By Dr Subhash Kapila
Iran perceives its relations with India on a strategic plane and much differently from its “brotherly relations” with Pakistan, notwithstanding any contemporary prodding by China and Russia on Iran to firm-up relations with Pakistan in pursuance of adding Iran to the China-Pakistan Axis, preposterous as the latter may sound to foreign policy specialists.
President Rouhani’s first visit to Pakistan comes nearly three years after assuming Iran’s Presidency, though Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif has visited Iran twice in the same period, namely in May 2014 and in January 2016. This itself vividly indicates the reality that it is Pakistan in its tight-rope dance of balancing Pakistan’s relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is now engaged in assiduously wooing Iran, moreso after Iran’s nuclear deal and lifting of international sanctions.
Iranian President’s visit to Pakistan recently concluded should not have any impact on the existing Iran-India Strategic Partnership as the strategic convergences that bind Iran and India are far more firm than any nascent strategic convergences with Pakistan that may sprout in the future.
Currently, the Iranian President’s visit to Pakistan needs to be perceived in India as more of a political outreach by Pakistan than an Iranian political outreach to Pakistan. Analytically, this context can best be examined by detailing the strategic divergence and strategic convergences that exist between Iran and Pakistan.
Strategic divergences between Iran and Pakistan are many and divisive ones, essentially. Heading the list is Pakistan’s military involvement in Afghanistan and destabilising Afghanistan for over two decades with Pakistan Army’s use of Talban and the Al Qaeda. Afghanistan’s stability is a strategic imperative for Iran in view of Iran’s equally long borders with Afghanistan. Pakistan Army left no stone unturned to adopt stances which were adversarial to Iran’s interests. Can Iran forget the massacre of nearly a dozen Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif years back?
The second notable divergence in Iranian-Pakistan relations dwells on Pakistan’s unremitting religious persecution of its 15% Shia population within Pakistan and in Balochistan. Pakistan Army was a passive spectator in the mass killings of the Hazara Shias in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime operating under Pakistan Army dictates. Iran is viewed widely as the spiritual leader of the Shia Muslims and they look upon Iran to protect them. Pakistan would have no answers as to why the ‘brotherly sate’ of Pakistan persecutes fellow-Muslim Shias?
The most striking and significant divergence which characterises Iran-Pakistan relations dwells on Pakistan’s strategic, political and economic dependency on Saudi Arabia. In fact, it can be safely asserted that Pakistan’s foreign and security policies are not only out-sourced to Riyadh but also mortgaged to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia can be said to have indulged and continuing in the indirect ‘capacity-building’ of the Pakistan Army to act as an existential military counter-weight on Iran’s Eastern flank to serve its own strategic interests. Iran is surely cognizant of it.
The border incidents on Iran-Pakistan frontiers and the hit-and-run incidents by Pakistan Army Sunni militant affiliates do not seem to have gone unnoticed in Tehran. So also was Pakistan’s record of providing a firm-base and launching pad for US Special Forces and US intelligence penetration of Iran.
In this context it was rather ironic that the Pakistan Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif called on the Iranian President’s Pakistan visit and complained of Indian intelligence agency RAW’s operations in Balochistan operating from Iran. The Iranian President snubbed Pakistan on this count in a press conference by asserting that he had been hearing such rumours for a long time and advised Pakistan that “The problems of this region cannot be solved militarily, and must be solved through talks, like the Iranian nuclear problem was.”
Can India read this assertion of the Iranian President’s ‘brotherly’ advice to Pakistan and to Pakistan Army Chief in particular that Pakistan should cease its proxy war and continuing terrorist attacks on India?
Notably, in marked comparison of regional equations, it was the Pakistan Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif who personally went and called on the Iranian President and made his complaints against India’s involvement in Balochistan. Contrast this with the present Afghanistan President being made to call on the Pakistan Army Chief at his office during his first visit to Pakistan.
Coming to Iran-Pakistan strategic convergences, even when viewed nascently, one finds it hard to come out with some substantial observations. Iran cannot hopefully wish for Pakistan to change its foreign policy formulations on Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia is too deeply entrenched in a dominating controlling position in Pakistan’s domestic politics and both the Pakistan Army Chiefs and Pakistani Prime Ministers run to Riyadh when domestic crises erupt. Pakistan Army has not shed its obsessive fixation on securing Afghanistan to provide ‘strategic depth’.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the half a dozen MOUs signed in Islamabad during the Iranian President’s visit focussed on health, diplomatic training and trade and commerce. Two additional border-crossings were agreed to and there was some mention about terrorism as a scourge to both countries.
One development that has raised some concern in foreign policy circles in India is the decision to work out cooperation between the Pakistani port of Gwadur and the Iranian port of Chah Bahar in which India is making sizeable investments for trade access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. I would not read much into it as militarily impacting India. At best it is one more trade connectivity between these two neighbouring countries seeking to increase trade volumes. .Surely, Iran would respect India’s strategic sensitivities and not permit Pakistan to complicate things for India at Chah Bahar.
Iran cannot choose its geographical neighbours as India similarly cannot. This is the perspective that India’s foreign policy establishment must maintain when analysing Iran-Pakistan relations. Pakistan would take years to obliterate the ‘historical strategic distrust’ that divides Iran-Pakistan relations.
Pakistan would have a lot of ‘whitewashing’ to do on this count to convince Iran and mere Chinese and Russian pressures to improve Iranian ties with Pakistan will not suffice to make Iran do a U-turn in its strong relations with India
India does however need to keep a close watch on Chinese and Russian pressures on Iran to cement its ties with Pakistan for their respective interests.
Concluding, once again, it needs to stressed that India must recognise the strategic imperatives to make-up double-time the political set-backs in Iran-India relations in the ten years of the previous Government.