Iran resets its foreign policy calculus

(Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Beijing,  May 17, 2019.)

The unannounced overnight visit by Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Pakistan on Thursday can be seen at the very minimum as forming part of a diplomatic campaign in the backdrop of the war clouds building up in the Persian Gulf. This regional tour has already taken Zarif to Russia, China, Turkmenistan, India and Japan. 

For Iran, Pakistan is an important neighbour and the two countries have a history of troubled relations. (See my recent blogs Pakistan-Iran ties set for makeoverPart I and Part II.) In the prevailing regional setting, Pakistan’s importance for the Iranian geo-strategies has become crucial. 

In immediate terms, King Salman has sent out invitations to two summits he’ll be hosting in Mecca on May 30 — back-to-back summits of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab League — where the leitmotif is the rising tensions with Iran. Neither GCC nor Arab League carries credibility, but Saudi Arabia is hoping that the Muslim Middle East will stand up and be counted in the vanguard of the US-led ‘Iran project’. 

Enter Pakistan. Pakistan already has stated it will not take sides in the looming confrontation. Pakistan has described the crisis in the Persian Gulf region as “disturbing” and said that Washington’s decision to deploy an aircraft carrier and bombers has fuelled tensions and exacerbated “the existing precarious security situation” in the Middle East. 

Just before Zarif’s arrival in Islamabad, Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman said, “We expect all sides to show restraint, as any miscalculated move can transmute into a large-scale conflict. Pakistan always supports dialogue and desires that all issues should be settled peacefully and through engagement by all sides.” 

Pakistan’s stance of ‘positive neutrality’ works in favour of Tehran. Importantly, it is in stark contrast with the deafening silence of New Delhi, which has caved in to US diktat and summarily terminated all imports of Iranian oil. Suffice to say, Pakistan has moved to neutral ground at a juncture while India is bonding with the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — the ‘Quad’ group that pioneers the project to force a ‘regime change’ in Iran. 

Delhi gave a pro forma reception to Zarif ten days ago when he came on an unannounced visit and Indian government sources went out of the way to prompt the media to see the event as entirely at Iran’s instance. In comparison, Pakistan graciously received Zarif, who met the Pakistani Prime Minister and Foreign Minister as well as the army chief and the speaker of the national assembly. 

Without doubt, the shift in India’s Middle East policies will have registered in the Iranian political establishment at the highest level. Simply put, Delhi has turned its back on Tehran and a  sense of betrayal is only natural in Tehran, which strained every nerve to befriend India. And the fact remains that unlike with Iran’s ties with Pakistan, there are no contradictions in Iran’s bilateral ties with India. 

In view of the above, significantly, Zarif made a stopover in Chabahar Port en route to Islamabad on Thursday. No doubt, this development is heavy with symbolism, because Chabahar symbolises not only the unfulfilled Iranian expectations from partnership with India but stands out today as a relic of India’s betrayal. (See my blog India’s Betrayal of Iran Is Only the Beginning.) 

(Iran’s FM Zarif at Chabahar en route to Islamabad on May 23, 2019)

In his first remarks after arrival in Islamabad, Zarif disclosed that he intended to put forward a “proposal” for connecting Pakistan’s Gwadar port to its “complementary” port Chabahar (located just 72 kms away in southeastern Iran.) To quote Zarif, 

“We believe that Chabahar and Gwadar can complement each other. We can connect Chabahar and Gwadar, and then through that, connect Gwadar to our entire railroad system, from Iran to the North Corridor, through Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, and also through Azerbaijan, Russia, and Turkey.” 

Make no mistake that this is a wholesome proposal. An experienced career diplomat like Zarif is not in the business of kite-flying on such a sensitive issue that holds the potential to realign the geopolitics of the region. 

Equally, it stands to reason that Tehran has consulted Beijing beforehand. Gwadar is synonymous with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and, of course, CPEC is the flagship of China’s Belt and Road (BRI) Initiative. 

In fact, during what appeared to have been a highly successful visit to Beijing by Zarif a week ago, Iran-China cooperation within the framework of BRI figured prominently in his talks with Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The Xinhua report on the meeting underscored Wang’s remark that ‘China welcomes Iran to actively take part in the joint building of the Belt and Road and hopes to strengthen mutually beneficial cooperation.’

Equally, it must be factored in that the week before Zarif met Wang, he had travelled to Moscow and had talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov where they discussed key issues in the international arena, as well as bilateral cooperation. The Russia-Iran consultations in Moscow stand out as a defining moment in regional security, as apparent from the remarks to the media, below, by the two foreign ministers:

(Joint press conference by Russian FM Sergey Lavrov (R) and Iran’s FM Javad Zarif at Moscow on May 8, 2019)

The big question is whether all this signifies a fundamental rethink in Iran’s foreign policy options in an emergent scenario where it must confront the geopolitical reality  that a normalisation of relations with the US is to be ruled out for a very long time to come and some fundamental adjustments have become necessary. 

Indeed, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently made an unprecedented open criticism of Iran’s foreign policy. 

In sum, it is possible to estimate that the proposal that Zarif made to the Pakistani leadership signifies a reorientation of Iran’s foreign policy in the direction of greater integration with the two major Eurasian powers Russia and China.

In an ideal world, Iran would have preferred to pursue independent foreign policies, but life is real and a regional axis with Russia, China, Pakistan and Turkey becomes an imperative need today. Conceivably, this profound shift in Iran’s foreign policy calculus carries the imprimatur of Ayatollah Khamenei. 

Read the IRNA report, here, on Zarif’s Pakistan visit.