As India and Pakistan prepare for their first serious meeting in a bid to kick-start a stalled US$4 billion gas pipeline from Iran, fears are rising that the project may again be derailed by growing opposition from the United States. Indian Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar is due to visit Islamabad next weekend for talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Amanullah Jadoon, amid hopes that an easing of two decades of mistrust between the two nuclear rivals will allow the first serious discussions over the project's technical aspects. The 2,600km pipeline, known as the 'pipeline of peace', will originate in the South Pars fields in Iran and distribute much-needed gas to the two energy-starved South Asian neighbours. Conceived in 1994, the pipeline project has never made much headway, mainly because of India's concern about Pakistan's ability to restrict supply. But after peace talks were initiated last year by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and former Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, the project is now seen as crucial to lasting peace between the historically antagonistic neighbours. Analysts say the pipeline could have far-reaching effects on Indian-Pakistani relations by reducing the risk of conflict and giving the peace process a forward push. 'The establishment of an energy corridor, which would run from Iran to India through Pakistan, will possibly be the most significant confidence-building measure,' said Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri. Pakistan, whose own gas reserves will run out in the next five years, is particularly desperate for the project. Besides meeting its rapidly growing energy needs, the pipeline is expected to bring the country millions of dollars each year in transit fees. But the project also runs contrary to the Bush administration's aggressive economic isolation of Tehran. During her recent visit to the region, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned both India and Pakistan not to proceed with the project. 'Any move to strengthen Iran, by trade or otherwise, would be frowned on by the United States,' she said. The US accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons and believes a policy of diplomatic pressure coupled with strict economic sanctions may compel it to abandon its efforts to acquire nuclear technology. Tehran insists its nuclear programme is only for peaceful purposes and is intended solely to generate electricity. Apart from angering the Bush administration, another worrying factor for Pakistan remains the volatile security situation in its restive Baluchistan province, through which the pipeline would run. In recent weeks, the province has witnessed full-scale armed conflict between Baloch nationalists and government security forces over the issue of greater provincial autonomy and a share in the pipeline project's revenues. It is feared that the planned pipeline may become a target of Baloch grievances. Observers believe the project poses a new political challenge to General Musharraf, who has vowed to press ahead with it despite its vulnerability and the risk of offending his American benefactors. 'We want gas immediately and Iran is the fastest source,' he said recently.