Obama can dream an AfPak dream

Posted in United States , Afghanistan , Pakistan | 05-Jun-09 | Author: M K Bhadrakumar| Source: Asia Times

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, Thursday, June 4, 2009.

Editor's note: This article was published before United States President Barack Obama's speech from Cairo on June 4.

The high probability is that United States President Barack Obama's Muslim speech on June 4 from Cairo will not contain specifics. Most wise men underscore that the charismatic statesman should stick to values rather than waste breath on substance.

True, that is a safe route for a great orator like Obama. Values resonate in Obama's magnificent voice. Grand speeches, after all, can hardly be a good platform for policy-making.

However, substance, fresh substance, and lots of it - that's what Middle Easterners impatiently seek to hear from the youthful president. With native Levantine wisdom dipped in wit, prominent columnist Rami Khouri wrote, "No offense, but nobody in the Middle East really cares about Obama's ancestors or youth years, or his views on other religions. What we care about - and what the US president should explain on this trip - is whether the US government believes that habeas corpus and the Fourth Geneva Convention, for example, apply with equal force to Arabs as well as to Israelis."

Equally, for southwest Asians tuning into the Cairo speech, the big question is what the US president can offer by way of renewed momentum to his AfPak strategy, which vacillates between failure and avoidance of failure. What the US needs is a grand idea that can decisively propel the AfPak strategy over the barren, stony, steep ridge onto the lush green valley that lies beyond. Cairo could just be the platform from where to introduce such an idea.

It won't happen, but the idea exists. It has been around and may seem a hackneyed idea but it is still a workable one, which, if fleshed out, could potentially become a solid underpinning of the AfPak strategy. The fantastic thing about it is that in a manner of speaking, it is also a "Muslim idea", as it engages the US with two countries in the topmost rungs of the Islamic world.

It is not only cost-effective but also eminently profitable, as it concerns the priceless commodity of natural gas. Most important, it creates a geostrategic matrix involving some of the key countries that can make all the difference between success and failure of the AfPak strategy - Iran, Pakistan, India and China.

The time has come for the US to take a serious look at the idea that it should be the promoter of a natural gas pipeline project leading from Iran's gigantic, untapped South Pars fields to Pakistan and further on to India and possibly extending all the way to China's heavily populated southeastern provinces.

As the US's direct engagement of Iran gets going after the presidential election in Iran later this month, Obama will come across the dilemma of prompting Iran to think on the "right track": how to make Iran a "stakeholder" in the region? Offering hot dogs to Iranian diplomats at garden parties on Independence Day in the sprawling American chancelleries is one way of doing it, but Iranians have sharp bazaar instincts and are unlikely to be impressed. Releasing spare parts for Iran's aging fleet of Boeing aircraft could be another way, or the opening of an Interest Section in the Iranian capital, but Persians aren't rabbits nibbling at carrots. Persians settle only for grandiloquent, sweeping conceptions.

No doubt, the moveable feast of US-Iran engagement needs a tantalizing confidence-building measure as an "appetizer". Iran's archaic energy sector could just provide the right quarter. Iran's oil industry desperately needs technology and modernization. And income from oil is Iran's lifeline. Iran's managerial cadres and technocrats have a high opinion of American oil technology. Big Oil needs no introduction to Iran, either. The Chinese would say this is a "win-win" situation.

Provided, of course, Big Oil moves fast. The Europeans are ahead of it, and so are the Russians. The race for Iran's South Pars promises to be a photo-finish. As a perceptive American expert put it, the signing event of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project in Tehran on May 24 by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari "illustrates the obsolescence and, increasingly, the futility of an 'isolation' policy that tries to keep Iranian gas locked in the ground".

Russia's Gazprom is poised to join the Iran-Pakistan project, no matter the US sanctions. "We are ready to join as soon as we receive an offer," Russia's Deputy Energy Minister Anatoly Yanovsky said. That offer may well be made to the Russians on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit meeting scheduled to take place in Yekaterinburg in Russia on June 15, which brings together the leaders of Iran, Pakistan and Russia (and China and India). The Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline meshes with the grand idea that former Russian president Vladimir Putin (now premier) floated four years ago - a SCO "energy club".

Gazprom executives have done their homework. According to Kommersant newspaper, Gazprom can act as a contractor for the pipeline construction work and as the operator of the pipeline even after its completion. Also, Gazprom is keen to get access to gas volumes from South Pars which it could then sell to India.

Russia is keen that Iranian gas is diverted to the Asian market. Kommersant quoted a Russian official as saying, "This project is advantageous to Moscow since its realization would carry Iranian gas toward South Asian markets so that in the near future it would not compete with Russian gas to Europe." Moscow is enormously experienced in the gas market. It anticipates that gas demand in the Asian market is bound to go up exponentially once the current recession is over.

