By Iran Review
By Hesamoddin Hojjatzadeh*
To answer this question, we must first see what the concept of “strategic alliance” is. According to some definitions, those people or countries are called strategic allies, who have commonalities in one of several financial, political, military and cultural fields and are willing to take advantage of each other’s potentialities and achievements in these fields and benefit each other. The key point in a strategic alliance is that while benefitting by that alliance, the two sides must have mutual confidence in each other. It is also assumed that they should not be affected by pressures and suggestions from other parties and should take no steps against their strategic ally.
For this reason, the two sides aim for long-term and sustainable alliance and close cooperation. An example in this regard is the strategic alliance between the United States and the European Union and between China and Pakistan. However, according to the aforesaid definition, relations between Iran and Pakistan, especially following victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, have not enjoyed needed potential to lead to a strategic alliance between Tehran and Islamabad and even if such a potential has existed, it has not received due attention.
Background of Iran-Pakistan relations
Iran and Pakistan are two age-old neighborly countries with many commonalities. The background of their relations dates back to the time when Pakistan was not still an independent state. Before Pakistan became independent of India in 1947, Iran had centuries of relations with the Greater India. Although those relations were marked with many ups and downs, they were mostly cordial in comparison to Iran’s relations with its western neighbors.
After the independence of Pakistan, then Iranian government was the first country to recognize its independence, and up to the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, relations between Tehran and Islamabad were mostly friendly and close. Since both countries were ruled by Western-backed governments, they both were members of such regional security pacts as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). In addition, Pakistan always availed itself of political, military and economic support of Iran’s monarchial regime. A clear example of this was the second Pahlavi king’s firm military and financial support for Pakistan through the 1960s and 1970s during its war with India over Kashmir region and also during separation of East Pakistan and establishment of Bangladesh in 1971. It must be noted that at that time, India was considered as an ally of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Following victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, and despite many cultural, historical and ideological commonalities between the two Muslim neighborly countries, then Pakistani government, which was led by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, felt threatened by the new Islamic establishment in Iran. Therefore, although he apparently lauded Iran as a friend of Pakistan, his government resorted to various methods in order to prevent spread of the ideas of the Iranian version of political Islam in Pakistan, especially spread of those ideas among Pakistani Shias. In doing this, Islamabad was probably under pressure from the United States as well as extremist Salafist groups, which had gotten quite close to Pakistani government and army. General Zia did not stop at that point and harbored a number of separatist leaders and activists from Iran’s Baluchestan region. He also covertly and overtly supported then Iraqi government in its eight-year war against Iran to show that his government is a good agent for the United States’ anti-Iran policies in the region.
The policy of confrontation with Iran did not stop after Zia’s sudden death in 1988, but changed ways. New Pakistani leaders – both military (like General Pervez Musharraf) and nonmilitary (like Benazir Bhutto and Muhammad Nawaz Sharif) – tried to get closer to Iran and show a more positive image of Pakistan to Iranian people and statesmen by giving promises about more cooperation with Iran in fighting extremism and terrorism along the two countries’ common border. However, those promises did not go beyond mere lip service.
Are conditions ripe for strategic alliance between Iran and Pakistan?
During recent years, Pakistan’s relations with the United States have been clearly tense and choppy due to escalation of differences between the two sides following the assassination of former leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan’s Abbottabad on the suburbs of Islamabad in May 2011. In parallel to tension in Islamabad’s relations with Washington, Pakistani officials have launched an effort to bolster political, military and economic relations with regional rivals of the United States. As a result, they have started serious interactions and negotiations with Russia, China and Iran and have concluded large-scale contracts with these countries, which may appear to be a positive development on the surface. However, this cooperation would only lead to a strategic alliance between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan and would meet the interests of Tehran if it were based on goodwill and mutual trust rather than being tactical and of a temporary nature. The existing evidence shows that this is a good time for a change in attitude toward Iran by Pakistan’s government, and more importantly, by the country’s army and intelligence agency, the ISI.
At the present time, strategic relations between Pakistan and its most important strategic ally, that is, the United States, are deteriorating and are marred by the highest level of tensions as a result of which economic and military aid by Washington to Islamabad has come to a practical halt. The administration of US President Donald Trump has threatened the government of Pakistan with a host of punitive measures, including economic sanctions and arms embargo, over what Washington calls lack of a serious resolve on the part of Islamabad to fight militant and terrorist groups based in this country. At the same time, steps taken by Pakistani officials during recent months to reduce tensions in relations with Washington have proven to be futile. The most important of those measures were hosting the American Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis in late September 2017 and freedom of Canadian-American hostages by the ISI in cooperation with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from captivity of Haqqani Network in late October 2017. In addition, due to the US pressure, Pakistan will be possibly put on the blacklist of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in 2018.
