Indo-Iran pipeline may miss deadline

New Delhi, November 20:

A tripartite framework agreement on the proposed gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan may not materialise by the year-end due to delays in the holding of bilateral parleys, says a top Indian official.

The delay in part is due to Pakistan seeking postponement of the third round of secretary level bilateral talks with India to the second week of December because their team is going to Iran for talks. The widespread devastation caused by the earthquake in Pakistan is also believed to be one of the reasons for the postponement of talks. In addition, while India has appointed the financial and technical consultants for the project and hopes to finalise the legal consultants soon, Pakistan is still to appoint their consultants.

“We were hoping that the meeting with Pakistani officials would take place on November 21-23 but they have asked for more time. They want the meeting to be shifted to December when we were hoping to meet with the Iranians,” petroleum secretary S C Tripathi said. At India’s insistence, Pakistan has agreed to a Joint Working Group meeting by the second week of December.

“We were hoping the Iranian me-eting would take place in the second week of December but now it will have to be postponed till after the talks with the Pakistani team,” said Tripathi. The petroleum secretary is, however, still optimistic of meeting the December deadline.

Based on the preliminary report from financial consultants Ernst & Young, the official said India has forwarded some proposals regarding the project structure and the trilateral framework pact to Iran and Pakistan.“Now they have to respo-nd. When we receive their response we can develop an inter-governmental agreement and put together a structure to decide who will be the owner of the pipeline,” he said.

Stating that the talks had reached a crucial point, Tripathi said, “At this critical stage, the Iranians and Pakistanis must make up their minds. We have put some leading questio-ns to them. They have to come to a stage of decisions.” On their part, Ernst & Young has recommended that “the project will get a strong push forward if India participates vis-à-vis India not participating”.

The firm feels there would be greater security and comfort level for India if it is involved in the decision-making process on the multi-billion dollar pipeline that would take around five years to materialise once the three nations have the framework agreement in place.

Although a decade has passed in planning, the 1,600-km Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project has on-ly recently shown signs of moving beyond conceptualisation. The pri-ce of gas, which has soared in recent months in tandem with the rise in crude prices, is another major factor besides the project cost that wo-uld influence the future of project.