A massive earthquake has struck near the Iran-Pakistan border in the region known in both countries as Balochistan. With Iran subject to massive US sanctions that are already crippling its economy and affecting health care, responding to this disaster will be a huge challenge. Just over the border in Pakistan, the region has been torn by what some see as government-sanctioned disappearances and killings. The border in the region is quite porous and there have been a number of incidents involving both Iranian and Pakistani border control agents. The best prospects for the economy of the area to improve hinge on the Iran-Pakistan pipeline which crosses the border within about 150 miles of the epicenter and development of the port of Gwadar, which Pakistan recently signed over to China, also just over 150 miles from where the earthquake struck.
PressTV informs us that deaths from the quake have already been reported:
At least 40 people have been killed after a powerful earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale struck Iran’s southeastern Sistan and Baluchestan Province, the Iranian Seismological Center (IRSC) says.
The IRSC reported that the epicenter of the quake was situated 81 kilometers north of the city of Saravan.
Dawn reports that Iranian authorities say it is the worst earthquake to hit Iran in 40 years:
An Iranian government official said he expected hundreds of deaths from the massive 7.8 magnitude earth quake, felt as far away as New Delhi and Gulf cities of Dubai and Bahrain.
“It was the biggest earthquake in Iran in 40 years and we are expecting hundreds of dead,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
(While this post was being written, Dawn updated the article to note that five deaths have already been reported on the Pakistan side of the border.)
The shaking was felt across large distances:
Tremors from the earthquake were felt as far away as New Delhi and the Gulf cities of Dubai and Bahrain.
Note that last year, two earthquakes in northwest Iran killed over 300 people. Those quakes had magnitudes of 6.4 and 6.2 on the Richter scale. The scale is logarithmic, so even the lower 7.5 estimate from Iran (compared to the initial 7.8 from USGS) makes this earthquake at least ten times more powerful than the quakes last summer. The region where today’s quake struck is much less populated, but with a quake of this magnitude, expect the devastation to cut a very wide swath.
On Saturday, the ceremony to transfer final control of the Detention Facility in Parwan to Afghanistan was canceled at the last minute as the US once again tried to maintain veto power over Afghan decisions on which prisoners to free. This occurred amid a backdrop of a range of other events demonstrating how the US is trapped in a quagmire in Afghanistan and yesterday was no better, as Karzai ratcheted up his rhetoric even further, prompting cancellation of the joint press appearance featuring Karzai and Chuck Hagel, who was making his first trip to Afghanistan as the new US Secretary of Defense.
Today caps the shitstorm in the region, as we have yet another green on blue attack, and although it is very early in sorting out details, it appears to involve US Special Forces in Maidan Wardak province, where Karzai had made today the deadline for SOF to withdraw from the province over allegations of widespread atrocities at the hands of groups claiming to be affiliated with and/or trained by US SOF. But US pain and embarrassment spread further out into the region immediately surrounding Afghanistan today, as Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a joint appearance to commemorate the official ground-breaking for construction of Pakistan’s side of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. From the PressTV account of the event, we get some background:
The 1,600-kilometer pipeline, projected to cost USD 1.2-1.5 billion, would enable the export of 21.5 million cubic meters of Iranian natural gas to Pakistan on a daily basis.
Iran has already constructed more than 900 kilometers of the pipeline on its soil.
Tehran-based Tadbir Energy Development Group will reportedly undertake all engineering procurement and construction work for the first segment of the project, which starts from the Iran-Pakistan border and costs around USD 250 million.
The Iranian firm will also carry out the second segment of the project, and extend the financing later to USD 500 million.
The Express Tribune relates the history of the US trying to prevent the pipeline being built:
The two sides hope the pipeline will be complete in time to start delivery of 21.5 million cubic metres of gas per day to Pakistan by December 2014.
The US has issued warnings to invoke economic sanctions already in place against Iran if Pakistan went ahead with its plans to import natural gas from the Islamic republic.
