Of Terror and Pipes – The Mumbai Blasts Place Iran-India Project in Peril

December 5, 2008

A Pipeline to India? The Eilat-India route would pass down the Red Sea, through the Gulf of Aden and across the Indian Ocean

A Pipeline to India? The Eilat-India route would pass down the Red Sea, through the Gulf of Aden and across the Indian Ocean

A few years ago, I wrote a blog about energy pipelines and global geopolitics. At the time, it seemed to me that a lot of what we were seeing could be explained by a long term plan to assure American dominance of key energy shipment routes. The Israeli attack on Lebanon, for example, subdued a piece of coastline along which supertankers or underwater pipelines could soon be snaking, taking oil from the port of Ceyhan to Israel and beyond.

The war in Somalia, which was really just getting underway, looked like it might have a relationship with strategic goals, such as controlling the exit to the Red Sea. The U.S. was supporting Mikhail Saakashvilli in Georgia, who was threatening to attack Abkhazia, and I suggested that “The Caucasus remains an Achilles Heel of the Oil Imperium” as indeed it still does.

Looking at the broader picture, from Azerbaijan to Somalia, I predicted that “Around that arc sretching from Baku in the north, to Ceyhan, Ashkelon and then Eritrea, Aden, Puntland and Mogadishu we can expect a wave of conflicts to secure the coastline and neutralise local threats. Threats that is, meaning people who seek royalties, environmental protections, non-hydrocarbon based societies or meaningful democracy.”

That wasn’t very far from accurate.

As was this passage:

Outside of the oil arc, and particularly in regions that produce oil yet do not export it through recognized imperial means, we can expect instability. Afghanistan – for all of the fantasies about pipelines from the Caspian to Karachi – will never provide the stability required for this to work. Baluchistan, however might. Yet an oil pipeline through Baluchistan to Asian markets would involve Iran. Hence destabilizing the Iranian-Pakistan border region is a U.S. strategic priority.

But, what is the point of this trip down memory lane? Not to blow my own trumpet, that’s for sure. Considering all of the pain and mayhem that the pursuit of power through oil has engendered, there is no room for satisfaction about managing to see it clearly as it develops. I’m bringing it all back into focus as, with the Mumbai attacks and the ongoing destabilization of Pakistan and Somalia, the whole scenario is ongoing and pertinent.

It turns out that the U.S. has not given up its aspirations to dominate the world by controlling the way energy is transported.

How many media outlets have reported this titbit? On 25 November, one day before terrorists struck Mumbai, throwing Indo-Pakistani relations into a tailspin, the U.S.-government mouthpiece Voice of America had this to report. According to correspondent Anjana Pasricha, “Petroleum officials from India, Turkey and Israel will meet next month to discuss a project to transport oil and gas to India using a combination of pipelines and supertankers running between the three countries.”

This seemingly geographically complex scheme will require that “the oil and gas will be carried via a pipeline from the Caspian region to the Turkish port of Ceyhan” while “the supplies will then be taken via supertankers to Israel, fed into pipelines running to Israel’s Eilat port, and finally make their way to India via the Red Sea.”

Analyst Shebonti Ray Dadwal is quoted as saying that while “I believe it is going to be four dollars a barrel cheaper to transport it through the pipeline” it will also mean that “it will allow us to avoid the Suez Canal and Strait of Hormuz… In the event of a war that is going to be blocked.” Now what war could he be referring to?

The Ceyhan-Eilat-India plan is a remarkable development in energy geopolitics which has depended on several factors for its adoption, if it gets that far. Not least among these is the seeming demise an (on the face of it) much more feasible scheme to transport oil and gas from Iran, via Pakistan, to India. Unfortunately, as the AP reported on 25 November, “a long-planned pipeline that would have linked India to Iran through Pakistan  [has] failed to materialize, held up by disagreements over costs, Indian fears about the pipeline’s security, and strong U.S. opposition.”

The attacks on Mumbai, which have been linked to Pakistani groups (with very little evidence) have buried the Iran-Pakistan-Pipeline still deeper. This is good news for those who stand to make billions from the alternative route: western oil majors, Georgia, Turkey, Israel and elements friendly to the project within the Indian establishment.

For Israel, there may be a double win here. The AP also suggests that “Shipping the crude and gas from Eilat would allow Indian tankers to avoid the Suez Canal” – which the sudden explosion of “piracy” in the Gulf of Aden may already have contributed to in any case.

