In April 2017, sections of the Pakistani media started speculating that Chief of the Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, may undertake a visit to Iran “in the coming days” to assuage Iranian concerns about Pakistan’s participation in the Saudi Arabian-led military alliance to fight terrorism and explain Islamabad’s decision to allow former Army chief General Raheel Sharif to head the proposed 39-nation coalition force.
It took around eight months for the visit to take place. Arranging this rare visit wasn’t easy considering the multiple pressures facing the two neighbouring Islamic countries as they made an effort to reassure each other about their sincerity in improving relations and denying other powers the opportunity to damage their traditionally close ties. General Bajwa’s recent trip to Tehran was even termed ‘historic’ by certain analysts as they felt it would put the Pakistan-Iran relationship on the right track and reinforce Islamabad’s role as a stabilising factor in a turbulent part of the world.
Iran had publicly shown its unhappiness over Pakistan’s decision to permit General Raheel Sharif to lead the counter-terrorism military alliance conceived by Saudi Arabia in December 2015. Iran’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Mehdi Honardoost, was quoted as saying by the state-run Iranian news agency, IRNA, that Tehran had reservations over Islamabad’s decision to issue a no-objection certificate (NoC) to General Raheel Sharif to command the Saudi-led force.
This was despite the fact that Pakistan’s civil and military leadership had given assurances to Iranian officials that its decision to join the Saudi-headed military alliance won’t affect its relations with Iran. Ambassador Honardoost had also met General Bajwa, who reportedly told him that Pakistan valued its bilateral ties with Iran and it should therefore not be concerned about its relations with Saudi Arabia in the same spirit in which Islamabad never objected to Tehran’s relationship with New Delhi.
Earlier in February, Sartaj Aziz had visited Tehran to explain Pakistan’s decision and reassure it of his country’s intention to continue friendly relations with Iran. At the time, Sartaj Aziz was the advisor on foreign affairs to the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Both are no longer holding those positions, but Pakistan’s policy in the context of its friendly relations with Iran is intact and unlikely to change with any changes in the leadership or the government.
It has always been a tough balancing act for Pakistan to maintain friendly relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, and to its credit it has managed to do so despite the fact that Tehran and Riyadh are at daggers drawn and involved in efforts to destabilise each other. The fighting in Syria, Iraq and Yemen put Iran and Saudi Arabia further into a state of confrontation, and countries like Pakistan having traditionally close relations with both came under intense pressure to take sides.
Iran saw the Islamic military alliance, bringing together overwhelmingly Sunni-populated Muslim countries and headed by Saudi Arabia, as sectarian in nature while the Saudis insisted it was formed to counter terrorism. The fact that Saudi Arabia has yet to clearly spell out the military alliance’s working and mission only added to the confusion and left many wondering as to its direction. The support extended to the alliance by President Donald Trump during his visit to Saudi Arabia contributed to the controversy surrounding the move considering the strong US opposition to Iran, more so by the Trump administration that is even threatening to strike down the nuclear agreement painstakingly negotiated with Tehran by six countries, including not only the US but also the UK, France, Germany, China and Russia.
General Bajwa, who earlier on September 2 had undertaken a crucial visit to Afghanistan to try to improve Pak-Afghan relations, is increasingly playing a key role in setting right the direction of Pakistan’s relations with neighbouring countries. Though it is known that the Pakistan military’s input in context of security-related issues concerning Afghanistan, India and nuclear programme is critically important, its role has become more visible in recent years.
As the PML-N-led federal government became weaker first due to the protests staged by Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri supporters in 2014 and then after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification, the military’s role in foreign policy issues grew stronger and sustained. This perception already existed in New Delhi, but now it is also felt in Kabul and Tehran, and all these capitals want to interact with Pakistan’s military command.
General Bajwa’s visit was the first by a Pakistan Army chief to Iran for over two decades. He met the top Iranian leaders, both civil and military, ranging from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to the Chief of General Staff, General Mohammad Bagheri and Maj Gen Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps which also oversees the work of the well-known Basij Organisation. In fact, it was during General Bajwa’s meeting with the latter that he showed interest in learning from the experience of the Basij by pointing out that its success against enemies was due to the support of the people of Iran.
It may be added that the Basij fighters earned fame by fighting on the front line and sacrificing their lives for the homeland in the war against Iraq.
During the visit, General Bajwa made it clear that Pakistan wanted to expand its ties with Iran in all spheres, particularly military and defence cooperation. He pointed out that they had defence cooperation in the past and this could be revived and strengthened. He also highlighted the steps taken by Pakistan to improve security along the 900 kilometres long Pak-Iran border, including the deployment of additional troops, to tackle militants, criminals and drug-traffickers operating in the border areas.
Pakistan is keen to cooperate with Iran in preventing infiltration of militants from its Balochistan province to Iran’s Seistan-Balochistan province and stop the Iranians from firing across the border into Pakistani territory. Iran has been complaining that militant groups such as Jaish al-Adl were using Pakistan’s soil to undertake attacks in Iranian territory. Tehran also believes that the US, the UK and Saudi Arabia are conspiring to use the Pakistani territory to destabilise Iran.
Pakistan, after capturing the Indian naval officer Kulbushan Yadav in Balochistan, had alleged that he was using the Iranian seaport of Chabahar as a base for spying and aiding and abetting anti-Pakistan militants. This had soured relations between the two countries and negatively affected the visit of President Rouhani to Pakistan at the time.
Apart from the ongoing efforts to strengthen security at the Pakistan-Iran border, the other common goal is to tackle the threat posed by the Afghanistan-based Islamic State, or Daesh, and cooperate to restore peace in Afghanistan. Islamabad and Tehran share the view that there can be no military solution of the Afghan conflict, but it remains to be seen if they can cooperate towards finding a politically negotiated end to the fighting in Afghanistan.