At a joint press conference with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran late last month, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said: “I know Iran has suffered from terrorism [perpetrated] by groups operating from Pakistan. …We [need to] have trust in each other that both countries will not allow any terrorist activity from their soil. We hope this will build confidence between us.”
Back in Pakistan, the Opposition PML(N) leader Khurram Dastgir Khan said, “No Prime Minister has ever made such a confession on foreign soil”, and the PPP’s Hina Rabbani Khar, a former Foreign Minister, said the country was “continually becoming a laughing stock”, and that it was “not funny anymore”.
Imran — who was accompanied by ISI chief Gen Asim Munir — spoke a little over two months after 27 personnel of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were killed in a suicide attack in the Sistan-Baluchistan province along the border with Pakistan. Iran said the bomber was Pakistani. The attack — which happened the day before the Jaish-e-Mohammad attack on the CRPF bus in Pulwama — was claimed by the Sunni jihadist Jaish al-Adl. Tehran says the Jaish al-Adl operates mostly out of Pakistan and, in March, Rouhani demanded that Pakistan act decisively against anti-Iranian terrorists.
On April 18, three days before Imran travelled to Iran, a terrorist attack targeted security forces in Pakistan, which Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi blamed on outfits that had their “training and logistic camps inside Iranian areas bordering Pakistan”. Gunmen stopped a bus on the Makran coastal highway between Karachi and Gwadar, checked passengers’ IDs and took away 10 Pakistani Navy personnel, three from the Air Force, and one from the Coast Guard, and executed them.
Friends with the Shah
Shia Iran has repeatedly criticised Pakistan’s backing of Sunni terrorist outfits involved in attacks in Iran’s eastern areas, and the killing of Shias inside Pakistan. Pakistan’s proximity to Saudi Arabia — Iran’s great rival in the Middle East — has been a constant irritant in ties between Tehran and Islamabad. But this wasn’t the case always.
The Shah of Iran was a Cold War ally of the United States, and during his rule, Iran and Pakistan were important partners. “For the Shah, Pakistan over the years morphed into a critical buffer zone, a line of defence against not only the Soviets but also the then Soviet-leaning India,” Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, wrote in Iran and Pakistan: Security, Diplomacy and American Influence (2015).
In 1950, the Shah became the first foreign Head of State to visit Pakistan, and at one time even proposed a confederation of the two countries with a single army, and with him as Head of State. There was a logic, Vatanka wrote: “First, Iran and Pakistan were already members of the budding new organisation CENTO (the Cold War military alliance known as the Central Treaty Organisation). There was already much talk about political, military and economic integration as part of the structures of CENTO. Second, the Shah had not envisioned the idea out of the blue. Right next door in the Arab world, four regional countries were at the time already experimenting with political confederations. In 1958, Egypt and Syria agreed on a union, which became known as the United Arab Republic.”
Indeed, the Iran-Pakistan axis was so strong that Iran had even threatened to attack India if it did not stop its offensive against Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh War.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic Revolution marked a turning point in the Iran-Pakistan relationship. After the Shah’s departure, Pakistan worked closely with the Saudis in the war in Afghanistan. In the 1990s, as rival militias battled to gain control over Afghanistan, Iran backed the Northern Alliance against the Pakistan-backed Taliban. In 1998, after the Taliban captured Mazar-i-Sharif, at least 11 Iranians, mostly diplomats, were killed in the city.
In subsequent years, the future of Afghanistan and the Baloch insurgency were the major sticking points in the relationship. The outsize influence of the Saudis in Pakistan’s foreign and security policy, and their investment in Pakistan’s Balochistan province bordering Iran, has added to the suspicion and trust deficit. While Pakistan refused to bend to the pressure from Riyadh to join the war in Yemen against the Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels, Rawalpindi did clear the appointment of former Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif to lead the Saudi-backed coalition.
Writing in Dawn, Arif Rafiq, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, described Iran as a “frenemy to Pakistan’s west”. He underlined that Iran is a potential supplier of natural gas, of which Pakistan has a massive supply shortfall; the fact that Iran has emerged as Afghanistan’s largest trading partner, eclipsing Pakistan; and that with the prolonged closure of the Chaman and Torkham border crossings, Afghan trade with the outside world is being increasingly routed through Iran.
The Indian perspective
For India, Imran’s Iran outreach, at a time when the US has mounted pressure on the international community to shun Tehran, poses several tough questions. The White House last month announced the end of the waiver for India to buy Iranian oil — and Washington has conveyed to New Delhi that as it has stood by India on combating Pakistan-sponsored terrorism after the Pulwama attack, it expects reciprocity on President Donald Trump’s hard line on Iran. The lifting of China’s technical hold on Masood Azhar’s listing, paving the way for international sanctions on the Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist, was the outcome of complex diplomatic give-and-take in which the US played a significant role.
For India, this situation presents a dilemma. While the US has assured that the exemption of the development of the Chabahar port project in Iran would continue, given the policy unpredictability of the Trump administration, New Delhi would want to speed up the progress of the port development.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, India — which is being lobbied by the US and Iran at the same time — may have to make a tough decision in choosing sides in the coming months, unless it is able to find a creative way to satisfy both Washington and Tehran.