Yet things aren’t as simple as VOA and the AP make out. It turns out that the Iranian route was not dead. On 24 November, India and Iran had actually expressed a desire to see the project proceed. As reported by Iranian government network PressTV, the Indian ambassador to Iran said that “India is a big energy consumer and we are interested to see the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline built.” India’s Foreign Minister, responding to accusations that increasing India’s reliance on nuclear energy would obviate the need for expanded gas pipelines, told reporters that while nuclear “is one source of energy, the other important source is the IPI gas pipeline. One is not exclusive to the other.”

Even Henry Kissinger thought in November that the pipeline should go ahead. Speaking to Indian businessmen, he opined that “the pipeline will be a natural thing to do.”

This is all very confusing. The VOA seemed to see the demise of the IPI as a done deal. Perhaps they knew something we, and the Indian government, didn’t.

What seems certain is that the Indian government has been under pressure from the U.S. to disengage from its Iranian venture. Financial website LiveMint pointed in mid November to the Indian government delaying work on a major gas field in Iran. The website quoted “a senior Iranian foreign ministry official based in India” who suggested that “is some pressure from the West on India.”

Pipe-crimes

Seeing the bigger picture in energy geopolitics makes the problem of Somalian piracy easier to understand as well. Conventionally thought of as a product of the disintegration of the Somali state, the recent spate of attacks may have more to do with covert operations to reconfigure the way energy is transported around the world, while the pirates have also provided cover for nations who stand to benefit from the Ceyhan-Eilat scheme to enhance their naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

The evidence for a relationship between the pirates and U.S. (or other) intelligence agencies is growing, but sparse. The best link we have so far is the report carried by ABC of a mysterious “benefactor” negotiating with the captors of the Sirius Star and the MV Faina (which holds a cargo of weapons). That negotiator was reported to be Michele Ballarin, who has “for five years on her own, built a network of clan and sub-clan leaders in every region of the country” according to business partner Ross Newland.

This includes being able to communicate with the pirates via satellite phone and publicly stating her ambition to “recruit 500 men and women to serve as a Somali coast guard operating out of Berbera, the country’s major port.”

Ballarin was reported to be one of the organizers of Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion of Somalia, operating a weapons smuggling operation via Uganda in the months leading up to the intervention in support of the U.S.-backed Transitional Government. At the time leaked documents suggested that she was in contact with officials at an intelligence agency in Virginia, although precisely which agency was not made clear.

The U.S. desire to control Somalia’s coast was also made apparent when Virginia company Top Cat Marine secured a contract from the Transitional Government to run “coastguard” operations, in late 2005.

This is all closely linked to the need to secure the Gulf of Aden as both a choke point and a shipment point for oil and liquified natural gas. The wave of pirate attacks has come, coincidentally, just as a major LNG facility nears completion in Yemen, directly north of Puntland, where the pirates are supposedly based.

As the Tehran Times reported on 20 November, the Belhaf project, which at $4.1billion is by far the largest business venture in Yemen, “will have capacity to produce 6.7 million tons per year of LNG” and “First gas had arrived at Belhaf from the south through a 320km pipeline from the Marib oil basin.” Belhaf is 40 percent funded by French giant Total, and 17 percent from Hunt Oil, a Texas based firm.

France and the U.S. are prime movers behind the deployment of naval force against Somali pirates.

As I related in 2006, Yemen has been targeted as a vital client state in the race to dominate energy shipment routes. Since then, this has been developed, with western private military firms in the ascendancy. Yemen’s navy has been trained by the Hart Group, a UK-based private military firm which has also been reportedly training a “coastguard” in the Somali port of Bosasso – which is often portrayed by the media as a pirate stronghold. Hardly, if a bunch of British mercenaries can train locals there.

Somali piracy is a complex product of covert strategic aims, poverty and local grievances against illegal activities such as toxic waste dumping or illegal fishing – but the overriding drift in the region is that the U.S. is consolidating its dominance of the seas, and providing a safe exit point for supertankers carrying oil from Eilat to Asian destinations.

It isn’t a coincidence that this will also create a potential choke point for Sudanese oil that is destined for China. Sudanese oil generally transits via Port Sudan on the Red Sea, meaning that it must pass through the Gulf of Aden.

The cost of erecting this energy architecture has been immense. The brutal invasion of Somalia has killed tens of thousands. The Georgian invasion of South Ossetia can be explained as an attempt to expand the cushion around the Baku-Tbilsi-Ceyhan pipeline. The ongoing destabilization of Pakistan has had a huge cost in human lives, as has repression in Ethiopia, Azerbaijan and Turkey’s Kurdish region.

There are always characters like Madeline Albright around, ready to weigh the blood of millions against the strategic interests of the world’s fortunate, “indispensible” nation. They’re doing it now – and they don’t like to talk about it much.

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