United States Secretary of State Hillary "We came, we saw, he died" Clinton's message to Pakistan was stark; try to go ahead with the IP (Iran-Pakistan) gas pipeline, and we're going to take you out financially.
Islamabad, its economy in tatters, living in power-cut land, and desperate for energy, tried to argue. Pakistan's top official in the Petroleum and Natural Resources Ministry, Muhammad Ejaz Chaudhry, stressed that the 2,775-km, $1.5 billion IP was absolutely crucial for Pakistan's energy security.
That fell on deaf ears. Clinton evoked "particularly damaging" sanctions -- tied to Washington's push to isolate Iran by all means available and the no-holds-barred campaign to force particularly India, China and Turkey to cut off their imports of Iranian oil and gas.
IP, it should be remembered, is the original, $7 billion IPI; Iran-Pakistan-India, also known as the "peace pipeline." India dropped out in 2009 after non-stop harassment by the George W Bush and then Barack Obama administrations; India was offered access to civilian nuclear technology.
China, for its part, is still eyeing the possibility of extending IP out of Gwadar port, then crossing to Pakistan's north alongside the Karakoram Highway all the way to Xinjiang. China is already helping Islamabad to build civilian nuclear reactors -- as part of Pakistan's energy security policy.
A mega-bank such as ICBC, with myriad global interests, may be wary of defying the Washington sanction machine; but other financing options may be found, as in other banks or government-level agreements with China or Russia. Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar has just made it very clear. Pakistan badly needs gas that should start flowing by December 2014.
Islamabad and Tehran have already agreed on pricing. Iran's 900-km stretch of IP is already built; Pakistan's is starting, via ILF Engineering from Germany. Iran's IRNA agency said Pakistan has announced that the IP is still on; predictably, Western media spin is that the Chinese got scared and backed out.
For Washington, the only way to go is another Pipelineistan gambit -- the perennially troubled TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India). Even assuming it will find financing; even assuming the Taliban will be taking their cut (that was, in fact, why negotiations between them and the Bill Clinton then Bush administrations failed); and even assuming it would not be bombed routinely by mujahideen, TAPI would only be ready, optimistically, by 2018. And Islamabad simply can't wait that long.
Predictably, Washington's anti-IP campaign has been relentless -- including, of course, shadow war. Islamabad is convinced that the CIA, the Indian intel agency RAW, the Israeli Mossad and the British MI-6 have been actively conspiring to get some sort of Greater Balochistan to secede from the central government. They have been, a la Libyan model, financing and weaponizing selected Baloch fighters. Not because they love their independent spirit -- but as a means to balkanize Pakistan.
This has got the potential of becoming much, much uglier. Washington won't be deterred from its intent to smash IP. For an Iran under pressure and a strangled Pakistani economy -- as well as China -- this is all about the Asian Energy Security Grid.
ICBC may be out -- sort of. But the whole thing could become even juicier if Beijing decides to step in for good, and turn it from IP to IPC. Will Washington have the guts to defy Beijing head on?