Pakistan-Iran ties set for makeover — Part I

(Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan receiving Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Islamabad, August 31, 2018)

The visit by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to Iran on April 21-22 will be a major event in regional politics. Whether it will be remembered as a landmark event, time only will tell. At its most obvious level, the visit signifies that Pakistan prioritises good relations with Iran. Indeed, in the backdrop of acute tensions in India-Pakistan tensions, with the two countries almost reaching the brink of war recently, the management of a cooperative relationship with Iran is very much in Pakistan’s interests. 

Historically, the Iran-Pakistan relationship is one of great complexity where contradictions keep on surfacing every now and then. From Iran’s viewpoint, Pakistan’s close ties with Saudi Arabia and its cold-war era role as the US’ key ally had introduced into the relationship a major contradiction through the entire period since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. 

Through the eighties and nineties, Pakistan became a battlefield where Saudi-Iranian rivalries played out as sectarian violence causing much bloodshed and suffering. Iran kept out of the US-Saudi-Pakistani sponsorship of the ‘Afghan jihad’ in the 1980s and preferred to have its own Mujahideen groups resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The trust deficit was palpable.  

Without doubt, one of the prime motivations behind the creation of the Afghan Taliban in the early 1990s by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (with tacit US encouragement) was that such a movement rooted in Wahhabi ideology would be virulently anti-Shia, anti-Iran. This was not a far-fetched agenda, as the execution of 9 Iranian diplomats by the Taliban in the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998 showed. 

However, the Iran-Pakistan ties as such never really took the form of open hostility. They were more in the nature of ‘great game’ rivalry than of two indomitable adversaries locked in a struggle to weaken or destroy each other. Outsiders, especially Indians, often fail to understand the pattern of ebb and flow of tensions in Pakistan-Pakistan relations. Also, what is often overlooked is that Iran has continued to regard Pakistan as a brotherly Muslim country, which resorted to erratic behaviour more out of instigation by the Gulf states and the US than out of malice toward Iran. 

Suffice to say, the underlying premise in Iran’s strategy has been that the relations with Pakistan can change only in an environment where Pakistan begins to assert its strategic autonomy and pursues independent foreign policies. Sure enough, Iran sensed that Imran Khan’s ascendance as prime minister last August presented itself as a rare opportunity in that direction. 

As Tehran would see it, here was a democratically elected, charismatic Pakistani leader who not only cherished his country’s Islamic identity but was proud of it — and yet was not beholden to the Saudis or the UAE — and espoused Muslim unity, and, more importantly, seemed to be in empathy with Iran’s politics of ‘resistance’ and often voiced opinions against the US hegemony and, in particular, against continued American military presence in the region. 

Succinctly put, Tehran estimated that it could do business with Imran Khan. This belief also drew strength from certain other factors. If Pakistan’s refusal to join the Saudi-led war in Yemen contained a big message for Iran as far back as April 2015, the unprecedented visit by the Pakistani army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa to Tehran in November 2017 underscored that the Pakistani military, in a break with the past, sought to open a new page in relations with Iran. In retrospect, these were two defining moments in the Iran-Pakistan relationship. 

Overall, Tehran could see that Pakistan was keenly exploring its strategic options in a complicated regional environment due to the endless war in Afghanistan, the deepening chill in Pakistan’s relations with the US (since 2011), the intensifying US-China rivalries and the incipient new Cold War conditions that began spilling over to the region. 

No sooner than Imran Khan took office as prime minister in August last year, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif travelled to Islamabad to open a dialogue with the new leadership and to invite the Pakistani leader to visit Tehran. President Hassan Rouhani telephoned Imran Khan and personally conveyed the invitation. But if Iran had hoped that Imran Khan would choose Tehran for his first visit abroad, that was not to be. 

On the contrary, Tehran felt disappointed that Imran Khan prioritised the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and UAE, Iran’s main regional adversaries, as his principal interlocutors. But then, Iran was savvy enough to understand that Imran Khan had has own reasons to make such a shrewd choice to lavish attention on the two crown princes, given the criticality of Saudi and Emirati financial assistance to bail out the Pakistani economy. 

However, what came as a rude shock was the terrorist attack in Sistan-Baluchestan province of Iran by a Pakistani suicide bomber in February in which 27 Iranian guards were killed and thirteen people were injured. Iran suspected a Saudi-backed terrorist group Jaish ul-Adl Takfiri, which is affiliated with the al-Qaeda. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in Iran for years and Tehran was furious, alleging that it was “planned and carried out from inside Pakistan.” The Iranian military commanders even pointed the finger at Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence for involvement in the terrorist attack. They vowed revenge. In an extraordinary move, the commander of the Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani threatened Pakistan. 

However, tempers cooled down eventually and Tehran has since moderated its stance that Pakistan was not acting sufficiently enough to prevent the activities of terrorist groups. The February incident becomes a case study of Iran’s handling of cross-border terrorism originating from Pakistan. No doubt, Iran has good intelligence presence within Pakistan and has a fairly accurate idea about the activities of the terrorist groups operating in Baluchistan province. But Iran never contemplated any military operations by way of retaliation such as conducting ‘surgical strikes’ inside Pakistan or instigating extremist groups based in Afghanistan to hit at Pakistan. Instead, Tehran preferred to suspend its disbelief and consistently tried to seek the cooperation of Pakistani security agencies and the military leadership to curb terrorism. The logic behind this approach is understandable. 

One, Iran could see that Pakistan itself was a victim of terrorism. Two, Iran did not view Pakistan in adversarial terms and there were no serious unresolved disputes as such between the two countries. Three, Iran gave the benefit of the doubt to the Pakistani security establishment since there is a serious security climate indeed prevailing in Baluchistan and Islamabad had its hands full in coping with it. 

Four, most important, Iran’s strategic priority is that it has a cooperative, friendly neighbour on its eastern borders at a juncture when it is coping with a tough neighbourhood to the south and southwest. In all this, what needs to be factored in is that Tehran’s top priority is always that Pakistan does not get sucked into the US-Saudi-Israeli strategy directed against Iran. Thus, in many ways, Tehran’s approach of strategic patience made great sense.