WASHINGTON, Jan 5 (AFP): The United States (US) said it was 'absolutely opposed' to a natural gas pipeline project linking Iran with Pakistan and India, even though it was seen as feasible by an Asian Development Bank (ADB) expert.
Iran is reportedly nearing an accord with the two neighbours for the 2,600-kilometre (1,600-mile) pipeline costing more than seven billion dollars.
"The US government supports multiple pipelines from that (the Caspian) region but remains absolutely opposed to pipelines involving Iran," senior State Department official Steven Mann told a forum in Washington late Wednesday.
The US accuses Iran of trying to build a nuclear bomb and being a state sponsor of terror.
Mann, the special negotiator for Eurasian conflicts in the State Department's bureau of European affairs, spoke after an ADB expert told the forum that the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline and another planned pipeline project linking Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan were both feasible.
Dan Millison, ADB's senior energy specialist, said at the meeting organised by Johns Hopkins University that his assessment was based purely on economic grounds and demand from energy-guzzling nuclear rivals India and Pakistan.
He said that generally, "piped gas was economically favourable versus LNG (liquefied natural gas)."
"TAP (the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan project) and the Iran-Pakistan-India options appear viable and competitive versus LNG," Millison said.
Mann said any success of the Turkmenistan-sourced project depended on long term market and supply reliability and participation of "heavy hitters" from the private sector.
India, Pakistan and Iran, which has the world's second-biggest natural gas reserves, have said they hope to conclude a deal by June 2006 despite US opposition. They plan to hold further talks in February in Tehran.
India has said construction of the pipeline should start in 2007 and be operational by 2011.
Millison said although the 1,680-kilometre (1,041-mile) trans-Afghan gas pipeline was shorter and less costly, as of last month, India and Pakistan were 'moving forward' with the project with Iran.
New Delhi's hopes of importing gas from Iran through rival Pakistan got a boost in 2004 when it began a peace process with Islamabad. India and Pakistan say they see the pipeline as a big confidence-building move.
A multilateral institution official, who attended the Washington meeting and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a key question was whether India and Pakistan were prepared to go ahead with the trilateral project despite US opposition.
He thought India particularly had the 'capacity' to forge ahead with the project but a US official beside him said New Delhi might not sacrifice its 'long term interest' with Washington.
The US regards Pakistan as a key ally in its 'war on terror' and has provided much aid to the country. It has also pledged to go out of the way to provide civilian nuclear technology to meet India's energy needs.
But India and Pakistan believe the trilateral deal will not dampen relations with Washington.
Under its Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, Washington has barred US companies from investing in Iran's oil and gas industry and said that foreign companies that invest more than 25 million dollars in the sector would be denied business opportunities in the US.