Energy on Agenda for Ahmadinejad India Visit

A04090031.jpgTEHRAN (FNA)- Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will stop in New Delhi next week on a brief “working visit” to be topped by talks on two multi-billion dollar energy deals, an official said Monday.

Ahmadinejad will arrive in Islamabad on April 29 after a two-day state visit to India’s southern neighbor Sri Lanka, and leave later that day, the foreign ministry official said.

During his stay, Ahmadinejad’s first to India, he will meet his Indian counterpart Pratibha Patil and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the official said.

“Energy issues are on the agenda for talks,” said the official, who declined to give more details.

Energy-hungry India, which imports more than 70 percent of its energy needs, has been racing to secure new supplies of oil and gas from abroad besides ramping up domestic production to sustain its booming economic growth.

New Delhi has been in talks with Iran, which has the world’s second largest known gas reserves after Russia, on two major projects.

Talks on supplying gas to India via Pakistan through a 2,600-kilometre (1,615-mile) pipeline, which began in 1994, have been stalled by tensions between India and Pakistan as well as disagreements over pricing and transit fees.

India has also been under pressure from the United States not to do business with Iran.

Another deal with Tehran, signed in 2005 for the supply of five million tons of gas per year for 25 years, has also stalled over price disputes.

Iran and Pakistan are likely to sign the gas pipeline project by April 25 even if India chooses to stay away for the time being, officials said.

“If India does not want to immediately join in the agreement, it could do so afterwards. We will sign it bilaterally for the time being”, a senior Pakistani government official said earlier.

He said the elected government wanted to complete the project soon in view of the increasing demand for gas and a draft had also been prepared in this regard. “India can always join us. We are nor excluding it. We in fact want them to sign it with us,” the official said.

Pakistani Petroleum Ministry officials said that Sui Southern and Sui Northern gas pipeline companies had agreed on a joint venture for the construction of the project and the government has been briefed about that the financial institutions within and outside the country were ready to provide funds for the construction of pipelines.

Indian Petroleum Minister Murli Deora is scheduled to visit Islamabad this week to resolve issues regarding the $7.4 billion gas pipeline project, especially the issue of transit fee.

Federal Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources Khawaja Mohammad Asif said Pakistan was fully committed to providing transit facility to India for IPI project, adding that there should be no further delay in the realization of the project which would help meet energy shortfall in both the countries.

The minister was talking to High Commissioner of India Satyabrata Pal who called on him in his office in Islamabad and discussed matters of mutual interest.

The federal minister, highlighting the importance of the project, said that there should be no further delay in the realization of the project which would help meet energy shortfall in both countries.

Meantime, India voiced deep enthusiasm for resolving differences with Pakistan on the pipeline project.

“We have two-three small differences on transit fees. But I am very optimist we can sort out problems, ” India’s Petroleum Minister Murli Deora said ahead of his visit to Pakistan to discuss the IPI pipeline.

“I had been getting invitations from the minister on when I would go to Islamabad, but I could not go there while elections were there or after tragic events (assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination),” he added.

Deora is slated to hold talks with his Pakistani counterpart over the multi-bln-dollar project in Islamabad today. A technical team was headed for the Pakistani capital last week to discuss the long-awaited gas project.

He earlier said that there would be a meeting among representatives of India, Iran and Pakistan on the gas project, also known as the Peace Pipeline, on April 21.

The countries held tripartite negotiations over the project until recently, but New Delhi’s vacillation made Tehran and Islamabad determined to continue talks bilaterally. Iran and Pakistan have almost finalized the deal.

The issue of transit fee will be the focus of talks between the two countries during the April 21 meeting. Petroleum Ministry officials said that the Indian minister and his Pakistani counterpart Khwaja Mohammad Asif would discuss various issues, including the transit fee that India would pay to Pakistan. The two-day visit is being conducted on the invitation of Pakistan Petroleum Ministry.

Earlier, a meeting between the two countries was postponed in February because of general elections in Pakistan.

India is keen to be a partner in the multi-billion Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline project and has promised to resist “all external pressures on the issue”, said Iranian Oil Minister Gholam Hossein Nozari.

According to Indian ministry sources, the IPI gas pipeline is quite crucial for New Delhi as after signing of the agreement, 60 million standard cubic meters per day (mmscmd) of gas is expected to be supplied in phase-I, which will be shared equally between India and Pakistan.

In phase-II, 90 mmscmd of gas will be supplied to India and Pakistan. So far six meetings of the trilateral joint working group (JWG) of the participating countries have been held with the last meeting being held in New Delhi on June 28-29, 2007.

India, Asia’s third-largest economy, can produce only half the gas it needs to generate electricity, causing blackouts and curbing economic growth. Demand may more than double to 400 million cubic meters a day by 2025 if the economy grows at the projected rate of 7 to 8 percent a year, according to the Indian oil ministry.

The several-billion-dollar project stalled because India couldn’t agree with Islamabad on the fees it will pay Pakistan for transporting the fuel. The 2,100-kilometer (1,305- mile) pipeline was shelved when the nuclear-armed neighbors came to the brink of war after a terrorist attack on India’s parliament in 2001.

Talks are more likely to progress after Pakistan elected Yousuf Raza Gillani as its new prime minister this week, ending six months of political instability that culminated with the suspension of the constitution in November and the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December.

Iran, which has the world’s second-largest oil and natural gas reserves, agreed to sell gas to India in 1995.

Iran plans to start exporting gas to Pakistan in 2011. Iran has completed half the pipeline, which can carry 110 million cubic meters of gas a day, National Iranian Gas Company (NIOC) said this month. India uses about 108 million cubic meters of gas a day, according to a BP Plc report.

The Iranian oil minister also said that Tehran has sent a letter to Pakistan asserting that the export of gas to India through the pipeline is of paramount importance for the country. The United States, which is at loggerheads with Tehran over its nuclear progress, is exerting pressure on India to withdraw from the project.

Nozari also stated that “Indian officials have voiced interest in the project and stated that no external power can influence them.”

The US, seeking to isolate Iran because of its pursuit of nuclear rights, had wanted the project scrapped, although Deora said the US is not opposed to the project.

“The Americans have not told us in clear terms that you should not support or go ahead with this pipeline project,” Deora said. “They are our largest trading partner. But that does not mean they can bully us on where to buy and where not to buy.”

The US is at loggerheads with Iran over Tehran’s independent and home-grown nuclear technology. Washington has laid much pressure on Iran to make it give up the most sensitive and advanced part of the technology, which is uranium enrichment, a process used for producing nuclear fuel for power plants.

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