In political terms, Moscow visualizes that once the US engages Iran directly in the very near future, the enforceability of US sanctions will dissipate overnight and therefore, it is necessary to strike ahead of potential Western competitors.

To be sure, from the US perspective, there is a lot more to the South Pars area than highly lucrative business. The Iran-Pakistan pipeline project is one of those rare business deals where geostrategy comes into play from day one. Consider the following.
Making Iran a stakeholder in regional stability will immeasurably strengthen the hand of the US's AfPak special representative Richard Holbrooke when he negotiates a "grand bargain" with Tehran for Afghanistan's stabilization. In short, the gas pipeline project can be a vital component of Holbrooke's "regional initiative". Diplomacy gains in momentum when it deals with tangibles.

Holbrooke should also speak to the Indians to shed their reservations about participating in this project. Delhi is presently holding back for two or three reasons, which seem tenuous at best. One, Indians are wary of having anything to do with a capital-intensive project that involves Pakistan. They say Pakistanis are an unpredictable lot and might cut off the gas supplies, which could put in jeopardy billions of dollars worth of downstream investments in the Indian economy.

They say the ground situation in the Pakistani province of Balochistan through which the pipeline passes is highly volatile and disruptions in supplies can ensue. Finally, Indians are ostensibly unhappy with the price structure offered by Tehran. At the back of it all, there are unspoken considerations. First, Delhi is upset that Tehran retracted on a massive gas deal that Delhi thought it had wrapped up in 2004.

Second, Delhi is petrified as to what Washington would think if it stepped out of line and dealt with Iran so long as the US-Iran standoff continued. Then, there is the increasingly influential pro-Israel lobby within the Indian establishment. On top of it all, there are powerful Indian energy conglomerates that are the driving force behind the government's energy policies and who fear the price for gas in India's opaque gas market will be affected once Iranian gas enters the Indian grid.

But Obama can easily wade through this South Asian mumbo-jumbo. Arguably, he is the only man under the sun today who can do so. The Indian strategic community would be hard-pressed to say "nyet" if he proposed. Therefore, Washington should step forward as the guarantor of an Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project. At one stroke, that takes care of the Indian elite's angst.

Obama should tell Indians that the huge gas pipeline project is the right thing to do for stabilizing the India-Pakistan relationship and for putting it on a predictable footing. The relationship is inherently brittle because it lacks content. Content engenders mutuality of interests, creates leverages and locks partnerships. Washington's regional policies stand to gain if the India-Pakistan relationship is stabilized and therefore, Obama is an interested party.

Big Oil should also play a part in the project on the lines Gazprom offered. In fact, one of the biggest energy markets in the world opens up in the Indian sub-continent in terms of activities such as developing a South Asian gas grid, retail trade and petrochemical industries.

China will be eager to join the South Asian gas pipeline project. In strategic terms, the US has an opportunity to get Iran, Pakistan, India and China on board on one single project. The strategic implications for US regional policies are far-reaching. The Cold War experience on the European theater is that mega-pipeline projects can act as stabilizers in East-West relations.

If German policies toward Russia are transforming so visibly today, the principal reason is the bond that ties them together via energy deals. The proposed North Stream project will accentuate the trend in German-Russian ties; Russian-Italian relations gain from the South Stream and Russian-Turkish relations from the Blue Stream pipeline.

In the ultimate analysis, the answer to South Asian region's severe instability lies in economic development. An editorial in Pakistan's Dawn newspaper said: "Fears have been expressed that the turmoil in Balochistan will threaten the security of the pipeline since a great length of the 1,000 kilometers inside Pakistan passes through that province which borders Iran. Islamabad could convert this factor to its advantage if it can ensure that in the construction of the pipeline indigenous labor is hired and the gains of the economic activity generated by projects of such magnitude are focused on Balochistan for the benefit of its poverty stricken people."

Obama would know that according to hearsay, the troublesome, one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Omar got onto a motorbike and rode into the night towards these very same poverty stricken people of Balochistan for shelter when he was driven out of Kandahar in the winter of 2001.

The US's regional policies must, therefore, refocus. Whereas today India and Pakistan are locked in a deathly dance - with Indians determined to become the pre-eminent military and nuclear power in the region and Pakistanis ensuring that doesn't happen - Obama can gently initiate them into the Third Way.

No American president in living memory has had Obama's measure of humanism. Cairo could have been the platform from where Obama spelt out an "AfPak dream", to use the words of Dr Martin Luther King.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.