Pakistan-Iran ties set for makeover — II

CPEC lurches toward Iran 

Imran Khan’s visit to Iran on Sunday can be seen as vindicating Tehran’s nuanced approach to the relations with Pakistan. Surely, border security will top the agenda of the discussions in Tehran between the two leaderships. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will be receiving Imran Khan. 

Tehran is indeed seeking a much broader engagement with Pakistan than has been possible so far. The Iranian approach presents a study in contrast with the Modi government’s policy of ‘no-dialogue-unless-terrorism-ends’. Fundamentally, Iran sees that Pakistan is on the cusp of change and its past policies of using terrorist groups as ‘strategic assets’ are becoming increasingly unsustainable. 

According to media reports, Pakistan has promised to boost security cooperation with Iran, saying that the two neighbouring countries are considering fencing the 950-kilometre long common border to keep terrorists in check. The Pakistani army spokesperson and director-general of Inter-Services Public Relations Major General Asif Gafoor has been quoted as saying, “We both are considering fencing the border so that no third party could sabotage the brotherly and friendly relations through any nefarious act.”

Looking ahead, expansion of trade relations and the completion of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project are sure to figure in the agenda of Imran Khan’s talks in Tehran. Iran has completed its part of the gas pipeline project and is awaiting Pakistan’s fulfilment of commitments. In the past, Pakistan tried to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia but all those diplomatic efforts failed to achieve the desired results. 

Reports suggest that Imran Khan would reiterate Pakistan’s call for unity among all the Muslim countries to deal with common challenges. In reality, though, Pakistan lacks the clout to mediate the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two regional powerhouses in the Muslim Middle East. 

Nonetheless, Pakistan’s positive neutrality in the Iran-Saudis tensions itself works in favour of Tehran. Imran Khan has reiterated more than once that Pakistan will no longer act as a hired gun in someone else’s war, showing his resolve to pursue an independent foreign policy. As for Iran, it is critically important that like Turkey and Iraq on its western border, Pakistan on its eastern border also repudiates the US’ sanctions and has an open mind on expanding trade and economic cooperation with Iran. 

Immediately after the visit to Iran, Imran Khan will proceed on a visit to China on April 25-28 to attend the Belt and Road forum’s second summit in Beijing. Whether it is by design or a mere coincidence is unclear. But the fact of the matter is that Iran has expressed interest in joining the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. To be sure, Iran with its vast energy resources can play a major role in making the CPEC a grand success. 

On the other hand, China also has deep interest in expanding and deepening Iran’s participation in its  Belt and Road Initiative and to use Iran as a regional hub. China is figuring as the number one strategic partner in Iran’s calculus and Beijing too attaches high importance to the relations with Tehran. Something of this is bound to rub on the Pakistani thinking. Again, Russia has signalled interest in promoting the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project. 

All things taken into consideration, therefore, it is conceivable that Imran Khan’s visit may turn out to be a defining moment leading to Iran’s link-up with the CPEC. The outcome of the visit will be keenly watched for signs in this direction. Interestingly, according to reports, Imran Khan will have a stopover in Mashhad in northeastern Iran, which used to be a major ‘junction’ on the Silk Road.  

(On the ancient Silk Road, caravans entered Iran anywhere between Mery (modern Turkmenistan) and Herat (Afghanistan), and passed through Mashhad, Neishabur, Damghan, Semnan, Rey, Qazvin, Tabriz and Maku, before finishing at Constantinople (Istanbul).)

Clearly, if such a thing happens, the geopolitics of the region will transform phenomenally. Basically, Iran and Pakistan are on the same page in seeking greater Eurasian integration. Incidentally, Iran’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation is under active consideration at the moment, too. 

However, Pakistan would run into headwinds in optimally developing its relations with Iran. To be sure, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will be monitoring closely and are sure to curb Pakistan’s enthusiasm to give verve to the ties with its western neighbour. It is with an eye on Iran that Saudi Arabia is making investments in Gwadar and the Baluchistan province. 

There are other factors too that inherently limit the scope for a dramatic surge in Iran-Pakistan relations. Clearly, it is highly unlikely that at a juncture when Pakistan is nearing a $12 billion IMF loan deal, Imran Khan will risk annoying Washington by taking a big leap forward in relations with Iran. Again, any Pakistani expectations of Tehran abandoning its expanding strategic ties with India for the sake of stabilising its relations with Pakistan will be quite unrealistic. Above all, it is apparent that the Pakistani and Iranian approaches to the Afghan problem are quite divergent. In fact, Tehran, Kabul and New Delhi are working together in a trilateral format based on common interests. 

The bottom line is that Imran Khan’s Iran visit throws into relief the shifting sands of regional politics. Consider the following. To be sure, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are bailing out Pakistan’s economy and Pakistan reciprocates by acting as a provider of security to these Arab regimes. It is a profound relationship, which is time-tested and mutually beneficial. But, having said that, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are also lately strengthening their partnership with India (which they see as an emerging Asian power) and are even promoting India’s association with the Organisation of Islamic Conference, which has historically provided a platform for Pakistan to berate India and condemn Indian policies. 

Suffice to say that Imran Khan’s visit underscores that Pakistan is ‘de-hyphenating’ its strategic alliance with the Saudis and Emiratis from its policies aimed at improving its relations with Iran. No matter the US-led containment strategy  against Iran with which these two Gulf states are closely associated, Imran Khan’s visit signals that Pakistan intends to explore the potentials for a constructive engagement of Iran. 

Viewed from Iran too, it is clear that any improvement of relations with Pakistan cannot be at the cost of its expanding cooperation with India, which has a promising future. At the same time, Iran cannot but be conscious that India is developing a robust relationship with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE (as well as with Israel) and, furthermore, Delhi will not defy the US sanctions against Iran and is actually cutting back on its imports of Iranian oil and is substituting with increased imports of Saudi oil. 

What emerges is a complex web of regional alignments that are very dynamic both because of the numerous variables in regional politics as well as due to the impact of big-power competition, which is itself yet to crystallise and whose future trajectory is difficult to predict. All regional states are hedging — India, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

On the whole, Pakistan has been quick on its feet to adapt to (and exploit) the emergent trends on the geopolitical chessboard. At the moment, it has a stronger hand than Iran in regional politics. It is possible to conclude that Imran Khan delayed his visit to Iran with deliberation and has timed it at a juncture when Iran’s need for good relations with Pakistan is greater than Pakistan’s.