Strategic and Political Dimensions of Evolving Iran-Pakistan Ties

Pakistan PM Imran Khan met with Ayatollah Khamenei
Image: Khamenei.ir

In recent months, Iran’s ties with Pakistan have improved as a consequence of a number of geopolitical developments in South Asia, as well as the Middle East. The first is the role played by Pakistan in trying to reduce tensions between Tehran and Riyadh. Islamabad has tried to play the role of peacemaker between two countries, after the two oil facilities of Saudi State run entity Aramco were attacked in September 2019; the US and its allies blamed Iran for the same.

Pakistani PM Imran Khan had claimed that the US President Donald Trump during the course of their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) had asked the Pakistani PM to mediate with Iran. The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani too had welcomed efforts by Pakistani PM Imran Khan in trying to reducing tensions in the Middle East. After the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a phone call to Pakistani Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa. 

Second, India-Iran ties have been lukewarm for the large part of 2019. Tehran has repeatedly stated that New Delhi could have avoided toeing the US line with regard to purchases of oil from Iran (New Delhi had stopped purchase of oil, after the US removed the waiver, for purchase of oil from India, which it had provided India). Senior Iranian officials, including the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have expressed their views on this issue. Iranian officials have also made the point that India’s circumspect attitude towards economic ties with Iran was impacting the Chabahar Project (which is strategically important for India, since it is India’s gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia) as well as trilateral cooperation between India, Afghanistan and Iran. In May 2016, during Indian PM Narendra Modi’s Tehran visit, an agreement to boost trilateral connectivity had been signed in addition to an agreement through which India would provide financial assistance for the Chabahar Port

The US has given a waiver to India with regard to the Chabahar Project but given the current state of play, India is likely to be cautious. In December 2019, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar visited Iran for a meeting of the 19th India-Iran joint commission and one of the items on the priority list was acceleration of the Chabahar Project. Both Iran and India also emphasized on the need for enhancing bilateral economic ties.

Even in the past, Washington stated that it understands the relevance of the Chabahar Port, but Indian participation will depend upon the Washington-Tehran bilateral relationship.

Opportunities for closer economic cooperation and stronger connectivity between Iran and Pakistan

The above scenarios have led to a number of interesting developments. Firstly, on more than one occasion Iran has spoken about connecting Gwadar with Chabahar. Iranian Ambassador to Pakistan, Seyyed Mohammad Ali Hosseini only recently stated this during a lecture at an Islamabad based think tank. Earlier too, senior Iranian officials had stated that Chabahar could be connected with Gwadar. In May 2019, Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif had made a similar proposal during his visit to Pakistan. While New Delhi has not reacted to these statements, this is significant, because India has been projecting Chabahar as part of its strategy to counter the Gwadar Project. 

Significantly, during his lecture, Hosseini also praised the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC project), and spoke about the need for reviving the Iran-Pakistan pipeline. Pakistan on its part has been seeking to bring Iran on board the CPEC project. 

What is also significant is Hosseini’s criticism of the OIC, stating that it has failed to address certain crucial Muslim issues. Interestingly, Pakistani PM during his Malaysia visit was also critical of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). This points to the widening schism between not just Iran and Saudi Arabia but also the attempt of certain countries to create a discourse in the Islamic world, not led by Saudi Arabia. So far, Pakistan has been cautious and stated that it would not want to cause any rift in the Islamic World. This was one of the main reasons for Imran Khan not to attend a Summit organized by Malaysian PM, Mahathir Mohammad in December 2019

Beyond regional connectivity and the dynamics of the Islamic world, Hosseini also spoke about the need for a new alliance consisting of Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran and Turkey. This is interesting, and has been spoken of earlier but it remains to be seen, if Islamabad would want to play an important role in such a grouping, given its ties with the US have witnessed a significant improvement. Only recently, the US has resumed a military training program International Military Education Training Program (IMET) for Pakistani officials, which had been suspended in 2018. Pakistan would also need the US support for being removed from the grey list of Financial Action Task Force (FATF). As of now, it is still on the grey list, and US has not really pushed for Islamabad’s removal from the grey list even though this has been on the agenda of all high level meetings. But the US President Donald Trump is purely transactional, and if he sees benefits for US’ long term strategic interests, Washington may do a rethink.

Apart from this, the US has also spoken about strengthening economic ties through trade and greater US Investment in Pakistan.

Iran-Pakistan ties are important for a number of reasons. First, in the context of regional connectivity in South Asia. Second, in the context of its role in the Middle East especially with regard to the Iran-Saudi rivalry. It remains to be seen, if Pakistan would like to become part of a narrative which is excessively Anti-American. While robust economic ties and connectivity with Iran may benefit Pakistan economically, it cannot afford to annoy either Washington or Riyadh. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics. 

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