The fate of the 4 billion US dollars trans-Pakistan gas pipeline, to energize India's power hungry industrial sector with Iranian gas, seems to hang in balance after increasing US pressure on the participating countries to abandon the project.
US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in her talks with the Pakistani and Indian leaders during her visit early this week to the Asian countries did not mince words about the US concerns over the gas pipeline project.
"We've voiced our concerns to the Indian Government about the gas pipeline with Iran. It's not only with India. We've similarly talked to Japan about a gas project that they would have because the United States has sanctions on Iran for good reasons," Rice said.
Under a US law or the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, George Bush can penalize any foreign firm that invests more than 20 million dollars in the energy sectors of either country.
The Untied States has been exerting increasing pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear program, which it says was intended to build weapons rather for peaceful uses.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz who had been touting the project as a peace-pipeline put the issue on the top of his agenda during a recent visit to Iran.
After his talks with the Iranian leadership, it was announced that petroleum ministers of Pakistan, Iran and India would meet in Islamabad in the third week of March to discuss "feasibility and technical" details, but the proposed meeting has now been postponed.
While there has been no cogent reason for the postponement of the meeting, both Pakistan and India deny any pressure to give up the project.
"We have traditional good relations with Iran. We expect Iran will fulfill all of its obligations with regard to the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty)," Indian External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh said after meeting Rice in New Delhi.
Pakistani Prime Minister Aziz also denied any pressure on Islamabad to dump the deal. "We have no pressure," he said recently when asked about any such demands from the United States. He rather hoped the final decision would be made by the end of the year.
But political analysts believed Washington would continue to mount pressure on Pakistan and India against the project.
"I think the Americans are tightening the noose and trying to make sure that Iran is not helped by India or Pakistan in any way, because they know the Iranians are desperate to get projects like the gas pipeline through," Pakistani political commentator and newspaper editor Najam Sethi said.
Iran contains an estimated 286.6 trillion cubic meter in proven natural gas reserves -- the world's second largest and surpassed only by those found in Russia.
Indian Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar was the first to disclose the increasing US pressure on India after a meeting with the US envoy in New Delhi, David Mulford, ahead of Rice's visit.
"All of us have noted what the US concerns are but I think they too are aware of our energy security requirements," Aiyar said.
The Iranians, already weary of Washington's negative approach towards it, have reacted angrily to the US intervention in the deal.
"If they (the Americans) can not help in increase of regional cooperation and stability, they should at least avoid creating difficulties. India, Iran and Pakistan are independent countries and take their own decisions," said a statement issued after the Singh-Mulford meeting.
The 2,775 km pipeline proposed in 1996 never took off mainly owing to shaky relations between the two rivals India and Pakistan.
India initially showed reluctance over the passage of gas line through Pakistan, citing security reasons and tying the project with the string of conditions that include the Most Favored Nation status from Pakistan.
But it finally indicated its willingness to join unconditionally after Pakistan vowed to go ahead alone. The pipeline if constructed could be operational by 2009.
Pakistan is eager for the project because it would have access to the gas and earn an estimated 600 million dollars a year in transit fees.
However apart from the US pressure, the project faces other security risks.
The recent spate of attacks on Pakistan's natural gas installations and pipelines in southwestern Balochistan province by insurgents remains a serious threat.
But the Pakistani leadership has time and again reiterated to take all measures to safeguard its national assets. "We have assured India a secure energy corridor. This is a win-win proposition for Iran, India and Pakistan," Prime Minister Aziz said.