ISSN 2330-717X

Pakistan-Iran Relations – OpEd

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Establishment of Bittersweet Relations:

Pakistan and Iran share strong historical, religious, cultural, and linguistic bonds. The relationship has witnessed ups and downs, but despite all that the two countries tried to maintain a smooth path. Soon after Pakistan’s independence, Iran was the first country to recognize its independence from the British raj.  The diplomatic ties started with the visit of the then PM Liaqat Ali khan in 1948. The relationship took a good flight with the visit of the Shah of Iran in 1950. Both the countries enjoyed cordial relations until 1996 but then due to divergence of interest in Afghanistan both moved apart. Pakistan was pro-Taliban whereas Iran supported the anti-Taliban alliance (i.e. Northern Alliance). Pakistan’s post 9/11 policy had further increased the void. Islamabad’s pro-Saudi and West policy added salt to the recipe. Being partner of United States of America in WoT, and under a great American and Saudi Arabia’s influence, Pakistan and Iranian relations suffered a lot. The General Zia’s regime with a strong pro-Saudis attitude also negatively impacted the two. However, the land connection between the two gave an opportunity to revive the relationship. 

Adding Economic dimension:

Being immediate neighbors, Muslim states and once good partners tried to fill-up the gap through non-economic means. However, in the age of development, both the states have to analyse the level of their relations through the lens of economic means as well. As, both the states have huge potential. Both Pakistan and Iran look towards the untapped the economic opportunities in order to have a strong regional bond. In addition, history also witnessed that both the states have extended their support to each other in worst times as well.

With the help of China and smooth development of CPEC, United States’ influence in the region could be countered. Convergence of interest in this very case is of utmost importance. The impetus behind the closer relations between the two should be prospered in  developed state system. 

Pakistan as a growing state needs to meet the energy deficiency, and for that Iran could be a good option, being a neighbor rich in natural resources especially oil and gas is vital for an energy deficient state. On the other hand, Pakistan, a country of 209 million people with a per capita income of $1,480, is a developing economy with a GDP of $312.57 billion and an estimated real growth rate of 3.3% (2019). Pakistan has to strengthen its trade relations with Iran and vice versa for a prosper future. To that end, both states have to utilize economic means as well, an element of soft power, to further deepen the economic dependency for development and growth. 

Trade  Amount US Dollars
Pakistan Exports To Iran Rice, Meat, Paper and Paper Board, Chemicals, Textiles, Fruit & Vegetables 22.86 million
Pakistan Imports From Iran Iron Ore, Hide & Skins, and Chemical Products 369.23 million
Total Trade Volume  392.08 million

Table 1: Pakistan – Iran Trade Volume

Other spheres of cooperation:

The people to people contact between the Pakistani and Iranian community is unique. Religion, Sufism, and Persian language all have a deep imprint. The state relations currently are in transformative phase. Positive state attitude tip-offs that both Iran and Pakistan desires to work together for a brighter future. In the recent history, and under the current government of PTI, the relations took a new height. Exchange of high profile visits including Iranian Foreign Minister Dr. Javad Zarif (August 2018, October 2018, May 2019) and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister (Dec 2018), and Prime Minister Imran Khan (21-22 April 2019) all are a start of new beginning. Moreover, helped enhance mutual understanding on political, economic and security sectors. Strong communication links between the two also facilitated policy formation for a consistent and mutually beneficial diplomatic, political, and trade ties. Pakistan and Iran signed Declaration for Cooperation in Healthcare Sector; opening of new crossing points, initiation of the process for release of a number of Pakistani prisoners; and call for peaceful solution of Jammu & Kashmir dispute. Pakistan’s backing on Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and commitment towards Tehran in the face of U.S.’s unilateral sanctions has been a great source of strength and applauded by Iran too. 

