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How will we play the Great Game?

By Sushant Sareen
March 23, 2005 14:24 IST
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The Great Game for tapping the Central Asian oil and gas reserves has begun in right earnest once again.

The first salvo in this direction was fired by the US Ambassador to India, David Mulford, who 'gently' warned the Indians that the US will not look too kindly upon the gas pipeline from Iran. This was followed by the message delivered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who expressed her reservations over the possibility of a pipeline from Iran.

At the same time, Rice recognised India's need for energy and "offered a broad energy dialogue". In an interview to a Pakistani news channel she said that the 'US had barred India and even Japan from buying Iranian gas.'

A pipeline through Pakistan

The position taken by the US has put a big question mark over the Iran-India gas pipeline project. But this doesn't mean that no pipeline will come to India. A pipeline will come, only the chances are that it will come from Turkmenistan -- through Afghanistan and Pakistan -- rather than from Iran.

The US was never comfortable with the Iran-India pipeline. Anything that breaks Iran's diplomatic and economic isolation was never going to be acceptable for the Americans, especially the Neo-Cons (neo conservatives)who are calling the shots in Washington.

If Indians got the impression from US diplomats in New Delhi that the US was keen to see India and Pakistan cooperate in the energy sector and would therefore view the Iran gas pipeline benignly, then they only understood half the message.

What the US was working on was to remove India's objections to a pipeline through Pakistan. Once this was achieved, they could push the alternative project, the Turkmenistan pipeline. Somehow, in our obsession with Pakistan, and by becoming victims of our own loquaciousness and hectoring, we failed to see the direction in which things were headed.

The Americans waited until the cabinet decided to explore the possibility of the Iran project -- which signaled that India was open to a pipeline through Pakistan -- before registering their objections and reservations to the deal.

The American interest in a pipeline through Turkmenistan is quite understandable. This will deprive Iran of a project that would increase its economic, political and diplomatic leverage in the region. The US is quite open about the fact that they see the gas pipeline project as something that will increase Iran's intransigence on its nuclear programme, and therefore such a project needs to be avoided.

Trade between India Iran on an upswing 

At the same time, a pipeline project through Turkmenistan will provide an outlet for the Central Asian energy reserves. This will end the near monopoly that the Russians have on the Central Asian energy reserves through the pipeline network that was built during the Soviet era.

The Turkmenistan pipeline will also allow US oil and construction companies to bid for the contract for laying the pipeline. This would not be possible in case of the Iran pipeline. Not only would the US oil giants gain from such a project, it will also help to pay for the US involvement in Afghanistan -- the classic cost-plus imperial strategy.

Since the Turkmenistan pipeline will transit through Afghanistan, it will not only give the Afghan government a dependable source of revenue (and one which doesn't impinge on the US tax payer) but also give a fillip to economic activity inside Afghanistan. This in turn will help in stabilising that country.

Finally, the Turkmenistan pipeline would tie India and Pakistan into a cooperative and mutually dependent arrangement that would serve as a significant confidence building measure. And the icing on the cake of such an arrangement for the US would be that, unlike in case of the Iranian pipeline, it would be the underwriter of this project and will therefore be able to play a big role between India and Pakistan.

India asked to join South Asia gas pipeline

The US has for long been interested in the Turkmenistan project. Even during the Taliban era, the US was willing to ignore all the criminal depredations of that criminal regime, an explore the possibility of a pipeline from Turkmenistan. The US company UNOCAL was engaged in serious negotiations with the Taliban regime for transit rights. But after the Argentinian company, Bridas, got the Taliban on its side, the Americans lost interest in the project and the Taliban.

At that time, the Pakistanis too were very keen on the Turkmenistan pipeline through Afghanistan. In fact, Afghanistan had become a proxy battlefield between Pakistan and Iran primarily because of the pipeline project. The Iranians were trying to tie the Turkmenistan pipeline with its own network and were building port facilities, roads and railway networks to provide access to Central Asia.

Disturbed conditions in Afghanistan went in favour of Iran, which when compared to Afghanistan emerged as a stable outlet for Central Asian trade and transit. And once the pipelines from Turkmenistan were tied to the Iranian network, the Afghanistan route would become redundant.

Conversely, if the pipelines were to go through Afghanistan, the Iranian route would become redundant. This equation exists even today.

G Parthasarathy on the politics of oil 

As far as the Pakistanis were concerned, they had invested a lot in Afghanistan, and a pipeline through Afghanistan would cement their control over that country and at the same time pay for Pakistan's jihadi adventurism by routing the lucrative Central Asian transit trade and energy supplies through Pakistan.

Unlike the British who withdrew from Afghanistan because there was nothing to be gained there, for Pakistan Afghanistan was an El Dorado waiting to be tapped. Not much has changed in terms of the potential of Afghanistan for Pakistan since the Taliban have been ousted and the Americans have moved in.

If anything, Pakistan has much more to gain by a pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan than through Iran. Not only will such a project increase the leverage enjoyed by Pakistan inside Afghanistan and Central Asia, it will also give a huge boost to Pakistan's economy. The entire Gwadar port project depends critically on the Central Asian trade.

For the Americans, tying the Gwadar port into the Central Asian trade and energy network will help in ousting the Chinese from developing a base on the mouth of the Persian Gulf. As things stand, the US will lean on both India and Pakistan to consider the Turkmenistan pipeline and give up the Iranian project.

Oil meet sets an Asian agenda 

In all likelihood, the Pakistanis will conveniently succumb to US pressure. For India, the evolving situation offers an excellent opportunity for playing the big boys game. Both the pipelines -- Iranian and Turkmenistan -- are in India's interest.

With both on offer, India is now in a position to play hard ball. The comments of Indian Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar who said the Iranians must price their gas competitively is perhaps the first sign that India is taking the first steps in this Great Game.

With the Indian foreign minister refusing to toe the US line on the Iranian project and the foreign secretary talking about greater reliance on nuclear energy (a signal to the Americans to cooperate on civilian nuclear energy with India if they want a give on the Iranian pipeline), the Indians are keeping all options open and are now in the process of negotiating for the best deal possible.

Now an Indo Myanmar gas pipeline

And for the first time, the Leftists will help the Indian government's negotiating stance by their mindless anti-Americanism. The Leftist yelp at the US objection to the Iranian pipeline can serve the Indian government well in using the pressures of domestic politics as an excuse for keeping the Iranian option open. If nothing else, this will increase India's leverage over any negotiation on the Turkmenistan project.

What is more, if the Turkmenistan project goes through, it will make it very difficult for Pakistan to refuse India transit facilities to Afghanistan and Central Asia, which is a long standing Indian demand.

India has for long harbored ambitions and pretensions of being a major player in the region and the world. This is perhaps India's big opportunity to move into the big league. But in order to do so, India will have to chart out its game plan very carefully and with cold calculation.

Cut off the gas,  we cut off the water  

It is of critical importance that India doesn't succumb to its traditional self-righteous rhetoric at the cost of its vital national interests. Rather this is the time to use the moral argument as a negotiating stand and then get the best deal on offer.

At the same time, it is important that India also realises its limitations and doesn't go for an over-kill, because that too will leave it standing high and dry. The Americans have offered India, perhaps inadvertently, a golden opportunity to play the Great Game.

It is now up to India to play its cards. Interesting times lie ahead.


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Sushant Sareen