by Muhammad Tahir
ISLAMABAD, March 3 (Xinhua) -- Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has announced that his energy-starved country will pursue the multi-billion dollar gas pipeline project with neighboring Iran despite strong U.S. opposition.
Zardari's latest statement comes days after the U.S. State Department advised Pakistan to look for other energy options instead of the Iran gas project.
Sections of the American media have also reported that Washington is likely to slap sanctions on Pakistan if it pushes through with the 7.5 billion U.S. dollar pipeline project with Iran.
But a defiant President Zardari has disclosed that the Iran gas pipeline project will be formally inaugurated on March 11 in the Iranian city of Chahbahar, where dignitaries from regional countries have been invited to attend.
"I will take along a group of journalists with me to witness the ceremony," he told senior journalists, TV anchors and columnists in the eastern city of Lahore late Saturday.
Pakistani media had earlier reported that the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline will be inaugurated on March 11 at the Pakistan-Iran border city of Chahbahar by the presidents of the two countries.
Pakistan and Iran have held series of talks on the project for nearly two decades but it was finalized only last week during President Zardari's visit to Teheran.
India had been previously part of the project but it quit after the country signed a civilian nuclear deal with the U.S. in 2005.
President Zardari defended the Iran gas line and said that the project will not only help the country in mitigating the gas and energy shortage but would also go a long way to benefit the coming generations of Pakistan.
Asked about the U.S. objections, the President said Pakistan is a sovereign country and it is only acting to serve its national interest.
He expressed the hope that with the passage of time, critics will appreciate Pakistan's growing energy requirement and the need for Pak-Iran gas pipeline.
Pakistani media have also reported that Tehran has agreed to provide a 500 million US dollars loan to partially finance construction of the pipeline on the Pakistan side, which will cost 1.5 billion U.S. dollars. Pakistan will shoulder the remaining cost from its own resources.
If everything else goes well, the pipeline will be completed in 15 months. Iran has already completed the pipeline in its territory while the laying of 785-km long Pakistani section will start shortly.
Pakistan plans to import 21.5 million cubic meters of gas daily from Iran through the pipeline.
While Pakistani officials have defended the gas project with Iran on several occasions, it was the first time that President Zardari has announced his unequivocal support of the long-awaited project which a majority of the Pakistanis have considered as vital to the country's economic development.
The United States has always opposed the project even if it has failed to support Pakistani efforts to solve its worsening energy crisis.
Analysts here said that the Pakistani government is under tremendous pressure to implement the project and has decided to do so even at the risk of displeasing the United States, one of its principal allies in the region.