Iran’s Standing in the Middle East:

Iran has a long history and is an important regional player, one of well-known Middle Eastern power bloc. Iran survived and is surviving despite of all the International sanctions. Power politics is not only western dream but is admired by the eastern countries too. Iran has a good regional connection and time and again has played its role in a very smart manner. Its affiliates are everywhere, from Palestine to Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. 

Since, Iran played a major role in Middle East, a strong Iran is always seen as a challenge not only to the Middle Eastern power machines but also world’s superpower U.S. A fragile Iran favours of all those. To this end, even America played its card well and hence tried to put it under pressure. 

Iran vs USA:

To this lead, even killing of Quds Force commander Qasem Solemani in January is also a move to further weaken Iran. U.S. instead of acting wisely, start frivolous acts, for instance trade war with China, assassination of Solemani, zero response on Kashmir and Palestine, just to keep itself up. 

U.S. was well aware of that in wake of Solemani’s murder, Iranians would fight back. Though Iran would not indulge in any straight conflict but proxies. Hence, U.S. tried to influence regional states even Pakistan to be part of its dirty games. Pakistan as already trapped in Afghanistan, and lost so much in terms of human life and economics, doesn’t want to support the Big Might this time. Hence, Islamabad refused to be part of a problem that would be a havoc for the regional peace and stability. One reason behind U.S.’s all these efforts is also to disturb China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CPEC a game changer for the region which is also perceived by the world community is a problem for U.S. China’s rise and economic influence in the region is wearisome for U.S. 

U.S. wanted to have a permanent presence in Balochistan near Iran, not only to keep an eye on Tehran but also Beijing and Gwadar. The impetus was to destabilize the CPEC progress through its presence there. As, if the conflict erupts and U.S. start operating for Balochistan, there would be no moment and no development and hence will indirectly hinder CPEC. 

Pakistan’s stance on the emerging conflict:

Pakistan’s establishment and political parties were well aware of this odd game and hence were on the same page; therefore sent a straight message to Washington that it will not be part of any ferocious act. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi conveyed the message that, “Pakistan’s soil will not be used against any other state, and nor will Pakistan become a part of this regional conflict and doesn’t endorse any unilateral action”.  

Pakistan’s strong position on that fortunately hoarded the region from another Afghanistan to happen.  Pakistan is trying to correct its already complex relations with Iran.

Power shift in Iran:

 Iran just had the first round of its parliamentary elections in last week, the second round is yet to happen in May most probably, but the results have clearly indicated the patterns and the ones sliding into the power corridors are been identified. However, a number of factors are responsible for these “obvious results” as some citizens are calling them to be.

Giving a brief account of the ideologies into play, Iran had a coalition for reformists and another of principlists. There was the right wing, the left wing and the centrists i.e. the ones with a moderate approach. In 2016, the 120 seats were won by the reformists while 113 were taken up by the principlists or conservatives. The remaining ones were distributed between the independents largely and others. However, the emerging picture of results in 2020 is very different from what it was four years back. 

The parliamentary elections 2020 for Iran had made it easy for the conservatives or the hardliners to get to power. In Islamic Republic’s Majlis of 290 seats, 219 are already won by them. Primarily, because of the fact that only a small number of participants are allowed to run for the office or contest the elections. Prior to elections the contestants are supposed to go through a scrutiny by the Guardian Council. It is a body that includes six jurists and six clerics who are appointed by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This time, the GC had disqualified more than fifty percent of the total 14,000 applicants who had applied to run for the office. Most of these disqualified names were those of the reformists or the moderates.

So far, the canvas seems clyster the brush is in hand of conservatives with the lead of 219 seats in the majlis. The lowest voter turnout since 1979 was also alarming however, even though it favoured conservatives, it will have an impact until the next parliamentary elections. Whatever excuse or loopholes one may identify, the point to notice is now that the conservatives appear to be at the driving seat, how can the outcome for the internal as well as external Iranian affairs can easily be contemplated. 

