Iran-Pakistan intertwined history

Its a known fact that Iran was quick to reach out to the newly created Pakistan in 1947, and the two countries remained close in many respects. Meanwhile, Sunni Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, were themselves an underwhelming presence in those pre-oil years. Unsurprisingly, then, Pakistan saw its interests being served by close ties to Iran. The two countries were conspicuously cooperative from 1947 to 1979, particularly in Balochistan. Much changed with the Iranian revolution in 1979. The secular, pro-West Shah was ousted, and the Ayatollah Khomeini became the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In Pakistan, meanwhile, General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88), a staunch follower of the Sunni sect of Islam, was dictator. Consequently, a divide between the countries emerged, particularly as Iran sought to spread its revolution to Pakistan, which although a Sunni majority country is still home to a large Shia population. In those years, Pakistan began to drift away from Iran to the Sunni Arab countries of the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, which by now were major oil exporters. Meanwhile, India was becoming an increasingly contentious factor in Iran-Pakistan ties.

Further, in 2013, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came to power, the attention to Iran fell away. Instead, Sharif’s focus was very much on Saudi Arabia. This is not surprising. because Sharif on being ousted from power by General Pervez Musharraf, was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia for a number of years, where he established strong business and family links.

Pakistan walking on a tightrope between Iran-Saudi

Although Iran and Pakistan did try to improve economic ties, the Saudi-Iran rivalry impeded their efforts on several occasions. On one hand, Pakistan considers Iran a potential partner which can help overcome its dire energy needs, and on the other, it does not want to offend Saudi Arabia by getting too close to Tehran. Islamabad, therefore, is trying to balance things out by claiming it wants to bring the Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and the Shiite Iran closer.

In 2016, Iran-Pakistan ties took a dramatic turn with the arrest of an alleged Indian agent Kulbhushan Jadhav who Pakistan claims to have crossed over to Balochistan’s Mashkhel area from Saravan, Iran. Iran warned Pakistan that some reports in Pakistani media linking this arrest with Tehran could have “negative implications” on its bilateral ties. It further added, Iran in seven decades of ties with Pakistan has always proved itself as a confident partner and neighbour and the “Security of Iran is security of Pakistan and security of Pakistan is security of Iran”.

Close ties and superficial issues?

It is interesting to note that despite recurring clashes on national interests, the relationship between the two countries remains cemented. Iran-Pakistan have national interests to please each others rivals yet remain cordial with each other. Pakistan finds growing Indian interests in its neighboring countries intolerable, viewing them as an Indian plot to encircle and isolate Pakistan regionally. Same way Iran is well acquainted with China’s ambitious plans, and therefore Iran sees in its own interests to reach out to India, as a balance to China in Asia.

Say for example when Gen Raheel, Pakistan’s former Chief Of Army Staff, was appointed commander-in-chief of the Islamic Military Alliance (IMA), Saudi Arabia. Iran reportedly conveyed its dissatisfaction during meetings with Pakistan’s civil and military leadership. In response army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwareminded Iran that Pakistan has always respected Iran’s ties with Pakistan’s rival India, and expected Iran to respect Pakistan’s decisions to join IMA. Similarly, Pakistan has been expressing concerns on Chabahar port which it believes to be a rival to Gwadar port.

However, nothing seems to disturb their equation; sectarian rife, border confrontations, terrorist activities etc. There is unsaid harmony between the two and they usually come out in support of each other. Be it Pakistan’s transfer of nuclear technology to Iran, Pakistani support for Iran during the Iran–Iraq war, or its rejection of Saudi proposal to fight Yemeni Houthi rebels etc. Likewise, Iran likes to believe that terrorism at its border is funded by Arab states and blames the “inability” of Pakistan’s government to fight it, but never directly accuses Pakistan.

Clearly, Pakistan and Iran want to maintain equilibrium and there is nothing to be wary of as of now. It is seen that Pakistan Army has been drawing closer to Iran under its new chief General Qamar Bajwa and his recent historic visit to Iran confirms the same. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s entourage of 30 delegates to Pakistan is clearly on the same mission. However, Iranian media repeatedly reporting it as “Pakistan keen to enhance ties with Iran” could be a measured move to highlight Pakistan’s desperate measures to woo Iran after fallout with the US.

What will be interesting to see now is can or will Iran trust Pakistan, especially when General Raheel sits as Chairman of IMA and China has almost taken over Pakistan? Iran is aware of Pakistan’s chameleon acts and to trust an opportunist state could be fatal

13 March 2018/Tuesday.