KABUL -- Iran is continuing its plots to sabotage and undermine the much anticipated Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline despite consensus among all four participants on the project.
Iran's destructive plans for the multi-billion dollar gas pipeline started long ago and have escalated in recent months, and have included political as well as violent attempts to stop construction.
TAPI will stretch 1,840km and is scheduled to begin pumping natural gas from Turkmenistan's Galkynysh gas field by the beginning of 2020. It is expected to help ease energy deficits in South Asia and generate revenue for the four countries it traverses.
Sabotage and destructive plans
Through TAPI and other projects, the Afghan government has plans to turn the country into an economic and transit hub for the region, said Mir Mohammad Amin Farhang, former Afghan minister of commerce and a scholar of development economics.
"Iran can never tolerate the implementation of such major economic programmes in Afghanistan," he told Salaam Times last September. "Therefore, in every possible way -- such as support for the Taliban or dozens of other destructive plans -- Iran will do its utmost to make Afghanistan unstable."
Officials from the four countries involved in TAPI ceremonially broke ground on the Afghan section of the pipeline in February.
"There were pessimistic voices, but now we are witnessing the construction of the TAPI gas pipeline," Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said at the February 23 event.
Two days earlier, a group of Taliban militants surrendered to authorities in Herat Province, saying Iran trained and provided them with weapons, and directed them to attack the ceremony and pipeline.
"Iran provided us with money, weapons and equipment so that we could fight the [Afghan] security forces," Mohammad Ayub Alizayee, commander of the 10-member Taliban group, told Salaam Times at the time.
"Upon realising the truth and also in order to support TAPI, we gave up fighting and surrendered," he said.
On April 22, a second group of Taliban fighters surrendered to local authorities with similar accusations against Iran.
"Iran provided our commanders with weapons and ammunition and ordered them to attack and destroy TAPI," Fairuz Ahmad, leader of the seven-member group, said at a news conference in Herat.
"We did not follow their orders, however, since our entire nation benefits from TAPI," he said. "Instead, we contacted security officials and joined the peace process."
The failure of these plots has not stopped Iran from pursuing other means to halt the project.
Hamid Reza Araqi, managing director of the National Iranian Oil Co., April 29 bypassed Afghanistan and the other TAPI partners by offering a gas-swap deal to Turkmenistan that would transfer Turkmen gas to Pakistan via Iran.
Stoking security fears and appealing to Turkmenistan's desire to boost revenues quickly, Araqi said, "In the best case scenario, TAPI could be constructed in 10 years; it is still unclear which party is going to provide the project's security and funding."
"We can conduct a swap in a short time at a considerably lower cost," he said, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, without providing details on how much Turkmen gas Iran would be willing to swap.
"We have announced our readiness to Turkmenistan, that we are ready to export their gas to Pakistan, but have not received any response from them," Araqi said in the April 29 statement, suggesting the offer was made earlier.
Iran has completed its part of a project rivalling TAPI and meant to connect Iranian offshore gas fields to Pakistan and eventually to India.
Pakistan has rejected gas purchases from Iran and that project and remains committed to TAPI.
Meanwhile, in another incident aimed at thwarting TAPI, unidentified gunmen May 21 killed five de-miners working to clear an area in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, to enable construction of the pipeline.
The gunmen abducted one de-miner, according to Kandahar provincial police chief Gen. Abdul Raziq at the time, who blamed the Taliban.
The militants killed the de-miner May 23, Daud Ahmadi, spokesman for the Kandahar provincial governor, told Salaam Times.
"We cannot dismiss [reports of] Iran's involvement because the Taliban militants are now receiving money from Iran in order to destroy [TAPI] and put pressure on the [Afghan] government," he said.
"Afghanistan is heading towards development, and Iran cannot tolerate this. Water management and this pipeline are the two issues that Iran cannot accept," he said.
'No problem' for TAPI in Afghanistan
Afghan officials remain committed to advancing construction on TAPI and are confident in its future success.
"The practical work continues in accordance with ... the contract," said Abdulqadir Mutfi, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum. He described the practical work as "environmental reviews and land acquisition, as well as some other technical reviews".
"There exists no problem in Afghanistan that can prevent the completion of this project," he told Salaam Times.
"Iran wants to prevent the implementation of major national projects in Afghanistan, so that the country remains in its current condition," Zifunun Safi, a representative from Laghman in the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of parliament), told Salaam Times.
"TAPI's contract has been signed, and the work on this project has been started. Hence, the Iranian attempts will remain futile," she said, referring to Araqi's recent remarks.
"Turkmenistan is a regional gas exporter," said Saifuddin Saihun, an economist at Kabul University. "Instead of trying to sabotage TAPI, it is better for Iran to let go of such negative competition and to launch another project."
"As neighbours are seeking to create opportunities for co-operation, Iran should not replace healthy competition by hampering implementation of economic projects in Afghanistan," he told Salaam Times.
Afghans support TAPI
Residents of Kandahar, Helmand, Nimroz and Herat provinces, which the pipeline will traverse, have pledged their support for TAPI.
"Unfortunately, Iran has proven to be a bad neighbour," Shakib Siawash, a resident of Herat Province, told Salaam Times, referring to Iran's continuing efforts to undermine TAPI and previous Iranian designs on preventing completion of the Salma Dam project in Herat.
"It is clear that Iran is trying to prevent the implementation of economic mega-projects in Afghanistan," Sayed Jan Khakrezwal, chairman of the Kandahar provincial council, told Salaam Times. "Nevertheless, everyone supports such endeavours."
Iran is using security concerns in Afghanistan as an excuse to offer itself as a transit country for Turkmen gas headed for Pakistan, he said.
"It is true that there are conflicts and insecurities in Afghanistan," he said. "When it comes to assuring the security of the economic and national projects, however, everyone will help, and God willing, there will be no problem in the way of TAPI."
[Zia Samar from Helmand contributed to this report.]