The paradoxical nature of Pak-Iran relations is not a new phenomenon. Iran was the first country to recognise the new state of Pakistan. The history of Tehran’s support to Pakistan economically, politically, and militarily, particularly during the monarchical rule of Shah of Iran shaped the dynamics of Pak-Iran relations from August 1947 till today.
Yet, the consistent nature of Pak-Iran ties transformed into a phase of indifference, mistrust, and suspicion, primarily in the post-February 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the overthrow of monarchy.
The US-sponsored two-pillar policy also had a role for Pakistan. Iran and Saudi Arabia as pro-American states were considered as strong pillars against the perceived communist threat in the region. Pakistan, as a member of Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) along with Iran had close ties with Saudi Arabia.
The relative Saudi-Iranian rapport supported by the United States shaped regional security dynamics along with Pakistan for the decades of 1950s, 60s and 70s. But the overthrow of pro-American regime of the Shah in February 1979 led to the collapse of the two-pillar policy and unleashed a new era of Iran-Saudi discord as Riyadh considered the Shia regime dominated by the clergy as a threat to its interests in the Persian Gulf.
The sectarian schism following the Iranian revolution also impacted Pakistan, transforming Iran-Pakistan relations from overt friendship to relative indifference and suspicion. Following the Iran-Iraq war and the deepening of Sunni-Shia rift in the region Pakistan was caught in crossfire. On the one hand, Pakistan tried to maintain a neutral stance in Saudi-Iranian discord but, on the other hand, it became a battleground of their sectarian proxy war.
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After the Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan and Iran followed divergent paths. Iran, along with India, began to support the northern alliance whereas Pakistan rendered its support to anti-Shia Taliban.
Four major factors tend to deepen the paradoxical nature of Pak-Iran relations. First, Iran’s consistent anti-American and anti-Saudi policy which contradicted with Pakistan’s pro-American and pro-Saudi approach.
Iran’s perception about Pakistan’s tilt towards Saudi Arabia, particularly during the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, reflects Tehran’s concern about Islamabad subscribing to Saudi-led Sunni alliance against the growing Shia crescent in the region. Although Pakistan refused to join the Saudi-led alliance on the Yemen conflict, growing security, military and economic interaction between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia added to the nature of Pak-Iran ties.
Second, the rise of strategic and security equation between Iran and India is also a matter of concern for Pakistan as Islamabad terms growing Indian efforts to destabilise Balochistan as a serious threat to its security.
When the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, paid a state visit to Pakistan on March 25-26 last year, the then Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, in his meeting with him, apart from other matters of mutual interest, pointed out India’s aggressive designs against Pakistan, particularly on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Gwadar port. India-Iran cooperation on modernising the port of Chahbahar is viewed in Pakistan as a matter of concern and an attempt to undermine CPEC.
Third, the unfinished project of Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline became a source of discord between the two countries despite the fact that after 5+1 agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue paved the way for the lifting of majority of sanctions imposed by the West on Iran and removed the technical impediment for Pakistan to proceed with the gas pipeline.
It is questioned why Pakistan does not meet the shortfall of its gas requirements from Iran, instead of importing gas from Qatar and Turkmenistan. Interestingly, IP gas pipeline till the Iran-Pakistan border is complete but the remaining portion of the pipeline needs to be constructed by Pakistan.
Originally, the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project was Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline (also called peace pipeline) but India pulled out of it because of sanctions on Tehran. It is to be seen if India rejoins the project, will Pakistan welcome this?
When the Iranian President visited Pakistan in March last year with a 60-member delegation, primarily composed of businessmen it led to the signing of 6 MoUs and a consensus between the two countries as a sequel to bilateral negotiations to enhance their annual trade to $ 5 billion.
Pakistan and China have also offered Iran to join CPEC and think in terms of using the ports of Chahbahar for better regional connectivity. Iran’s economy is the second largest in the Middle East and North Africa after Saudi Arabia with a GDP of around $ 400 billion. In that case, Pakistan and Iran can certainly expand their bilateral trade and make use of opportunities present due to CPEC.
Finally, lack of trust and confidence which surrounds Pak-Iran ties since long is a reality and cannot be ignored. Yet, Iran and Pakistan which share a 1,200 kilometres long border cannot live as indifferent neighbours in view of their deep-rooted historical and cultural ties. In the areas of trade, commerce, energy, communications, education, culture, science and technology, the two countries can certainly proceed for the deepening of their ties provided there is political will and determination.
The vision of Pakistan-Iran ties needs to focus on non-interference and non-intervention in each other’s affairs, neutrality on issues in which either side is in conflict, enhancing the level of bilateral trade, inclusion of Iran in CPEC, meaningful cooperation to promote people-to-people interaction by a relaxed visa regime and better connectivity.
Furthermore, the perception that Pakistan is part of the Saudi-led Sunni alliance needs to be dispelled and all efforts should be made by the two sides not to get themselves bogged down on issues which are external in nature. After all, Iran and Pakistan share common history, geography, culture notwithstanding the divergent policies. This is the time to bridge the communication gap between Pakistan and Iran on issues which divide them, particularly when Iran is again facing the American tirade and action on its recent testing of ballistic missile.