The United States has steadfastly opposed Pakistani and Indian involvement, saying the project could violate sanctions imposed on Iran over nuclear activities that Washington suspects are aimed at developing a weapons capability. Iran denies this.
India quit the project in 2009, citing costs and security issues, a year after it signed a nuclear deal with Washington.
Isn’t that interesting? The pipeline could come online the same month that NATO troops are scheduled to end their involvement in Afghanistan. That could well be why we see this paragraph in the Fars News story on the pipeline:
During the meeting at the international airport of the Southeastern Iranian port of Chabahar today, Ahmadinejad and Zardari said that the gas pipeline will further strengthen the economic, political and security relations between Tehran and Islamabad and other regional states.
US presence in the region clearly has been a destabilizing force. Iran and Pakistan appear to be taking steps toward what they hope will be improved stability once we are gone.
Even though he was unsure of its pronunciation, Representative Dana Rohrabacher mounted what was initially a one-man campaign that he claimed was for a free and independent Balochistan. He did eventually enlist top-notch intellectual luminaries Louie Gohmert and Steve King in his effort, but the lingering question I had regarding his efforts on this front boiled down to:
Does Rohrabacher want to help the Baloch, or does he merely want US control of the port of Gwadar and an end to the planned gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan through Balochistan?
We now have the opportunity to answer that question, as Rohrabacher’s attempts to arrange US control of Gwadar and to prevent the gas pipeline have failed. Pakistan officially transferred control of the port of Gwadar to China today from the Port of Singapore Authority. The final agreement relating to construction of the gas pipeline through Pakistan (Iran claims to have completed 900 kilometers of the pipeline within its borders already) was expected to be signed last Friday, but it appears a last-minute disagreement of gas pricing has delayed those signatures for a week. Here is Dawn on the transfer of Gwadar:
China took control of Pakistan’s Gwadar port on Monday as part of its drive to secure energy and maritime routes that also gives it a potential Arabian Sea naval base, sparking Indian concern. “The contract of operation of Gwadar port is formally given to China. Today, the agreement is transferred from the Port of Singapore Authority to China Overseas Ports Holding Company Limited,” President Asif Ali Zardari announced. “The award of this contract opens new opportunities for our people… It gives new impetus to Pakistan-China relations,” added Zardari in a speech broadcast live on television.
As the article notes, China had funded the bulk of the construction of the port, so it should come as no surprise that they would eventually gain control:
China paid about 75 per cent of the initial $250 million used to build the port but in 2007 PSA International won a 40-year operating lease. Then-ruler Pervez Musharraf was reportedly unwilling to upset Washington by giving control of the port to the Chinese.
I have to wonder whether Rohrabacher’s outright hostility shown to Pakistan over the Balochistan freedom movement and the issue of Dr. Shakeel Afridi played into their willingness to go against US wishes in signing Gwadar over to the Chinese. Perhaps Representative Rohrabacher can enlist a new ally in his battles with Pakistan since he is such an adherent to “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach. It appears that Iran is finding it necessary to build their own naval base very close to Gwadar so that they can keep an eye on what transpires there:
Iran’s Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari says the country is establishing a new base in the Sea of Oman near Pakistan’s border to boost the Islamic Republic’s defense capabilities. “The naval base, which is under construction, is situated in the Gwatr Gulf on our country’s farthest eastern shores bordering Pakistan,” Sayyari said on Sunday.
“The Iranian navy has so far had no military presence in the area, but now, we will be present in the region to defend the interests and maritime resources of our country and exercise a tighter control over the traffic in the region,” Sayyari noted.
Just as he took up arms to fight alongside Osama bin Laden’s Mujahideen movement against his arch-enemies from the Soviet Union, maybe Rohrabacher will decide to team up with Iran’s navy near Gwadar in an attempt to punish Pakistan for daring to thwart his wishes.