal with the Taliban in Swat but won't do a deal with Balochis could not be more enlightening: "The establishment in Pakistan has always felt comfortable with religious groups as they do not challenge the centralized authority of the civil-military establishment. The demands of these groups are not political. They don't demand economic parity. They demand centralized religious rule which is philosophically closer to the establishment's version of totalitarianism. Islamabad's elite are stubborn against genuine Baloch demands: governing Balochistan, having ownership of resources, and control over provincial security."
So Islamabad still has all it takes to royally mess up what it has accomplished by approving IP. For the moment, Iran, Pakistan, China and Russia win. The SCO wins. Washington and NATO lose, not to mention Afghanistan (no transit fees). But will Balochistan also win? If not, all hell will break loose, from desperate Balochis sabotaging IP to "foreign interference" manipulating them into creating an even greater, regional, ball of fire.
Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).
He may be reached at email@example.com.