Last month, India sent its first consignment of wheat to Afghanistan through the Iranian port of Chabahar; in the following six months it will send six more. This will also take almost all the Afghan trade out of the Afghan Transit Route through Pakistan and give it to Iran, changing the nature of Afghanistan’s relations both with Pakistan and Iran. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, visiting New Delhi recently, assured India that even if America re-imposes sanctions on Iran in the coming days, it will exempt the Chabahar facility.
When the Chabahar deal was made between Tehran and India in 2003, Pakistan didn’t feel compelled to revisit the country’s strategic location between India and Central Asia. It had turned away from the idea of Pak-India free trade and did not respond to India’s award of Most Favoured Nation status in 1996. The idea of being a trading hub didn’t appeal to it. Last year, looking at the rapid development of Chabahar as a transit port for Afghanistan, it got a little upset despite the fact that it was doing the same sort of thing by getting into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which India doesn’t like.
Speaking at a local think tank in Islamabad on “National Security, Deterrence and Regional Stability in South Asia” in 2016, former defence secretary, retired Lt-Gen Asif Yasin Malik said: “The alliance between India, Afghanistan and Iran is a security threat to Pakistan”. Another retired Defence Secretary Lt-Gen Nadeem Lodhi said the existence of “such a formidable bloc” in the neighbourhood had “ominous and far-reaching implications” for Pakistan. In stark contrast, Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz said that Pakistan did not see Iran’s Chabahar port as a rival and that Pakistan was in fact exploring the possibility of developing links with it from Gwadar.
Pakistan’s friend China thinks differently and this doesn’t rub off on Pakistan despite much admiration for the way China has advanced as an economic power. As far as China is concerned, the CPEC would benefit by joining up with India, Afghanistan and Iran, three countries where China has also invested in a big way. Although it is late in the day, an increasingly unstable Pakistan has to abandon the path of isolationism and worry more about trade and economic development.
As far as “neighbour” Iran is concerned, Pakistan makes promises to itself about patching up a bad bilateral equation. The “Dawn leak” message last year by the government of Nawaz Sharif had complained that the handling of foreign policy had isolated Pakistan in the region. One country especially hinted at in it was Iran. Today, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been ousted from office and may spend time in jail by the look of things.
Some years ago, Vali Nasr, the American scholar who writes authoritatively on the sectarian scene in Pakistan, noted how the Saudi and Iraqi involvement transplanted the Iran-Iraq war into Pakistan as the madrasas and their Shia-killing warriors began to do the bidding of their foreign patrons. Money from the Gulf radicalised the Sunni groups as they sought to outdo one another in their use of vitriol and violence in order to get a larger share of the funding, turning sectarian posturing into a form of rent-seeking in Pakistan.
In September 1997, five Iranian military personnel were assassinated in Rawalpindi. The killing of 22 Shias in Lahore in January 1998 escalated tensions between the two countries as Iran openly warned Pakistan about the spread of Sunni militancy. The use of sectarianism to contend with the impact of the Iranian Revolution thus produced a wider regional struggle for power that quickly went out of the control of Pakistan. The “calendar of death” showed a clear spike in sectarian violence in the mid-1990s, through to the new millennium.
The civilian governments of the decade of the 1900s tried to halt the killings but failed because of their limited writ and the primacy of the war in Afghanistan. Karachi, strong with Deobandi seminarian presence after 1947, became a major scene of sectarian conflict. Only the Shia (Twelvers) were targeted and not the Ismailis (Sixers) because of the lack of threat felt by the Arabs from the Ismaili community. Also, the Ismailis kept to their policy of quietism and were not inspired by the example of Iran into publicising their faith.
Mariam Abou Zahab, the French scholar who died recently, stated that the sectarian killers went to Afghanistan for training and sanctuary under the protection of Harkatul Ansar (HUA) led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil who was attached to al Qaeda. She revealed that the man who killed Iranian consul Rahim in Multan in March 1997 was made to escape from a Dera Ghazi Khan jail in December 1997 and was involved in the Shia massacre at Mominpura in Lahore in January 1998 in which dozens died while saying their prayers. Khalil later changed his militia’s name to Harkatul Mujahideen (HUM) and is today living safely in Islamabad.