The Iranian blockade of Afghan fuel supply trucks is fueling a diplomatic tussle between the two countries, after several protest demonstration in Kabul, in the latest of which angry protesters burnt down photos of Ahmadinejad and pelted stones and eggs on the main gate of Iranian Embassy in Kabul. Over 1800 oil tankers are stopped across the border in Iran for more than a month now. And yet there is not a clear official explanation from Tehran, saying these supplies go to NATO, and sometimes calling ‘technical problems’ as the reason. Prices are skyrocketing across the country not only outraging the traders and importers, but the hard-hit poor people. Its extreme cold in capital Kabul nowadays, with the first snowfall of the season last week, and price hike of fuel in such a season is a hard hit to millions of poor.
Strange is that the blockade started right a week after the TAPI gas pipeline agreement was signed recently, while these supply tankers had been coming from Iranian borders since long time. Seems like Tehran suddenly ‘noticed’ that the supply goes to NATO or the US forces. Over 30% of Afghanistan’s fuel supply comes from Iraq, Turkmenistan, Turkey and UAE through Iran. And the trucks blocked belong to Afghan traders and oil companies for civilian supply. If it was for coalition troops, thousands of people wouldn’t have protested in several cities in the past weeks against Iran, nor the prices would have gone skyrocketing. Some of the tankers belong to Afghan oil companies supplying for civilian aircrafts on airports. Dawi Oil, a major supplier on airports is one of them affected. But despite official explanation from Afghanistan, Tehran continues saying the supply goes to coalition forces. It seems that Iran is not happy with the $7.6 billion Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline project recently signed by the leaders of these countries in Ashgabat on Dec 11. President Karzai attended the meeting. There were critical commentary in Iranian press the day TAPI agreement was sealed. Iranian officials and media have been propagating security concerns and other problems in Afghanistan as obstacle to TAPI. The Iran-Pakistan-India, IPI or so-called Peace Pipeline project was left aside under the US pressure and it has already grim future once work on TAPI starts in 2012. But still Tehran has been pushing Islamabad for IPI. Iranian diplomats and media have been propagating in that regard. A report on Tehran Times last week said,
“The project was conceived in 1990’s among Iran, Pakistan and India and named as IPI Gas Pipeline Project. It was finalized in 2008 when legal formalities were completed between Pakistan and Iran. India has opted not to join the project at this stage but there is provision in the project for India to join at some later stage”
The official Iranian news agency IRNA had a report two days after the TAPI project was signed. It said,
“even after the war in Afghanistan it would take years to bring stability in Afghanistan so how a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan could be laid in such circumstances”. An analyst quote in the report said “I don’t see any future of Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas project.”
Afghanistan will buy 5.1 billion cubic meters of gas besides millions of dollars transit revenue and thousands of jobs for Afghans. The 2,775-kilometres TAPI will probably replace the 1680 kilometers IPI, for which Tehran is pushing hard. The blockade of Afghan supply trucks on borders of Herat, Farah and Nimroz provinces causing millions of dollars loss to Afghan custom revenues and a fuel crisis in the country is part of that same tactic to push for IPI.
Tehran was also trying to bring China and Russian into IPI project. But Beijing has already signed a 195 USD per 1000 cubic meters contract with Ashgabat currently being on the outset of pipeline construction. It seems like TAPI has already replaced IPI. After the US nuclear deal with India in 2008, New Delhi left the so-called Peace Pipeline project in 2009. Following Indian departure, the Iranian plans of extending the pipeline to Bangladesh and further were ruined, but Tehran kept trying to persuade Islamabad for Iran-Pakistan, reducing one I for (India) of the IPI. Islamabad was less interested after New Delhi left the negotiations in 2008 due to the costs and revenues that could generate for Pakistan from the transit fee. And TAPI is a far better deal for Pakistan and India.
It was interesting when the insurgent group Hizb-e-Islami offered volunteers for the security of TAPI in Afghanistan, which has been the propaganda of Iranian press regarding TAPI through Afghanistan. Though Hekmatyar has been in Iran for a long time and he was on Iranian intelligence’s payroll for many years, but since last year, he has been talking against Iran. Afghanistan has said it will raise an 8,000-strong force to secure the 835-kilometer part of the pipeline passing through Herat, Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
Despite the increasing public pressure, President Karzai is avoiding any confrontation with Tehran on the blockade of oil tankers, though the Foreign Ministry has explained Iranian officials that the supply do not go to coalition forces. Vice President Qasim Fahim was in Tehran recently and the blockade issue was discussed, but still the ban continues. It has caused a new wave of anger against Iran among the outraged Afghans. Some were asking the Government to end ties with Tehran. The Government is now planning to reduce fuel dependence on Iran, doubling imports from Pakistan and Turkmenistan and preparing grounds for imports from Russia. For temporary solution of the price hike, the Ministry of Commerce and Industries has suggested import of 200,000 cubic tones of fuel from Kazakhstan.