Pakistan’s decision to participate in the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) certainly has attracted criticism from Iran, and it was perhaps the reason why Tehran initially reacted harshly to the border attack from Balochistan, Pakistan’s western province, which killed at least 10 Iranian border guards in April. However, the fallout from the attack appears to have been well handled diplomatically by both sides.
Instead of sticking to the somewhat traditional way of engaging in a diplomatic spat, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif arrived in Pakistan on an unscheduled visit and met the top political and military leaders in the country last Wednesday.
Following meetings with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan, the Iranian foreign minister appeared to have received a number of assurances from Pakistan that the state is both willing and able to address Iran’s security concerns.
While the sensitivity and importance Pakistan seems to have shown and attached respectively to Iran’s concerns seems unusual and also seems to be connected to Pakistan’s efforts to assuage Iran’s concerns about Pakistan’s presence in the IMA, Iran’s decision to send a high-level diplomatic mission to address a critical issue does show how their mutual relations have developed in the last two years or so, particularly since the beginning of the China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor (CPEC). China has emerged as a “balancer” between the two neighbors, who otherwise have a history of bad relations.
While Iran has yet to formally join CPEC, given the scale of China’s investment in Iran and the fact that Iran’s geographical location can shorten China’s trade routes to the Middle-East, it is only a matter of time before it joins the CPEC/OBOR (One Belt, One Road ) in one way or the other.
Iran’s strategic heft, due mainly to oil and gas power, has long been a major consideration for India’s foreign policymakers. Yet, Iranian policymakers are aware of the fact that it was only after the landmark nuclear deal between the P5+1 (the UN Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany) and Iran in 2015 under the Obama administration, and the subsequent lifting of sanctions that India finally inched forward on the much-awaited Chabahar port project, 13 years after it was first agreed upon.
But today, America’s threat to review the very deal that brought Iran back into acceptability poses a conundrum for New Delhi that is eager to both ensure warm ties with the new US president, as well as continue its strategic and economic engagement with Iran.
For Iran, partnership with Beijing and participation in the former’s One Belt, One Road project poses no such problems as it is facing, for example, in the case of India, which continues to fuel unnecessary tension over delays in the completion of projects such as the port at Chabahar or the Farzad B gas field contract. Hence Iran’s renewed emphasis on rebuilding ties with Pakistan to facilitate its smooth entry into the China-led billion dollar project, a step that marks Iran’s refusal to sideline China and Pakistan in the triangle of relations with India.
Another factor, external to Pakistan, linking Pakistan and Iran in a de facto alliance, is the presence of both countries in the Russian-led Afghanistan peace process. This process is not only premised on the induction of the Afghan Taliban into the Afghan political system, but also has been set in motion by Pakistan, which, as some reports have indicated, was successful in convincing Iran, and also Russia and China, that the Afghan Taliban, who are hardline Sunni, would not attempt to export their ideology beyond Afghanistan. Therefore, they pose no direct threats to any of these countries.
An additional factor, internal to Pakistan, is the growing realization among its policymakers about rewriting relations with Iran, its southwestern neighbor, at a time when Pakistan’s relations with its eastern (India) and western (Afghanistan) neighbors are becoming increasingly hostile.
In this overall regional context, the prudence Pakistan and Iran showed in the wake of the attack is a reflection of the growing understanding between the two countries about the inevitable need to transform their bilateral relations into something that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani implicitly called “brotherly trust.”
What, however, remains lurking in the background and continues to cast shadows is the question of how Pakistan can balance, given its dual foreign policy, its engagement in the Middle East (which is anti-Iran and has ideological affinity with the House of Saud) with its regional policies (which tend to engage Iran positively and are deeply rooted in its gradual shift towards regional powers – i.e. Russia and China).
This is a real foreign policy dilemma for Pakistan, for Pakistan’s “pivot” remains incomplete without positively engaging with Iran. Yet, the question of how Pakistan actually balances this dualism is likely to continue to inform the very trajectory of its relations with Iran in the short and long run.
Iran’s threat to strike militant hideouts inside Pakistani territory have only magnified the seriousness of this dilemma. A failure to assuage Iran’s concerns would not only mean that Pakistan is surrounded, on three sides of its territory, by hostile elements but would also render Pakistan’s foreign policy unsustainable and counter-productive.