Iran reaches out to Pakistan in its ‘hour of need’

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Iran reaches out to Pakistan in its ‘hour of need’

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On Friday the smiling and shrewd Iranian foreign minister landed in Islamabad in the latest of the Iranian attempts to forge a strong partnership with the new Imran Khan-led government.

During the bilateral negotiations, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi expressed Pakistan’s support for the Iranian stance on the nuclear deal and hope that all other actors will remain committed to it while also reiterating that “Pakistan stands with Iran in this hour of need.” This is  quite an interesting choice of words from the Pakistani foreign minister. Whether Pakistan really afford the diplomatic, political and economic cost of standing with Iran is still to be seen and depends on a number of variables.

The Pakistan-Iran relationship has been a rather fascinating combination of long periods of warmth followed by years of rather cold political engagement. During the Shah’s time, both countries were not only politically aligned with the similar International bloc but also shared a similar political outlook for the region. All this changed with the “Islamic Revolution” of 1979 in Iran, and both countries started to drift apart.

Pakistan’s proximity to Arab Gulf Kingdoms during the Afghan war and Iranian policies towards Arab Gulf countries created a further disconnect between the two countries. After the end of Afghan war, Iran didn’t have cordial ties with the Taliban government, which was essentially backed by Pakistan. The killing of Iranian diplomats during the Taliban takeover of Mazar-e-Sharif and the epic rise in sectarian violence within Pakistan further clouded the ties.

For the last 20 years, the bilateral relationship only blossomed to some extent under the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government from 2008-2013, during which the long-contemplated Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline agreement was finally reached and construction on it commenced. This momentum was lost with the change of government. Pakistan’s arrest of Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav, allegedly involved in terror planning and sabotage activities within Pakistan, from the Pak-Iran border had disastrous consequences for the bilateral ties. Additionally, attacks on Iranian security forces attributed to Jundullah and Jaishul-Adl, which Iran has allegedly accused of being hidden across the border, have further contributed to dampening the relationship.

Whether Pakistan can really afford the diplomatic, political and economic cost of standing with Iran is still to be seen and depends on a number of variables.

Umer Karim

It is against this background that the current Iranian attempt at reaching out to Pakistan is taking place. On the surface, the optics might suggest some melting of ice on both sides and prospects of renewed bilateral cooperation, but owing to structural hindrances and recent happenings on the global political scene it is advisable to have a rather realistic set of expectations. Iran currently feels politically and economically isolated within the broader region, specifically due to the reimposition of American sanctions after the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Buyers of Iranian oil globally are reducing their purchases, while trade with EU countries has also taken a massive hit.

In such a scenario, Iran will try to convince the Pakistani government that has supported the nuclear accord to complete construction of the gas pipeline on its side and finalize the project. Pakistan’s endemic energy problems make Iranian gas a lucrative option. Yet the report of a recent inter-ministerial meeting, held to assess the impact of the US withdrawal from the deal, and the possibility of secondary sanctions on countries dealing with Iran, suggest strong challenges and limitations in going forward with the gas pipeline project.

The structural reasons that blocked the completion of the Pak-Iran gas pipeline and extension of bilateral trade under the Nawaz government are very much there and have even become amplified. Regardless of the government’s rhetoric supporting Iran’s stand against the US, practically it can’t afford sanctions hitting the country in such an abysmal economic situation. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s offer of a $4 billion loan package to Pakistan through the Islamic Development Bank could force the new government to keep its dealings with the Iranians limited.

In terms of regional security, and specifically Afghanistan, both sides probably will find a common cause. Both Iran and Pakistan has stressed the inclusion of the Taliban in the Afghan decision-making process and gradually part of the Afghan government. This unanimity of viewpoints on the Afghan situation might result in increased coordination between Tehran and Islamabad, which could be helpful in eventually finding a political solution to the Afghan conflict.

Saying this, the Iranian recruitment of Pakistani Shiites, particularly from the Parachinar area of Kurram tribal district, has perturbed Pakistan’s security cadres, in addition to the Indian presence in Chabahar and activities across the Balochistan border. Iran needs to satisfy these concerns of Pakistan’s security establishment in order to get all the powerful segments within Pakistan on the same page and raise the level of bilateral trust. Also it will be interesting to see if Iran’s chief diplomat touches upon the activities of Jundullah/Jaishul-Adl in its Balochistan or whether he will leave it for the next meetings.

The Iranian effort to woo this new Pakistani government might have been more successful if the nuclear deal had been still intact and the Iranian role in its neighborhood had been that of peacemaker and not troublemaker. With all this baggage, a new start will have to survive several tests of time.

– Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham.  His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. @UmarKarim89

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