U.S., Iran at Odds over Proposed Gas Pipeline

Mike Shuster reports on U.S. opposition to Iran's plans to build a pipeline that would stretch over 1,600 miles and bring natural gas to India and Pakistan.

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Iran and North Korea pose a threat to the historic Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That's the position of the United States as the United Nations today opened a monthlong conference on the treaty. These conferences take place once every five years to review progress and set new goals. The US strongly opposes Iran's nuclear program and accuses the country of supporting terrorism and interfering with the Middle East peace process. The Bush administration is also challenging Iran's plan to construct a pipeline that would be used to supply natural gas to Pakistan and India. NPR's Mike Shuster has a report from Tehran.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Iran has seen itself in recent years as the key regional energy supplier in West Asia. A gas pipeline to India would only enhance that status, says Ali Reza Sheikh Atar, a former Iranian ambassador in New Delhi who initiated the idea more than a decade ago.

Former Ambassador ALI REZA SHEIKH ATAR (Iran): They need Iran's gas. Iran's gas is the most available gas for them. This gas pipeline will be peace pipeline.

SHUSTER: Iran may have the world's second largest reserves of natural gas behind Russia. The proposed pipeline would run more than 1,600 miles from Iran's South Pars gas field through southwestern Pakistan to India. It would cost more than $4 billion, provide India with much-needed cheap fuel for its rapidly growing economy and deliver more than $600 million a year to Pakistan for transit fees.

But in March, when Secretary of State Rice was in New Delhi, she publicly asked Pakistan and India not to support the pipeline. To make the case more convincing, the US has decided to supply F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan and is offering F-18s to India plus new nuclear reactors. Ali Reza Sheikh Atar insists the pressure won't work.

Mr. ATAR: India is not the sole customer of Iran's gas. If they want to block it, what will they do with China? What will they do with Japan? What will they do with Europe? What will they do with Turkey, Armenia and other countries who are customers of our gas?

SHUSTER: In fact, Iran has been very busy of late making deals in Asia. Recently, Iran secured a long-term commitment to sell oil to China, which is also talking about extending the gas pipeline from India to its territory. Roosbeh Bolhari, an international affairs analyst in Tehran, views the US opposition to the pipeline as a knee-jerk reaction to a project that he sees as beneficial to all in the region.

Mr. ROOSBEH BOLHARI (International Affairs Analyst): (Through Translator) This is something to use that make again more pressure against Iran and this is obvious that whatever we do, they use it as an excuse to make more pressure.

SHUSTER: This is not the first massive pipeline project designed to move natural gas from the Persian Gulf region to India and Pakistan. In the 1990s, the American energy company Unocal proposed building a pipeline from Turkmenistan, which also has large reserves of natural gas, through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India. Afghanistan was dominated by the Taliban at that time and the project foundered on continued conflict there. The Iran-India pipeline would seem to be a safer bet. Roosbeh Bolhari argues that it would also help to cement better relations between Pakistan and India, which are both nuclear armed and have fought three wars over the past two generations.

Mr. BOLHARI: (Through Translator) This is a project that is very helpful for the peace of the whole region between India and Pakistan. So if they oppose that, how can we trust this American and America?

SHUSTER: It is not yet clear whether American pressure can undermine the project. Diplomatic contacts on it are still under way in the region, and the Indian oil minister is due in Tehran soon. Iranian energy officials appear confident. Mehdi Hashemi is head of the Iranian Fuel Conservation Organization. He is also son of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Mehdi Hashemi says the US can't stop Iran's emergence as a regional power.

Mr. MEHDI HASHEMI (Iranian Fuel Conservation Organization): India, they buy. But our relation with India more important for them and they need the gas. Iran is ready to deliver gas to them. America makes problem for us. We understand that, but they cannot make a big problem.

SHUSTER: The world, Hashemi says, will continue to buy Iran's energy. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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