In a significant move towards enhancing bilateral ties and military to military cooperation, Pakistan’s Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa landed in Iran on November 5 as part of a three-day official visit. The visit reflects a growing realization in Pakistan’s leadership about the significance of forging cordial and mutually beneficial ties with neighboring countries in the face of mounting uncertainties and threats posed by the menace of terrorism.
During the visit, the Army chief met the senior civil-military leadership of Iran and discussed issues ranging from geostrategic environment of the region, management of the Pakistan-Iran border, Afghanistan endgame, growing threat of terrorism and bilateral trade relations.
The significance of the visit cannot be overstated as it comes in the wake of two important developments that have exacerbated security and foreign policy challenges not only for Pakistan and Iran but also for the entire South Asia and Middle East at large. For instance, while Donald Trump’s so called new South Asia policy that envisions a greater role of India in Afghanistan and the region at large has increased strategic anxiety for Pakistan, Iran has also been striving to secure its interests in the wake of Donald Trump’s increasingly bellicose approach; the recent most significant case being the de-certification of Iran nuclear deal.
In such a hostile environment both countries seem to acknowledge the necessity of timely cooperation and coordination in matters of bilateral interests. Pakistan shares 909 km long border with Iran that separates Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province and Pakistan’s strategically important Balochistan province, which hosts the strategically located Gwadar port. Army chief’s visit may pave the way for adoption of much needed border management mechanism and intelligence sharing that may prevent cross border infiltration, the sporadic border skirmishes and the consequent deterioration of mutual relations.
Moreover, Pakistan appears cognizant of India’s growing foot print in Iran in the form of Chahbahar port and same is the source of concern for Pakistan. Pakistan’s outreach towards Iran can be seen as a balancing act vis-à-vis India. Fortunately for Pakistan, in view of India’s so called strategic partnership with the US, Iran may soon find India to be unreliable partner and Iranian leadership seems to have realized this early on. This inference is plausible given the fact that India is very unlikely to endanger its much bigger interests with US in favour of Iran. Thus if US and allies decide to re-impose sanctions on Iran, India may find it difficult to continue its engagements with Iran due to fear of backlash from US. Pakistan might seek to capitalize on this inherent weakness in Indo-Iran ties and bolster its relations with Iran.
Afghanistan is yet another issue where Pakistan and Iran share views and support the idea of an ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace settlement’. On the contrary, Iranian and Indian interests diverge at the geopolitical landscape of Afghanistan. Since the long term presence of US in Afghanistan is detrimental to Iran’s strategic interests in the energy rich and land lock Central Asian region, it would like a complete and immediate withdrawal of US. India, on the other hand, may not be comfortable with such an idea primarily because it owes the newly achieved greater role in Afghanistan and South Asia for the US. Since India is destined to kowtow to the dictates of US, Pakistan is the natural choice of Iran.
However, this by no means warrants lethargy and negligence on part of Pakistan in its relations with Iran. In fact, there are some daunting challenges faced by Pakistan when it comes to keeping balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two countries are engaged in a deadly proxy war with each other in Middle East. Saudi-Iran enmity is Pakistan’s Achilles heel. Although Pakistan has ideological affinity and strategic ties with Saudi Arabia, it also has a long border with Iran and second largest Shia population. Therefore, taking sides in Saudi-Iran conflicts entails risk of domestic polarization and sectarianism.
Therefore, in order to reap the benefits of engagements with Iran, Pakistan should proactively play a mediatory role between the two Middle Eastern rivals and maintain neutrality. Although neutrality comes with a price, if that is less than the price that Pakistan will have to pay by taking sides then better stick to the policy of neutrality. In the long run, Pakistan should seek an independent foreign policy and go beyond Iran-Saudi binary. This objective can be achieved by gaining economic strength and CPEC presents golden opportunity in this regard.
*Nisar Ahmed Khan, Research Affiliate at Strategic Vision Institute