Under these conditions and at a time that Iran seemed to be willing to boost strategic cooperation with India over important political and security issues in the region and to develop economic and trade ties with New Delhi, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army, paid a sudden visit to Iran in November 2017. The visit to Iran by the highest-ranking military official of Pakistan was meant to send two different messages to Washington and New Delhi. First of all, it was a warning to the United States at a time that war of words is at its highest between Tehran and Washington. Pakistan wants to tell the United States that if it does not pay due attention to Islamabad’s geopolitical demands and considerations in the region, Pakistan will continue to get close to Iran, especially in political and security fields. The second message is to India by reminding new Delhi that it if continues to develop relations with Iran in economic, trade and security fields, Pakistan may do the same with China, which is the archrival of India in this region, and this would not be a favorable development for India.
In the meantime, Iran has shown that based on its strategic policy of maintaining balance in relations, especially with neighboring countries, it has no plan to be caught in exhausting regional rivalries by taking sides with one party to those rivalries against another. This is also true in the case of Pakistan and India.
In view of all considerations and benefits of expanded economic, political and cultural interactions between Tehran and Islamabad, the following solutions are proposed for the two countries to move toward establishment of strategic relations:
1. If Pakistan expects the Islamic Republic of Iran to respect Islamabad’s considerations in its relations with New Delhi, its officials must distance from certain slogans and partiality in their relations with the Persian Gulf littoral states. In doing so, they will prove in practice that they are committed to the principle of balance in their relations with Iran and Iran’s hostile rivals in the region, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. To achieve this goal, reducing military and intelligence cooperation between Pakistan and the aforesaid two countries, including within framework of the so-called Saudi-led anti-terrorism coalition, is a priority.
2. Pakistan and Iran can work together to resolve major regional crises or at least reduce untoward effects of those crises, including the war in Afghanistan, just in the same way that Iran is currently cooperating relatively well with Russia, China and India in this regard. However, the Pakistani side must not expect Iran to give priority to Pakistan’s interests in such regions as Afghanistan or Kashmir, and in doing so, distance from the principle of balance in its foreign policy.
3. It is a reality that during past decades and through its economic and trade interactions with Iran, Pakistan has always tied to undertake the least cost and restrict its interactions with Iran in these fields. In order to establish a successful strategic relation with Tehran, Islamabad must first change its approach to economic agreements it has signed with Tehran. At the top of those agreements is the one, which has been signed for the construction of the Iran–Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline. Since that agreement was signed, Pakistan has refrained from implementing its share of this key regional project under the pretext of its high cost and perhaps under pressure from the United States. On the opposite, the country is bent on going ahead with construction of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline (TAPI), which is supposed to transfer natural gas from Turkmenistan and through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. Avoiding such double standards is necessary to boost cooperation between Iran and Pakistan.
4. Pakistan is well aware that the huge project started to develop Iran’s Chabahar port with financial and technical support of India will greatly help economic and trade prosperity of the region and even the entire world. The same can be said about development of Pakistan’s Gwadar port through investment by China. Therefore, even the Chinese are sure to welcome development of Iran’s Chahbahar port. As a result, it would be beneficial to Islamabad to take necessary measures – with the help of Beijing – for connecting these two important ports, which enjoy a special geostrategic position along the coasts of the Sea of Oman and the Indian Ocean. Even Iranian experts can take part in the development of Gwadar port, if allowed by Pakistani officials, and such measures will certainly be major strides toward further cementing of a strategic alliance between Pakistan and Iran.
5. In cultural and historical terms, Pakistan is considered as part and parcel of the “Iranian culture,” which covers a wide geographical expanse from China to Southeastern Europe. The common cultural heritage of Iran and Pakistan, including Urdu language and multitude of Persian words that are used in this language, is extremely rich. Therefore, if the two governments and the two countries’ nongovernmental organizations make finical and research investment in this field, it would be a long step that could provide grounds for further proximity between the two nations and governments. On the other hand, experts in Iranian cultural heritage and archeology can make arrangements with Pakistani officials to reconstruct those buildings and historical sites, which have been left behind in various parts of Pakistan by Persian-speaking dynasties, after conducting necessary studies and repair measures.
* Hesamoddin Hojjatzadeh, Indian Subcontinent Researcher
*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review’s viewpoints.
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