Domestic issues:

Another factor to understand here is that Iran experienced lowest voter turnout since the Iranian revolution of 1979. Less than half of the total voters is said to have voted in the recent elections. It is said that some people didn’t participate because of the economic situation. The most important reason for those people is the sanctions by the USA and so they have became hopeless as of anything can be changed. However, the good news is that if the new representatives would do anything against the illegal sanctions, the domestic situation can be changed in favor of the government. It has been said that people have shown dissatisfaction over the clerical rule particularly after the Ukrainian plane massacre. If conservative proceed with narrower scope to function there is likely a chance that they can face fallout of the mass protests leading to the worsening of the situation for Iran.

In bag for Rouhani

The new parliament will not be an ally for Rouhani. Because conservatives are not so fond of him and reformists. They cannot forget his politics and political rhetoric about their opinions and principles. Also, it seems they will put more pressure on him in order to get more privileges. So, Rouhani should be prepared for new critics and hard domestic situation.

In all, the foreign policy of Rouhani toward the west will be more weakened because the new parliament is not expected to be on the same page as him. Although, Rouhani has shown a flexible political opinion which made him able to work with all parties of Iran, the new era of Iran’s domestic affairs are not so clear. So it’s a little soon to predict the future!

Who could be the next supreme leader?

The struggle for power is already into play admist US sanctions. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei’s failing health and increasing age has led to the speculations of who could take his place. His resign or death can altogether reshape Iranian politics. The most likely names in this regard are Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, Sadeq Larijani and Ebrahim Raisi. 

Vague future:

The imminent question rises that next president off course would be from conservatives, how they will orientate state cogs when it comes to dealing with Washington? Will they behave in same manner or worse?  Or there is any minute chance that they will behave in an opposite manner and try to men the ties with international community and Oval? While it this point in time, the parliamentary elections cannot directly have an impact on the foreign policy but after the presidential elections, where the same conservative parliament can elect their president things can get a little shaky. The conservatives apparently are not so fond of the direct negotiations and can lead to re-imposition of sanctions as well. At this moment when the global economy is on a gamble in post corona outbreak, Iran being affected by this terrible news too, needs to secure their economic interests. There is likely a chance that conservative would act in a liberal and a quite understanding manner when it comes to dealing with Washington. 

Pak-Iran and the West:

As both the states have new political elites, it is time to counter the western influence in the region, both states have to entrust working closely with each other in different sectors. Following are some points highlighting the Pakistan – Iran convergence of interest:

  1. Pakistan – Iran cooperation and collaboration in Afghanistan 
  2. Combating terrorism, extremism, & separatism
  3. Countering Epidemic Disease
  4. Iran – Pakistan Gas Pipeline
  5. Trade: Iran – Pakistan Economic Corridor
  6. CPEC
  7. Promotion of Tourism
  8. Gwadar – Chabhar Junction
  9. Marine Investment
  10. Defence/Military Relations
  11. Energy Sector
  12. Counter border Corruption
  13. Controlling illegal goods and human trafficking 
  14. Vocational/Professional trainings 
  15. Joint working groups on regional strategic stability

To conclude, Pakistan doesn’t want to be part of any game that could have a negative impact on Pakistan. Pakistan, a sectarian sensitive state could have severe internal civil consequences. Being part of U.S. against Iran could have triggered an upsurge in sectarian tensions of the region especially Pakistan and Afghanistan. So, it opted to be neutral. Pakistan, has to work on its foreign policy viz-a-viz Middle Eastern states. Both Pakistan and Iran as to realize the importance of their positions and relations in the region and also have to reap their full economic potential. It’s time to come to workable agreements and negotiations in order to show need for cooperation and collaboration. 

*Sabah Aslam is the Founder & Executive Director of Islamabad Institute of Conflict Resolution (IICR), and member visiting faculty Dept. of Peace & Conflict Studies, NUML, and School of Politics & IR, Quaid-I- Azam University, Islamabad.

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