Syed Ali Zia Jaffery
One of the biggest foreign policy challenges for Prime Minister Imran Khan since his assumption of power last August has been Pakistan’s Middle East policy. The predicament was to navigate through the fissures within the GCC countries, and those between Riyadh and Tehran.Over the past nine months,Pakistan has reconfigured its ties with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, while taking those with Saudi Arabia to the next level, as was evident in the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman’s visit to Pakistan earlier this year.
Pundits, however, were concerned about Khan tilting towards Riyadh at the expense of Tehran. Such apprehensions were not dispelled despite Khan’s reiteration of putting out fire in the Muslim world, and constant engagements with Iran over the course of the past nine months. Good vibes from both countries over improved coordination in the border areas were seemingly dealt a severe blow when Pakistan provided dossiers to Iran about the involvement of elements within Iran in the Ormara attack that killed 14 Pakistani security personnel. The fact that the dossiers were shared a day before Imran Khan’s maiden visit to Iran, did not inspire much confidence in the outcome of the all-important tour. However, a statement by the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javed Zarif, claiming that the Ormara attack was perpetrated to hurt brotherly ties between the two countries, indicated that both Iran and Pakistan realize the subversive factors at play.
With hardly any major bilateral dispute between them, Iran and Pakistan have complained about miscreants’ activities on both sides of their border. This issue has kept them from bolstering their bilateral trade and expanding the gamut of their relations. Pakistan and Iran started to enhance intelligence and evidence-sharing after Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff , General Bajwa visited Iran in 2017. Last year, based on actionable intelligence, Pakistan safely rescued Iranian soldiers that were abducted near the Pak-Iran border. Thus, Pakistan rightly presented evidence to Iran in order to not only end the scourge of terrorism in the country but also mend fences with ‘brotherly Iran.’
Imran Khan’s discussions with the Iranian leadership were centered on the need to deny saboteurs the ability to use each other’s territories for terrorists’ activities. While assuring that Pakistan will not allow its soil to be used against Iran, Khan stressed the need for devising a mechanism that ensures that Iranian territory is not used against Pakistan. Both sides agreed to set up a joint rapid response force to deal with inimical elements on both sides of the fence.
The much-needed focus on terrorism during the visit signified one thing: both sides recognize the main hurdle in the establishment of strong bilateral relations, and want to remove it. Hence, taking up the terrorism issue upfront will instill greater trust and confidence between the two countries, and kick start a fundamental shift in the trajectory of these topsy-turvy relations.
A reset of Iran-Pakistan relations is apparent. The Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani appreciated Imran Khan’s constant enunciations of not choosing sides in conflicts in the Muslim world, and stated that this visit will turn a page in the relations between both countries. This augurs well for reducing trust-deficit between Islamabad and Tehran that had crept in due to the complex geopolitics in the region. Besides terrorism, Imran Khan discussed wide-ranging issues with his Iranian counterparts including the need to increase bilateral trade. Iran’s intent to resuscitate the highly-touted gas pipeline to meet Pakistan’s oil and electricity requirements, in the midst of the lingering threat of US’ sanctions, shows the level of seriousness to take ties to the next level.
Pakistan’s desire to recalibrate relations with its western neighbor is evident. Khan’s Tehran visit comes on the heels of MBS’ visit to Pakistan, and shows how Pakistan is not falling prey to a zero-sum game. Pakistan, contrary to popular belief, is not tilting towards Riyadh at the expense of Iran. If Pakistan continues to play down the middle, the greatest point of friction between Pakistan and Iran can be done away with. As the optics suggest, Pakistan has deftly braved the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, for now.
The operationalization of the Chabahar port has often been termed as a counterweight to Pakistan’s Gwadar port that happens to be the mainstay of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC). Such a claim disregarded Iran’s interest in joining the China-led project. The Gwadar-Chabahar rivalry notion was dispelled by President Rouhani when he called for connecting both via a rail. President Rouhani went a step further and talked about the need to connect Pakistan, Iran and Turkey via rail.
Both countries have set out to improve relations in a bid to take advantages offered by economic integration and connectivity. Pakistan has taken the lead in this regard. It has not only boldly resisted taking sides in the multi-fronted fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran but also is committed to assuaging Iran’s concerns regarding cross-border terrorism. In order to see a complete turnaround, Iran needs to take concrete steps to deny space to anti-Pakistan elements on its soil. Apparently, interactions at the highest levels have mitigated apprehensions, which is important to develop just the right kind of environment for both to work in. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit has set the tone for the future of Pak-Iran relations, for it highlighted the need to resolve the issues that lie at the heart of ties between the two countries. However, the most heartening thing from this recent top-level engagements is that Islamabad and Tehran are looking at the bigger strategic picture and treating terrorism as a tactical problem. If these tactical snags are eliminated as per the wishes of the two leaders of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran, their ties can become strategic and enduring in nature.
Syed Ali Zia Jaffery is a Research Associate at the Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research, University of Lahore.