The decision is in defiance of the United States, which for years has urged Pakistan not to cooperate with Iran in this way while the international dispute over its nuclear activities remains unresolved.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry was a leading supporter of aid to Pakistan, and e opposed Republican attempts to make the assistance conditional on Islamabad’s cooperation in key areas.
On Monday, an Iranian company is scheduled to sign a contract in the Pakistani capital to build the section of the Iran-Pakistan (IP) pipeline that will lie within Pakistan. Iran already has completed its segment – a 600-mile-long stretch running from its giant South Pars gas field to near the Pakistan border.
Pakistan’s goal is to import 21.5 million cubic meters of Iranian gas a day by the end of 2014, assuring a reliable supply from the world’s second-largest gas reserve. For Iran, the breakout into South Asia – it hopes later to extend the IP pipeline to India – would weaken Washington’s ability to contain its hegemony in the Persian Gulf.
“America has no concern with this project which is very important for the people of Pakistan,” Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s former foreign minister and a top advisor to Iran’s supreme leader, told reporters at the Iranian consulate in Quetta on Sunday. “Pakistan will reject U.S. pressure and go ahead with the project.”
A day earlier, in Karachi, Velayati said, “We know that there is some pressure from outside world, especially from the United States, but both countries are determined to continue strategic cooperation.”
The senior Iranian’s visit to Pakistan, which included talks with President Asif Ali Zardari, coincided with a decision by the Pakistani federal cabinet giving final approval for the $1.5 billion IP pipeline project.
At a meeting Wednesday chaired by Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, the cabinet declared the project to be in the national interest and said it should be completed as soon as possible.
Iranian and Pakistani media said the pipeline contract would go to the Tehran-based Tadbir Energy Development Group, an oil and gas company controlled by the Imam Khomeini Foundation, a government-funded charitable group.
“Pakistan does not need U.S., European companies’ technological support for implementation of Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project. Iranian engineers have proven their ability by building gas pipelines in every corner of Iran,” Pakistan’s NNI news agency quoted Velayati as saying.
Addressing an “Islamic awakening” conference in Islamabad earlier during his visit, he said, “Muslims should avoid colonial values imposed on them by outside powers because it is Islamic values that can guarantee their salvation.” (“Islamic awakening” is Iran’s term for what others have dubbed the “Arab spring.” Tehran says the upheavals were ultimately inspired by its 1979 Islamic revolution.)
‘Take our money and laugh at us’
Pakistan has received more than $20 billion in U.S. military and non-military aid since 2001, and the administration’s foreign aid request for fiscal year 2013 is $2.228 billion.
Last year Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) pushed for months for a bill to set conditions on aid to Pakistan, whose commitment to the fight against terrorism he questioned.
Specifically, he called for the money to be withheld until Islamabad frees Dr. Shakil Afridi, who helped the U.S. to track down Osama bin Laden, and was convicted last year and sentenced to 33 years’ imprisonment. The State Department has called for Afridi’s release, but he remains incarcerated.
Paul raised the subject again during Kerry’s Senate confirmation hearing last month, and Kerry argued that Pakistan has not received enough credit for its help in the operation to track down the fugitive al-Qaeda terrorist.
Cutting aid, Kerry said, would be “a pretty dramatic, draconian, sledgehammer approach to a relationship that really has a lot of interests.” (Paul interjected that he was speaking about conditioning aid, not cutting it.)
Kerry concluded that he would again raise the Afridi issue with the Pakistanis, “but I am not going to recommend, nor do I think it’s wise, for American policy just to cut our assistance. We need to build our relationship with the Pakistanis, not diminish it.”
On the Senate floor last September, Paul said while some Pakistanis have been cooperative, many others “with a wink and a nod look at us, take our money and laugh at us.”
The administration has called the Iran-Pakistan pipeline plans a bad idea but has not directly threatened sanctions under existing law.
The 1996 Iran Sanctions Act provides for sanctions against companies or individuals investing $20 million or more in Iran’s energy sector; the measures were expanded in the 2010 Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act; and the Iran Threat Reduction Act, signed into law last summer, closed loopholes in the earlier legislation, provides additional penalties for those helping Iran’s gas, oil, financial and shipping sectors.